Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sometimes, I See a Grinch in the Mirror

I was watching Spongebob Squarepants the other day, all by myself, while the kids were Heaven knows where destroying Heaven knows what. I realized what I was doing after a few minutes, and it turns out, I was entranced by the song Spongebob was cheerfully singing to anyone who would listen: "Don't Be a Jerk, It's Christmas."

Spongebob, in all his infinite wisdom, might have hit the nail right on the head. Sometimes I feel like Christmas makes jerks out of all of us, in some way. We buy excessive amounts of stuff, we get quickly and colossally irritated by other shoppers/drivers/family members, we sneak into cookie exchanges or potlucks with nothing but our appetites, we are offended when someone tells us "Merry Christmas" or when we feel like we are not allowed to say "Merry Christmas," we leave our Santa lawn inflatables out until Easter.

Is it the Christmas seasons that makes jerks out of us, and we just can't help it? The stress can overwhelm us as we try to keep up with our traditions, our internal expectations, and the completely unrealistic world of Pinterest. Even if you love the holidays, there has to be a moment where you start to freak out and contemplate running over pedestrians to park on the sidewalk because there is nowhere to park within two miles of the only store in the state that contains the exact gift your child wants. If you hate the holidays, you might feel like the 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas is open season on all the crazies who do.

I am just as guilty. I start to act like a jerk when the stress of presents, Christmas cards, baking, and the Elf on a Shelf starts to take its toll. The thing that overwhelms me the most is my sub-par Christmas parenting. I am not very good with maintaining any holiday traditions, and I sometimes worry that what my children will remember is that Mommy was always frazzled. Most troubling is that we are religious people and I feel we don't always emphasize the reason for the season in the midst of the mad dash.

So let's all come to an agreement, then. Let's not be jerks. Whatever your beliefs about the season, whether you anticipate the coming of Jesus or the coming of a hot toddy and a day off work, let's agree that the spirit of the season is one of love. We can all use more love.

If you celebrate Christmas, actually celebrate Christmas. Skip Christmas cards if it makes you less anxious. Buy less stuff, and when you do buy, stroll through Target with a Starbucks like you have nothing planned for days. Don't get angry if someone says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Remember that the lights and the trees and the stockings and the cookies can be magical, even for adults. Do you recall that scene in the original Miracle on 34th Street, when the postmen carry dozens of bags of Santa letters into the court room? Magic.

If you don't celebrate Christmas, remember that it is a commemoration of a historical person's birth, and that person believed in love and generosity and forgiveness. Smile and extend good wishes to someone who says "Merry Christmas." Take advantage of all the good food floating around. Use December as an excuse to love more and get angry at pushy holiday shoppers less.

And finally, we need to give whatever is in our power to give. It may be a smile to the tired waitress (or line cook!), your mittens or lunch to the homeless person standing on the corner, a contribution to a charity, or the precise gift that your niece desperately wants. Consumerism can easily swallow us, and the frenetic season can shorten our tempers. The quickest way out and into a place of more love is to give.

However odd, let the words of Spongebob be your guide: Don't be a jerk, it's Christmas. Be a positive force instead because that benefits us all, no matter our beliefs.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Gift of Sundays

My son told me today that he is thankful because he goes potty on the potty chair. I am also very, very thankful for that. My daughter wrote dozens of notes to all our family members about all the love she has, and I am thankful for that, too.

On this day of grateful love, I'm thankful for the usual slate of blessings, for a few nerdy things like the 19th amendment, and some silly things like our awesome new space heater. But this year, I think the thing I am most grateful for is that Chef Matt now has Sundays off.

In a couple's opposite-schedule world, one whole day off together is like a Yeti. You know it exists, you may have glimpsed it once or twice, but it eludes regular sightings. You yearn for Christmas, and if you are like us, you keep having kids in anticipation of two whole weeks at home together when the baby is born.

Matt has not had a regular weekend day off in five years. Oh, he's had a day here and there, and we had those five perfect days in Napa Valley in 2010. But for the past several years, we have operated on an entirely split shift. It has saved us so much in daycare money. It has also been a strain that I am not sorry to see partially disappear.

Wednesday through Friday, we are awake in the house together for about 15 minutes total. We are those neighbors whose lawn is just past embarrassingly long, and those people who wade through 47 loads of laundry, only to leave them languishing in clean piles for two weeks. Without a full day to get through the regular stuff, we have no chance of getting to the batteries that need changing or the garage that needs organizing.

A full day off together will change our lives, which sounds dramatic, but there's truth in it. When he's home, I breathe easier. We pull strength from our togetherness and cease to operate like a long-distance business, fulfilling duties and updating only over the phone. Cramming groceries dishes bills mopping diapers raking scheduling vacuuming and all else into a few hours a week leaves us little time for the kids or each other. A full day seems luxurious and long, 75-minute hours rolling out in slow motion, with possibilities of fully clean rooms, three meals with six people, and potential trips to the amazing places like the zoo.

When we told our daughter that daddy would be home on Sundays, her face lit up and she said, with joy and disbelief, "Both my parents home on the same day?" That reaction alone told us that it had been too long.

Sundays belong to us again, and this is what I am thankful for today. That, and the potty-training and the love. What is wonderful in their world is in mine, too.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Get Thee to Daycare

Chef Matt and I are a DILOK family. The slightly more crowded cousin of DINKs, DILOKs are Double Income, Lots of Kids, and that distinction comes with the challenges you might expect: the chaos, the four wildly different levels of ability and neediness, the lack of time to get anything done.

And then there's the challenge that I did not expect to be one. In our DILOK family, both of us love our jobs. Like really love our jobs. They are careers that we sought out and have cultivated for almost a decade, and aside from the normal off-day, we enjoy going to work every day.

The problem lies with the jobs we have chosen. My job, in the nonprofit world, is not likely to be very lucrative. Matt's job, in the restaurant world, is shackled with unusual hours. When a stagnant salary is mixed with night and weekend shifts, I can't help feeling that the ones who suffer from our job choices are our kids.

We had a lot of kids for a number of reasons: 1. we love having them, 2. we could, 3. a big family is important to us. As parents, it is our responsibility to bestow upon them all of the time, talent and treasure that we have to give, but in some ways, our jobs plus our large family limit the amount of time and treasure available. We don't have weekends together as a family, or most evenings, either. We won't be able to take a lot of vacations or pay for every lesson our kids want to take.

We could fix that if we wanted to make different choices. I could get a job in the corporate world, and Matt could find a job with banker's hours. And believe me, we've talked about it and the benefits for our family. Two whole days a week together! Piano lessons for everyone!

