Wednesday, March 5, 2014


My childhood home was not a religious one. Because of that, religion always fascinated me. My friends all complained about church, and had wierd pre-meal rituals. At my house, the ritual was simple. Sit and be quiet. Wait. Once my mother took her first bite, we could all begin to eat. Before that, you'd be told "Put your fork down" in no uncertain terms by my father. Despite the total lack of any religion, every year on a Tuesday my father took over cooking the evening meal. And it was a doozy. My mother might be sitting at the table with us chatting about our days, or be somewhere in the house doing a mom thing -- sewing, tidying, reading a book. My dad would take out the plastic mixing bowl with the spout -- which in its later years sported a melted spot at its front where someone ("not me!" we would all say) left it too close to the electric griddle. Which of course was out on the counter, so super-simple for him to turn on medium and get warmed up. We never washed that griddle -- is that terrible to admit to? -- it was wiped with paper towel. Well-seasoned, and seldom needing extra grease because of it, my mother used to say. Whether it was pancakes, hamburgers, french toast, or my least favorite, liver. Just a good wiping was all it needed. He would also take out the smallest saucepan -- oh it might hold two cups of liquid -- and put it on a burner, turning the knob to medium. My father could have been the dad in "Cheaper by the Dozen" -- every move was efficient, both hands in use as much as possible. One hand putting the saucepan on the ring, while the other hand turned the knob to medium -- that was my dad. He would cut chunks off a stick of butter and drop them in -- half the stick had the now-emptier butter paper folded around it, and was pushed back into its lidded cubby in the fridge. He broke 4 eggs into the mixing bowl, cracking their sides on the edge of the bowl and levering them open from the crack, dropping their golden and clear contents into the bowl. He'd wisk them up with his favorite cooking tool -- a fork. He'd take his melted butter off the stovetop at that point, so it could cool. Then he would stir in a cup of milk, and using the same measuring cup, a cup of water; it rinsed out the milk, don't you know, so not a drop was wasted. Then he would stir in the melted butter, pouring it in while stirring in that age-old method of avoiding cooking the eggs by keeping it all moving. Next came the flour -- two cups, and a pinch of salt, stirred in with that fork of his, somehow avoiding lumps. He was a master at avoiding lumps, my dad -- to this day my gravies and batter sport lumps a'plenty. His crepes were always lovely smooth creations. My dad would test the griddle with a drop of water -- it would dance across the surface, showing it had the heat he wanted. He would pour the batter from his spouted mixing bowl, using a circular motion to spread it