But I've started to wonder, as I wade through the mommy guilt, if loving our jobs isn't equally beneficial for our kids. Kids are smart. They can sense tension and stress and frustration in your voice, posture and emotions, just as much as they can sense contentment and passion. Since going back to work two weeks ago, I feel more centered and inspired, because every day I work at a job I believe in, with people who also believe. I adore my kids, but I'll admit that I am a mediocre stay-at-home mom. I am a much better mom when I am spending my days doing what I'm good at and what drives me.

Someday, when they start to take more notice of our conversations and the things in our house, they'll see the piles of cookbooks their daddy reads like comic books, and the stacks of books on historically famous and obscure topics, which their mommy is simply unable to part with. They'll hear Matt talk about his halibut dish that's going like gangbusters, and hear me talk about some old document like it's a Rembrandt, and what they'll really be hearing is pride. And enthusiasm. And motivation. I want them to know that aspiring to be successful can also mean that you have found a calling, and are making it happen.

Do I wish we had more time and money? Sure I do. And I know how we can get both of those things, but at the moment, we'll stay put. It seems a little selfish, like we're indulging in a great luxury at our kids' expense. But if we make the most of the time and treasure we have to give, our talent can be one of the best lessons we offer.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Losing a Hometown

When I was in high school, the musical "Rent" exploded into American culture with extraordinary music and lyrics that captured our obsessive attention, lingering today in my ability to sing every one of those songs. The song that was attached to the musical's publicity is "Seasons of Love," which ponders the measure of a year in someone's life, beyond that of seconds and minutes.

"In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife." When I first heard it, on the brink of adulthood, I was sure I knew what that meant. It means something a little different to me now, as I measure my own years upon my children's, but this week in particular, it tears at my heart on yet another level.

This week, I am losing my hometown. We moved in 25 years ago and my parents have been in the same house for 19 of those years, a house they are vacating in a couple of days. Our family moved in the month before I started high school and for 19 years, despite my occupation of various other places, including two homes with my husband, it has always been "home."

It was the home where I set the kitchen on fire (accidentally) one cold January morning while my parents were in Las Vegas. It was the home where I parked my first car (1986 Ford Taurus station wagon), where our trees were attacked by hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, and where my friends always knew they were welcome. It was the home I always came back to, as a college student, as a broke twentysomething fired from a job, and as a wife and mother between houses.

It was the site of three high school graduation parties, three college graduation parties, a wedding rehearsal dinner, a post-wedding breakfast, and two baby showers, not to mention dozens of birthday parties, family reunions, pool parties, and gatherings convened as an excuse to get together and play cards and drink. All my kids and my nephews were babies in this house, although all but one will forget its rooms within the next year.

Logically, it seems silly to be so attached to a house, when it is the memories that are important. But loving a home is an illogical thing. I will never see my grandma or grandpa again, but just being in the rooms, knowing that they were here a year and a few months before they died, makes me want to roll up the carpet and remove the sheet rock and carry it with me. My oldest starts kindergarten this fall, but sometimes when I look at her in my parents' house, all I can see is a beautiful baby with no hair rolling around on the living room floor.

I cannot go back to see it one last time with no furniture, and there is not much reason for me to visit the town again, either. And I know that my heart is not the only one that is breaking a little bit. For my parents, on the verge of their sixtieth decades, pulling up roots and walking away from the home where they raised three children and watched the growth of their family as we added two sons-in-law and six grandchildren is painful.

But here is what is wonderful about it. The easiest course for them, with such a large family and such a connection to the house, would have been to stay and let further generations commit its walls to memory. But for 20 years, they have wanted a lake home. This summer, they decided it was now or never, and they pulled the trigger. It was the most selfish thing they have ever done, and I say that with the most positive meaning possible.

They will not be the couple whose dream is neatly tucked away in a basement closet, waiting for just the right "someday." Of all the lessons we have learned in our house, this might be one of the most important: the time will come when your dreams are within your reach and you have to snatch them up before the door closes again. We know that this is true, we know that some wishes should not remain so, but how often do we actually act? These are people acting, out of their comfort zone and for once, not solely in the best interest of their kids. The lake that's been shimmering like a mirage outside their back door is a real thing.

We will see more daylights and midnights, drink more coffee and feel more laughter and strife, just as we did in the old house. This will be the house of my children's memories, just as the old one is the house of mine. And they will look out the windows of the only home they have ever known as Grandma and Grandpa's to see a landscape that is reflective of their grandparents' character.

To the lake we go.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Oh Pinterest, You Evil Temptress

Not too long ago I was seduced by Pinterest for the first time. We had been dancing around each other for a while, hesitant to define a relationship. It dangled all kinds of beautiful things in my face, and my willpower began to crumble. Then, one day at work when I was hugely pregnant and hungry, I saw a picture of S'mores bars and all bets were off.

I stopped at the grocery store on the way home, emboldened by the short ingredient list and the fact that, like any good American, I've made many a S'more around a summer campfire. And then Pinterest deceived me. The picture showed a crumbly bar with perfectly melted chocolate and a picturesquely gooey marshmallow filling, without any sort of warning that cooking with marshmallow fluff will destroy you.

The stuff is like thick, gloppy cobwebs. It doesn't mix well, spread well, divide well, or do anything well except aggravate anyone who touches it. Trying to layer it over graham cracker crust is probably not even possible, so I tried to spread it over the chocolate bars, first with a knife, then with a spatula, then with a spoon. I stopped spreading and just started throwing globs of fluff in a fit of slightly hysterical frustration.

This is where Pinterest failed me. The picture was so pretty, and the recipe came from a blog that looked far more professional than mine, and so many other people had repinned it that I figured it had to be relatively easy. We live in an era of DIY "Food Network" simplicity, and Pinterest does nothing if not foster this false sense of comfort in our abilities. Look at all this amazing stuff that other people do so beautifully! You can do it, too! I promise you won't end up angry in the kitchen with marshmallow fluff all over your counters and hands and oven.

I am no stranger to images of perfect food, professionally staged and floating next to a recipe: we have about 75 cookbooks in our house. Pinterest is a different animal; it's this endless dream list of gorgeous things and brilliant ideas, floating out there on the cloud for us to drool over, largely because these things and ideas are often the work of regular people and not always a professional chef who had to go through the rigmarole of publishing an actual book. In a way, it's empowering and seductive. A casserole or dessert on Pinterest seems far more attainable than something in "The French Laundry" cookbook.

Therein lies the danger. Suddenly, you're wrist-deep in marshmallow fluff and you end up with a whole section of bars with no chocolate. You go back to the picture online and cry a little inside because that is decidedly not what your bars look like. And then you say a little prayer of thanks that your husband and co-workers aren't sticklers about pretty food, and resign yourself to the fact that you are not actually going to be the next big thing in the world of food blogging.

And ultimately, it turns out okay. Because ultimately, you have S'mores bars.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Still Mixing After All These Years

Thirty-six years ago this month, my parents were married on a rainy-sunshiny day in central Illinois. They were barely old enough to drink at their own wedding and didn't have two pennies to rub together; my mom always said that in those early years, they were living on love.

One of the wedding gifts that they received was an avocado green hand mixer, a historically popular color for kitchen utensils and appliances in the years before Reagan. Life was good if you had a fridge and stove in matching avocado green; a hand mixer was another accessory for a well-coordinated kitchen.

My mom loves to bake, so that hand mixer occupies a solid place in my memory. My childhood recollections waver between crystal clear and fuzzy around the edges and completely opaque, but always, the avocado hand mixer is there, sitting on the kitchen counter in the four houses that I remember well.

It was the kitchen utensil that I learned to use because hand mixers, as far as cooking tools go, are relatively harmless. I remember learning important lessons about putting the mixer in the batter first before turning it on, and not the other way around. I learned how to mix while scraping the sides of the bowl to catch all the flour. I learned that being offered a beater after the cookie dough was mixed is one of life's greatest treats (salmonella risk aside).

When I moved into my first apartment, my mom gave me the mixer. At first, I didn't use it much. In college and then directly after, I didn't cook so much as assemble sandwiches and put waffles in the toaster. But I began to experiment with baking and learned that it calms me. There is something so lovely about the precise art of baking, and something so satisfying about modifying that precise recipe into something even better.

I have had that mixer for almost 15 years. In my apartments and houses, it has made cookies, brownies, pie fillings, whipped cream, and a hundred other things. In the last year or so, my kids have started to prop a stool against the counter and watch semi-patiently for the avocado mixer to stop so they could commandeer a beater.

After 36 years of use, that mixer still works and shows no signs of dying on me. I bought another one years ago, one that was new and white and had sleek-looking beaters. I think I have used it twice. I much prefer to use the one that was gifted to a young couple, starting life with not much else than each other and some things for their house. I don't have the avocado green appliances to match, but that great old mixer is nothing but at home in its second-generation family of bakers.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Are You Ready for Us, Baby?

Dear Baby,

Today, I forgot to pick up your sister from school, and then I cried. On the surface, this does not bode well for you: you will be born to a mother who leaves her child stranded at school and is an emotional wreck.

You may as well know now that I am not perfect. From your warm and cozy little home, it may seem unbelievable that you could be born into a world and a family that are chaotic and flawed. Your entry into this life will certainly be a shock, and you will not be happy about it at first.

But when you arrive, and you hear my voice in the outside world, you will not care that I am not perfect. You will not care that I have eaten approximately my weight in ice cream in the last month. You will not care that I sometimes make my kids watch "Harry Potter" movies when I am too tired to play and too irritated to watch any more cartoons. You will not care that every once in a while I am "that mom" who forgets school-picture day or lets your brothers go to bed with dirty knees.

Someday you might care that I am not Donna Reed, so I think it is only fair to warn you now about what you can expect out of me as a mom. At least then I can throw this back at you in fourteen years when you wish, silently or not, that I was like the other kids' moms.

I will kill spiders, bees and centipedes in your room, but if I see a mouse, you are on your own. I love my job, so you will always be in daycare. Sometimes I just want to hang out with your dad, with no kids. I do not do crafts, but we can make as many pies as you want. I will yell at you, probably more often than I should. Our house will not always be clean, but I promise we will never end up on "Hoarders." You will try Brussels sprouts, venison, and blue cheese and all kinds of other crazy foods, when all you want to eat are chicken nuggets. We will unintentionally hurt each other's feelings, but we will also intentionally lift each other up.

Do not be afraid to join us in our imperfect world. Because what you will see in your first moments of life will be the people who love you most. It will be evident to you, every day of your life, that you are loved and wanted. Despite all of my flaws and un-Carol Brady behavior, and the grief that we will cause each other, all of that will be easily overshadowed by the wonder you will see in life and the wonder I will see in you.

If all this sounds reasonable to you, then feel free to join us at any time. We cannot promise a perfect life, but we can promise love and warm jammies and a full tummy. Come and see us when you are ready, Baby. We are ready for you to complete our wonderful, chaotic family.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Moms That Keep on Giving

A few years ago, I saw a news piece about the children of the Great Depression, and an older gentleman was talking about always being hungry. He said that he rarely saw his mother eat, and that he could not imagine how much she gave up to make sure that he was fed. He barely got the words out, and I still tear up when I think about both his mother's selflessness and his adult realization of her silent sacrifices.

As children, we do not always have a clear sense of the small and big sacrifices that our mothers make for us. Even as adults, when we start to understand the degree to which our lives shaped our parents' lives, we can never quite grasp the hundreds of ways our mothers put themselves second. Whether it is always taking the burnt piece of toast, or starving so we might eat, our moms give, and they give whether we are grateful or not.

I have been reading a lot of mommy blogs lately, for reassurance and solidarity, because I have learned that as a mom, second-guessing becomes second nature. We do not hesitate to sacrifice but we always wonder if we are doing enough. As a mom, looking at my growing circus of children, I would say that I am not doing enough to ensure that my kids are well-rounded, well-mannered, well-adjusted individuals. I obsess about the manners, knowledge, instruments, sports, languages, arts and community engagement that my kids probably will not master because I don't have the time to indulge them, and tend to forget that I am not Superwoman.

But as a daughter, looking back at my childhood and adolescence, I would say that my mother's sacrifices, both the ones I saw and the ones I did not, were not lacking. And since the best people to reassure mothers of their fine mommying are kids themselves (no matter how many times other people might say it, I always believe it more when my five-year-old identifies my good mommy skills), I want to tell my mom that all she invested is appreciated.

Sorry you had to attend so many two-hour torture sessions known as junior high band concerts.

Making me learn how to do laundry at 10 years old was really smart. I totally get it now.

I know now why I couldn't have a veil for my First Communion, and I'm sorry I was so sullen about it.

I understand now how exhausting it was for you when Dad was traveling.

You didn't fulfill your dream of Australia until this year because, among other things, you were spending precious travel money on family trips planned around my academic competitions.

Thanks for listening to me ramble on about whatever latest obsession, even though there was probably some show that you really wanted to watch instead.

You probably took the burnt piece of toast, the piece of cake with less frosting, and the butt of the loaf of bread.

I know that your heart broke every time I treated you poorly and every time I was hurting. I never quite appreciated that until my three-year-old said he didn't like me.

I don't know if you feel like a success or a failure, or if you still second-guess yourself. I don't know if you remember all the things you gave. I can't remember all of them, either, but you should know that I will take the burnt toast, go to the torturous band concerts, and listen patiently, and in that lies your success as a mother. I will do anything I can for the hearts living outside of my body, as you did for the heart living outside of yours.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's the Real Thing, Baby

First blueberry pie. Almost certainly not the last. 
Whenever I am in the kitchen, there are four little words I love and dread hearing: "Mommy, can I help?"

I love that my kids want to help. I know that someday, it is possible that no bribe or threat I can dream up will get them within twenty feet of the kitchen, so I enjoy their enthusiasm now. Truthfully, however, there are times that their "help" adds an hour, an egg on the floor, and flour in crevices that will never come clean, and I just want to do it myself.

It is a constant pas-de-deux of cooking and trying to prevent salmonella when they climb up on their little stools and, faster than the speed of light, rub their little hands on raw meat. Powdery white substances are irresistible, both for eating by the handful and for smearing onto hair and eyes and siblings.

Despite this, I almost always let them help. I want them to have memories of being welcomed in the kitchen. My mother tells a story about baking cookies as a child for a 4-H competition and burning the first batch. Her mother helped her start over, remix and re-bake, and under my grandma's guidance, the second batch was perfect. This memory means a great deal to my mom; as one of seven children, she did not always have much individual time with her own mother. I am sure it meant a great deal to my grandma, who lost her mother before she was five and probably spent little time with her in the kitchen.

Besides the benefit of time -- which is precious with two working parents and three, soon to be four, children -- learning to cook is a lesson in self-sufficiency and persistence. And in our house, that lesson is built upon a foundation of do-it-yourself. We still buy boxed macaroni and cheese (because it is delicious), but otherwise, we cook, and we teach, from scratch.

I have not bought a box of pancake mix in almost two years. Through much satisfying and frustrating trial and error, I found a recipe and modified it until it was perfect. I have learned to be comfortable making slow-cooking oatmeal and slow-cooking grits. I take great pride in my pie crusts, which my mother showed me how to make. Sometimes they are still too sticky and shaped like footballs, but I persist, and every once in a while, they are flaky and light and beautiful and I want to send pictures of them to my mom.

This is what I want my kids to learn when they "help": it is not okay to eat raw eggs, and if you measure and mix all the ingredients yourself, it will take longer and taste better. We live in a post-Betty Crocker world where you can buy just about anything pre-made, and I am not going to lie, sometimes I would love to cook nothing but things that require me to add water or press "bake" on the oven. Sometimes a Stouffer's lasagna is the best-tasting thing on Earth.

But so much is lost in the instant-ness. A muffin mix doesn't allow a three-year-old to build a brown-sugar sandcastle. When my daughter made her first little pie, it was all she could do to not march around the house, hoisting the ramekin above her head like a trophy. I showed pictures of her pie to my mom, and felt the do-it-yourself implant in a fourth generation.

As long as they want to help, and as long as I can summon the patience, my kids will be allowed to "help" in the kitchen. Someday, when they are living in early-twenties poverty, they will buy ramen and instant oatmeal, but they will have memories of learning to saute garlic, roast squash, and bake homemade pies. They will remember that flour and baking powder just feels better than a pre-mix, and somewhere down the line, I will see pictures of their kids' baked goods: proud smiles alongside accidentally dropped eggs and sugar in their hair.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Growing Life and Combating Stupidity

 The hardest part of being a Kitchen Widow is missing my husband. The second hardest part is parenting my children alone for much of the week. Some days, a long day at my job and the 200th evening viewing of "Despicable Me" and breaking up inane fights over one wooden block that someone wants and someone else threw at my head are more than I can handle.

Yet, we are having another baby. I think some people, privately and not-so-privately, cannot imagine why we would have a fourth child when having three stretches us mentally, physically and financially. It is not easy; that much is absolutely true. And having multiple kids is not for everyone. And sometimes I complain about it.

Pregnancy #1, Summer 2007
But the truth is that we are happy and excited to bring another life into the world. We love being parents and are mostly good at it. I like being pregnant and mostly enjoy it. And most people are supportive and wonderful. I have been discouraged lately, however, by a barrage of comments on my pregnancy and our full household. I have never encountered, throughout any of our pregnancies, such a menu of ridiculous, mean and inconsiderate statements, and I think it is time to stand up for pregnant women and mommies (especially those of big families).

Things Never to Say to a Pregnant Woman (and these are all real comments made to me this year):
"You are so big!"
"Are you having twins?"
"You sure you're not due sooner?"
"You look miserable."

Things Never to Say to a Soon-to-be Mother of Four (again, all real):
"You are crazy/insane/a glutton for punishment!"
"Isn't two enough?"
"You'd think you would have learned your lesson."
And my personal favorite: "Don't you know how to stop?"

Pregnancy #2, Winter 2009
I guess people are trying to be friendly or funny, but let me set the record straight. Being pregnant is hard work, whether you are working outside the home or not, whether you have other children or not. And as pregnant women, we have the amazing privilege of growing life, while balancing changes to our emotional, mental and physical states. We know what we look like, but unlike observers, we also know what we feel like. And some days we feel beautiful, other days we feel wretched. In the end, we are doing an important job that is not easy. You would not tell an overweight person that they are looking pretty fat, so do not tell me I look big and miserable.

Pregnancy #3, Spring 2011
Being a mother of three small children on my way to four is also not easy. But it is our choice. We are fortunate that getting pregnant and delivering healthy children has been relatively easy for us. I know couples who have struggled with this and my heart breaks when I think about those who cannot have or have lost the children they want. We have always felt that it is a gift that we can have kids and, to be perfectly cliche, we are not looking a gift horse in the mouth. A big family has been our dream all along, just as some people dream of one child or two or none at all. In the end, it is nobody's business.

Pregnancy #4, Spring 2013
So in answer to that last comment, I guess we don't know how to stop. We see the three beautiful children in our home that sometimes drive us crazy but always bring us joy, and I feel the baby elbowing around inside me, and it is all a blessing. Even if you feel it is nonsense to have more than one child or more than two, or if you are a perfect stranger who feels close enough to me to touch my stomach, just back off. We all make choices, and we are happy with ours, so my new choice is to have you zip it and just tell me that I look great and you are happy for our growing family.

I mean really, do you actually want to piss off a huge, miserable pregnant woman who is insane and ignorant? I didn't think so.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Note to That Guy I Live With

In 1846, poet Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Robert Browning, her future husband: "Was ever any in the world, in any possible world, so perfectly good and dear to another as you are to me!" It was just one line from one of more than 500 letters exchanged over 20 months' time, chronicling the friendship and courtship of two great British writers.

The letters are unique in their volume and passion. Separated by her health and a possessive father, they mourn the time spent apart in language that shows, so sincerely, how desperate they were to be together. Thankfully, the world has their correspondence. Another great love story was not lost to oblivion.

We are not recording our love stories in the same way. We do not write letters in the 21st century, and based on what we see in the media and from celebrities, I think a lot of us are cynical about love. Although we may see flashes of love stories in feature articles or two-minute spots, evidence like the Browning letters is rare. Will we have a great love story of our age? Yes, but it won't be recorded "in the moment," and that, I think, is a tremendous loss.

I feel a bit of solidarity with the Brownings and their desperation to be together. I do live in the same house with my husband, which is fortunate, but sometimes all I see of him is a sleepy two minutes in the morning before I leave and a sleepy two minutes at night when he gets home. Most days, I can barely stand to be away from him. He knows that, but I never write it down.

Somehow I feel that our letters detailing daily life would be decidedly less romantic and more functional than the eloquent Browning letters, but maybe, in the interest of history and spreading love to a world that needs it, I should try.

"Dearest -- We have a laundry situation again. I fear that the load in the washer has been there for three days, and the children are all starting to look like they dressed themselves. I hope you were not attached to that Ming Tsai cookbook, as it is now in 30 pieces, some of which are thoughtfully decorated with crayons. I have come to accept that we must abandon the "couch is not a jungle gym" argument. No amount of time-outs have been effective, and to be truthful, I wish a little bit that I could jump on the couch, too. I missed you today, partly because I had to retrieve the thrown macaroni and cheese from under the table all by myself, and partly because I just miss your steady presence and your slightly inappropriate jokes. The baby is kicking as I write this; perhaps he or she misses you already, too. I feel lonely when you are gone, and look forward, all week, to those four hours together as a family on Monday evenings."

Chef Matt and I do not do date nights but once every three months or so, and a weekend away is about as likely as you would expect. We do spend 20 minutes alone together on Friday mornings, eating muffins in my work cafe, catching up on the week before he has to be at the restaurant. And that is what has come to work for us; a sliver of a day that always leaves me feeling happy but a little sad to see him walk away.

The Brownings did what they had to do to maintain contact during a painful separation, and the world is better off for their hundreds of pages of declared love. We also do what we have to do, and that has developed into a Friday-morning reconnect that is neither especially private or especially romantic. But that 20 minutes is as important to us as a weekend trip or weekly dinner out might be to another couple: this is the way that we keep in touch.

I do not know that ours is one of the "great love stories," and maybe people today do not have the patience or interest to read pages of letters that I could write, lamenting our separation, but I want our children to know that their parents wanted to be together, though they rarely see us so. Maybe a note here and there would not be a bad idea. Even if no one ever sees them but our family, I would feel better knowing that our story would have been recorded at one time, even when we have long passed from this Earth.

"But to the end, the very end .. I am yours." Robert Browning, 1846. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

And Financial Complications Arise

While waiting tables at a gourmet pizza place a number of years ago, a customer told me that her pizza better be solid gold for what we were charging. I smiled politely, replied with an explanation of our fresh, high-quality ingredients, all the while wanting to tell her to shove it and go to Domino's.

If you want an example of how your high-school economics class matters in the real world, eat or work at a restaurant. After 15 years of waiting tables and six years as a chef's wife, I am well aware that going out to eat is not a simple matter of order food, make food, eat food, pay for food. It is far more complicated than that. And at the moment, there is a potential situation in my home state that will have even more complicated effects on the restaurant industry.

The Minnesota Legislature is seeking to pass a bill raising the minimum wage. In one version, the rate would go up over three dollars in the next few years. For Minnesotans making the current minimum wage, this will be an economic relief. It is hard to make ends meet making non-tipped minimum wage, and I am, of course, in favor of helping the lowest-wage earners keep up with the rapidly rising cost of living.

But then I consider the situation of some restaurants, and it gives me pause. Since Chef Matt has been an executive chef, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about food cost and labor cost. Food and labor are both expensive, and every week, Matt crunches numbers, cuts shifts, creatively uses food, and works extra hours himself to keep the restaurant running. The solution could always be to raise meal prices, but then you have the "solid-gold pizza lady" issue making a reputation for your restaurant's value.

For small restaurants, increased labor cost, for tipped employees in particular, is going to create difficulties that could make it hard to keep business running as usual. Matt's restaurant is farm-to-table, but local, high-quality foods are often more expensive, and with higher labor, it could complicate his ability to purchase the produce and meats he wants to. His restaurant has a reputation for unique, interesting dishes that make use of beautiful ingredients, but that, too, can be expensive.

If this bill goes through, and tipped employees are granted a higher minimum wage, he will likely have to sacrifice some of the things that make his small restaurant the place that it is, charge more for dishes, and work more than he already does. The part is that is frustrating for him, too, on a more personal level, is that in his company of restaurants, many of the tipped employees average a higher hourly wage than he does.

I was a server, so I know how hard they work and how essential that paycheck is. As a server in Iowa while in college, I made $2.13 an hour, and my paychecks were essentially negative. That is not okay. But when the executive chef of a restaurant, whose job it is to balance food cost, labor cost, customer prices, perceived value, food responsibility, and the creative art of cooking in a 55-hour week makes less money than a tipped employee, it is a little hard for me to swallow.

I am aware that this makes me sound insensitive to the thousands of hard-working, deserving tipped employees in the state. But there is always another side to the story. Many restaurants are not huge money-makers, especially the small independent ones. And what I see is what my husband lives each day and how this might effect our family. He is not the big evil business, desperate to cheat workers in order to increase our profit. He wants to do right by his employees, and stresses and sweats to make all things as fair as possible.

But I fear that if this bill passes, and in the next couple of years the minimum wage rises two to three dollars, some of the restaurants that this community loves will need to compromise quality, raise food prices to a difficult level, or close altogether. And to me, that means loss of integrity, loss of business, and loss of jobs. I do not know what the answer is, but there must be a compromise at hand, so the hard workers of Minnesota can continue to be employed at the restaurants that they, and their customers, and their chefs, love.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Marvann's Aluminum Pot

Once upon a time in Minneapolis, there was a restaurant that no one remembers. As the Cold War grew out of the underbrush of World War II, this restaurant opened and closed without fanfare. The proprietors were a young married couple who would someday be parents to seven children, among them two sets of twins.

But when Marvann's opened its doors for the first time, they were still just a young man and woman seeking dreams in the shape of a little 1950s restaurant. Ann worked in the kitchen, learning often on the fly and on at least one occasion from a customer, and Marvin handled the business and the conversation. They were young and happy, and only when a series of unfortunate events tumbled down around them did they step away from Marvann's, never to return to the restaurant business.

The restaurant was never a Minneapolis institution, and it did not meet a ghastly end by fire or flood, so in all likelihood, the only people who remember it are Ann and Marvin themselves. The historical ephemera that sometimes survives closed restaurants, such as menus and placemats, may or may not be tucked away in a box somewhere. Only one relic survives that we know of: a black, well-used, aluminum pot.

That pot, perhaps fittingly, lives at our house: the home of a chef and a historian. Even more fittingly, it lives in the house of Ann and Marvin's grandson, the only one of their grandchildren to pursue a career in the culinary arts, which ensures that the pot is used and its provenance remembered.

We have had this pot since we were married, and we have used it a number of times, although not as often as our more everyday pots and pans. Extracting the heavy pot from its cupboard seems to unleash its past use, like a flurry of moths from an old, deep closet. What did Ann stir up in that pot 60 years ago, and is her grandson somehow channeling her dishes when he creates dishes for his family? What busy restaurant conversations with Marvin are somehow echoed in the chatter of his three great-grandchildren?

The wonderful thing about this artifact, as opposed to most other historical objects, is that we can still use it. Our braised meats are cooked just like theirs, with no fear of harming the pot. It may, in fact, simply grow better and more seasoned with age. The more we use it, the less of Marvann's we lose.

As a historian, I wish that more evidence of Marvann's existed to help continue its memory when Ann and Marvin are someday gone. But as Chef Matt's wife, I am so pleased that the pot ended up in our hands. If there is to be one single piece left from Marvann's, we will be grateful custodians and continue to cook up beautiful things to serve alongside the history entrusted to us by Matt's one-time restauranteur grandparents.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Loss, Grief and What Comes Next

Since Sunday, I have eaten two milkshakes, chocolate peanut butter ice cream, a whole pizza, donut holes, two huge scoops of cheesy artichoke dip, and a lot of coffee, all on top of my normal three meals a day. That much is unusual, even for a pregnant me. I must be trying to eat the grief away.

Early Sunday morning, my co-worker died quite suddenly of complications from a cancer that she did not know she had until three days prior. Death is certainly never easy for those of us left behind, but deaths such as this leave me feeling scared and helpless. How does a 28-year-old woman leave us so quickly, with little warning? Should we be angry, or grateful that she left this world with little trauma? How do we begin to process so tragic a loss?

Grief strikes us all so differently, and in the midst of our own grief, we are surrounded by everyone else's. Navigating other people's sadness is difficult and exhausting; we want to do the right things and say the right things, but do not always know what those are. While we battle our own sorrow, our internal monologue is rapid-firing insecurities: what do I say? what do I bring? do I leave them alone or offer condolences? is it okay to laugh, or is it too soon?

Often, we compensate for these insecurities with food. We eat, just for something to do. We make food, because the bereaved need to eat. We gather to snack and drink, to draw comfort from a crowd. We stop eating, because it seems unimportant. We toast the memory of our departed, and try not to weep because it is their memory and not their presence that is left to us.

Eating also tethers us to our own existence, proof that we are still here even though our loved one is not. Alongside the constant eating of the last few days, I have also found myself hugging my children even more than usual, watching my husband sleep, and spending more time with my other co-workers to assure myself that they are still here. I think grief amplifies our human tendencies, if only because we need to subconsciously feel connected to this world that is now less one dear person.

The next few days promise to be a cyclone of more eating, a tearful farewell, and a transition from the freshest of griefs to a more subtle sadness, as the shock wears off and life pushes us to move on. I am comforted, though, that our workplace is an institution of history. We value the past and the stories of those who have come and gone. It is our instinct, then, to keep people's memories alive. Despite our grief, despite the nonsensical loss, we will surely do our best to honor the short life of our co-worker and friend and ensure that her history is not lost.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Budget-Food, Defended

The other day I was at the salon for a Mommy Time-Out, partly because it was overdue and mostly because I had a Groupon. As I waited for my appointment, I caught the conversation between the two women next to me, and it set me a bit on edge.

One of the women mentioned a commercial she had seen where the voiceover suggested a dinner of Campbell's soup poured over rice. "Can you believe it?" she said to her friend. "I mean, these people think they're cooking but they're really not. Can you imagine serving that to your children?"

It made me wonder if she realized that "these people" could actually be the person sitting next to her; in this case: me. I also wondered if she had ever been poor, or even a little strapped for cash. Because the reason that people, the poor misguided non-chefs that they are, serve that to their children is that it costs about $2.50.

I serve food like that to my kids sometimes, not because I cannot cook or because that is all they will eat or because I do not like lovely things like risotto and shepherd's pie or because I have no concept of the amount of sodium in a can of soup. I serve it because we are on a strict food budget, and also, soup mixed with rice or noodles takes about five minutes to make.

I think a lot of us have a pretty good idea of what it is like to eat cheaply from necessity. When Chef Matt was little, his grandma would serve him and his cousins Creamettes with ketchup, and they loved it. When my uncle was laid off, my aunt was feeding her family of four on three dollars a day. When I was broke and living alone in Maryland, I would sometimes eat tortillas with butter for dinner.

Perhaps the lady at the salon had never needed to eat "poor food." Maybe she never had to scheme how to get vegetables and grains and proteins into her kids for a buck or two. Or maybe she could not remember post-college years when one-dollar party pizzas were a daily staple. Lack of first-hand experience sometimes leads us to say things.

It was the assumption that people who are pouring soup over rice are ignorant that bothered me. We cannot assume to understand why everyone makes the food choices that they do, or that people who mix two ingredients for dinner cannot otherwise cook. If we assume anything, it should be that a lot of people are doing the best they can. Sure, some people cannot cook or will not cook or are okay with cooking by means of opening soup cans. But that does not entitle them to disdain.

The frustrating irony for me is that we love to cook and love to feed our kids things like Brussels sprouts, and one of us is a professional whose heart beats first for his family and second for beautiful foods. But we, like so many other people, do what we have to do, and sometimes that means we feed our kids soup and rice.

That lady maybe went home and continued to think that an uninformed public believes they are suddenly Mario Batali the minute they whip out a can opener. To which I say: Whatever. I went home and made tortilla pizzas with spaghetti sauce and shredded cheese. My kids ate it all up, and it cost me about $2.50.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Be My Valentine on the Other 364, Too

I could do without Valentine's Day. It creates a lot of expectation, for both single and attached people, and makes love seem a little generic. If I were to shelve the cynicism and seek out the "reason for the season," I think I would find that it is certainly about love, but about expressing love in a particular, enormous way.

Chef Matt has to work a long day tomorrow to feed the 150 reservations coming into his restaurant to celebrate love. What is so ironic to me is that his loves -- me and the kids -- stay home and eat macaroni and cheese while he fans the flames of other loves with some amazing surf 'n turf tasting menu. And I know for a fact that there will not be any heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on my nightstand to make up for it.

That is the way I like it. Each year, the holiday comes and goes at our house with little to no fanfare. Maybe we are unusual in that sense, but after nine years together, I find that romance is best served on our own terms and without needing the nudge during the most unforgiving month of the year.

Matt once said that not every day is Valentine's Day at our house, which is absolutely true (case in point: a Kitchen Widow nervous breakdown last weekend or the cyclone of early-morning chaos that is Matt's Friday). We have our own relationship flaws. But every day has a piece of the spirit of Valentine's Day -- he sends me thoughtful text messages, and I leave him the leftovers he likes -- and because of that, we do not celebrate on February 14.

Instead, the day I celebrate another trip around the sun, which also falls this week, has much more meaning to us than the sonnets and flowers and candy hearts. Seven years ago on my birthday, he asked me to marry him. He could have asked on Valentine's Day, in a public place or some romantic spot, but instead it was just me and him, a card, and a ring in my apartment, late at night when his shift was over. And that has defined love for us for all our married life: just me and him, nothing fancy about it, fitting in time together whenever we can.

It cannot be a bad thing to celebrate on Valentine's Day. By all means, go in to my husband's restaurant and have your romantic dinner there. Tell someone you love them, especially if you have not in a while. But then pretend that every other day of the year is also Valentine's Day. If we are grateful for every minute we have together, and allow our gestures to be commonplace, I think we inch closer to what has become the one part of the holiday that rings true for me: Love Big, or Go Home.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Stealthy Little Late-Night Food Stealers

I was sitting in the basement this evening, watching TV and blogging after a rather normal-level harrying day with the kids, and I heard the telltale pounding of a child out of bed. I had already been upstairs twice to deposit him back in his bed, and two flights of stairs twice in 15 minutes was already too much for my unwieldy pregnant self.

So I ignored him. I figured that he would find a book or get tired or come downstairs. Sometimes a mommy just needs to watch "The Shawshank Redemption" and let the little monsters figure out when they are tired for themselves.

But this was perhaps a time when I should have hauled myself up off the couch a little earlier. He had been tromping around upstairs for about 20 minutes and, eternally frustrated that they never seem to be as exhausted as I am, I stormed upstairs to wrestle him back to bed.

As I passed the kitchen sink, I noticed crumpled papers that had not been there before. Upon closer inspection, and investigation in the fridge, I discovered four American cheese wrappers that had been clearly licked clean. These were not cheeses that were cleanly unwrapped; someone had gnawed the cheese out of the plastic.

And there he was, peeking around the corner, totally oblivious to his incriminating trail of evidence. I asked him if he had eaten any cheese, and he counted off on his fingers: "I eat one, two, three, four cheese." An honest thief, at least.

This is not the first instance of sneaky kids stealing food. The other day, he had crept downstairs in the middle of the night and then snuck into bed with us afterward. It was not until the morning light hit that I saw the smear of chocolate on his lower lip and chin. The fridge revealed two chocolate desserts pockmarked with little finger holes.

His sister is equally guilty. We rarely catch her in the act, but she has not quite yet learned to hide the shiny Hershey's kisses wrappers at the bottom of the bathroom garbage.

It makes me wonder a couple of things. Am I not feeding them enough? Am I raising devious little crooks? Should I be locking up anything that is easily unwrapped?

Or perhaps I should take note from an earlier moment of child-thievery. A few months ago, I caught our son digging in the fridge and chased him away, but did not see that he had something in his hand. Thirty seconds later, he came running back in the kitchen, howling as he frantically spit out chunks of blue cheese.

That is the lesson, then. Populate our refrigerator with nothing but smelly cheeses and obscure vegetables, and hide all the Hershey kisses Prohibition-style, in hollow books and under false floorboards.

And maybe sedate them before they go to bed.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Culinary Skills Gone With the Wind. Or Never There in the First Place.

When you live with a chef, you face a daily reality of Second-Best Syndrome. This guy takes something that I have to do every day just to keep my kids alive, and he does it a thousand times better.

He is a professional, I get it. But I have watched him cut a hundred onions, saute a dozen different cuts of meat, flip countless over-easy eggs, and like any artist, he makes it look effortless. The surest way to get better is to practice, but I can assure that you that my over-easy eggs are consistent only in that they are not actually over easy.

So I have had to put aside my competitive tendency and accept that try, try again does not apply to me and cutting onions. It has been a consolation to adopt a sort of Rhett Butler attitude about the whole thing and frankly, just not give a damn.

My regular audience is three kids who would eat bricks of cheese for dinner if I let them, who are suspicious of anything that does not immediately resemble a hot dog, and who would probably rather clean toilets than eat cauliflower. My culinary skills count for next to nothing most nights of the week. On so many evenings, I have patiently stirred risotto or roasted squash or sauteed stir-fry, only to have one or all of them refuse to eat, spit food back onto their plates, and occasionally (like this evening, for example), run wailing from the room.

So I do not give a damn, and I cook for me. Chef Matt, bless him, will eat just about anything, although I think he is just relieved to see leftovers in the fridge that he did not have to cook. Aside from the infamous "are-these-boxed-mashed-potatoes" incident in our early years, he has never made negative remarks about my cooking. I cook what I want, then, and do it in my own amateur sort of way.

And every once in a while, the Rhett Butler attitude pays off. My daughter inexplicably loves it when I make shrimp and grits. They all love salmon. And this afternoon, I just about burst with pride when Matt called because he had forgotten to tell me that the shepherd's pie I made yesterday was among the best he has ever had. He ate it for breakfast and thought it was beautiful.

It is comforting for a very mediocre cook like myself to have eaters that are alternately non-discriminating and still growing into their palates. That means I can live with a man who makes Mona Lisas out of a few cloves of garlic and some olive oil, and be assured that there is no comparison taking place. I cook the way I know how and hope that at some tomorrow in the future, I will get the eggs right and the kids will realize that cauliflower is delicious. After all, (she said, amidst sweeping theme music and inspirational gumption to succeed despite the odds) tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A DeLorean, Shaped Like a Chocolate Biscuit

I am grateful for the sharpness of sense memory, especially these days when the memory in my head is imperfect and full of holes. Our senses have a remarkable ability to shut down all the life around us and transport us, with great clarity, to a moment in our pasts.

There are certain smells that, for me, trigger vivid memories of a particular event or person, no matter how often I encounter those scents in other situations. A particular flowery lotion smell sends me back to sophomore year three-act play, and the smell of fresh-cut wood always reminds me of my father. Sounds work much the same way, especially in the form of songs.

Of all the senses that evoke memory, however, I think taste is by far the most powerful. Food memory is perhaps responsible, partly, for why we love or hate certain foods, or why certain foods are coated in thick veneers of our pasts.

Whenever I eat Spaghetti-O's (which is not that often, but I am a mom, so it does happen), I am suddenly in my grandma's dining room, swinging my five-year-old legs that do not touch the floor and admiring my collection of sparkly rocks. Whenever I eat pasta that has a spicy tomato cream sauce, I am back in my St. Paul apartment, leaning against the counter and talking to Chef Matt, who has just shown up with leftovers after a late cooking shift.

One of my favorite food memories came crashing back at me this weekend, with my parents' return home from Australia. When I was 20, I spent five months in Sydney and came to love, among many other things, an Australian chocolate biscuit called a Tim-Tam. At first glance, they are nothing special: crunchy cookies sandwiching chocolate frosting and coated in chocolate. But try one, and I guarantee you that your outlook on the world of chocolate biscuits will be transformed. Bite each end off and suck coffee through it like a straw, and your outlook on all sweets will never be the same.

Up until recently, you could not get anything like a Tim-Tam in the United States. I have had occasion to have a few since I was in Sydney, and every experience was the same. I was back at the University of Sydney, drinking strong Australian beer and skipping class to soak up a beach, always toting a Tim-Tam or the lingering taste of one on my tongue.

The ghost of Sydney is back upon me now, as I savor Tim-Tams that my parents brought from Down Under. I could not be farther from that time and place. But luckily, food memory does not easily die. For the briefest of instances, I am not a pregnant mother of three staring out the window at a frozen lake. I am a young exchange student with nothing much to think about except a snorkel on the Reef.

Thank goodness for those food memories. I would never exchange the life I have now for the life I was living then, but it certainly does not hurt to call that life up every once in a while with a chocolate biscuit or two.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

You Ruined my Day, Applesauce Muffins

Cooking disasters are just part of the deal. You cannot do wonderful things with food without sometimes doing disastrous things with food, and it is important to our sense of accomplishment as cooks (amateur or professional) to screw up a bit sometimes.

Unless you are me, and then you screw up a lot of the time. Nothing I cook ever looks pretty enough to eat, and sometimes only marginally tastes good. I brown scrambled eggs, never cut the onions small enough, and occasionally bake things that are only easy to chew if they are toasted and doused with butter. I am never going to be a Pinterest phenomenon.

Usually it does not bother me much. My kids do not care what the food looks like and Chef Matt will eat just about anything I make. But sometimes a cooking disaster explodes in your face. And other times it explodes in your face when you are already having a rotten day, and suddenly you are sulking in a corner, ignoring everyone and wishing you could have a stiff drink.

Yesterday was not a good day. The main floor bathroom flooded, dripping through the floor and soaking the basement carpet. As I stewed over that, and another wrong cable bill, I decided to channel my anger into efficient domesticity and use precious afternoon nap time to cook some things for the week. In particular, I thought I would be Fun Mommy and bake a batch of applesauce muffins.

My daughter insisted on helping, which generally means that she eats the sugar and does not actually help much. Sure enough, half of the applesauce ended up on the cookbook and not one drop of the egg made it into the bowl. But the disaster part came at my hands, and I do not have the excuse of being five.

As I lifted the muffin tin to put it into the high wall oven, the tin hit the oven door, and in ridiculous slow motion, tumbled to the floor, flinging muffin batter in all directions. I gazed at it stupidly for a minute. It was a spectacular, gloppy mess, seeping between floorboards and coating our kitchen rug that I am pretty sure is unwashable. For one wild second, I wondered if it would be possible to just scoop it back into the tins. I had just cleaned the floors; no one would actually know.

Then I just lost it completely, spitting out a string of profanity that I am sure startled my poor daughter and scandalized the neighbors. I scraped muffin batter off the floor and walls, furious at the waste and the mess, and started all over again. I was determined not to let applesauce muffins get the better of me.

I finally baked a batch and calmed down a bit. I reasoned with myself that I still managed to make homemade muffins for my kids. The disaster was overcome (except for the blasted rug) and I would stand to bake another day.

But in the end, the muffins did get the better of me: for all that, they do not even remotely taste good.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Champagne, Leftovers and the Unknown New Year

I think a lot of people are cynical about New Year's. The first day of a new year is truly just another sunrise and sunset, and the night before can be nothing more than an agony of ridiculous cover charges and hangovers-to-be.

But it just might be my favorite holiday. Unlike most holidays, it is a two-day affair: the Eve, in which we remember the year that has gone, and the Day, in which we look with hope at the year to come.

I love, too, that it is that perfect mixture of all that is ordinary about our lives and those few unique moments that keep our lives interesting. We still have to fix meals, do laundry and buy groceries, but we get to wear sparkly clothes, drink champagne and stay home from work.

These last few days, as we finished up 2012 and coasted into 2013, I felt keenly the blend of regular and unusual in our house. Around the table, the last three days have felt like a cross-section of how we eat at our house: one-third mommy-scrambling to prepare something with leftovers, imperceptible vegetables and a gush of sauce; one-third patronage at Chef Matt's restaurant, shoveling lovely food while vainly trying to sedate screaming children; and one-third Matt-at-home concoction, wondering why we can't eat venison au jus and rutabaga-carrot mash more often.

Eating these three wildly different meals were my typical little eaters: a five-year-old who cannot eat a meal in less than 45 minutes, a three-year-old who can be convinced to eat anything provided it comes with ketchup, and a one-year-old who can sniff out a vegetable even when it has been pureed and baked in a brownie.

All of that smacks of the everyday in our house. But this New Year's was sprinkled with all those little things that make the ordinary gleam, just a little bit. We were eating leftover slop and venison chops in our new house. Matt worked a 14-hour day on the Eve, but was home all day with us on the Day, a rare family day. I skipped the champagne and went to bed at nine-thirty, courtesy of Baby Number Four. I wore sparkly clothes and stayed home from work.

None of us knows what a new year will bring, in the form of out-of-the-ordinary. Is that not the amazing, and scary, thing about our brief time on this earth? Our lives generally just continue as usual, and we get tired of doing dishes and changing diapers. But every year, New Year's comes around to remind us that there are champagne glasses and new babies, too, and we can feel hopeful again.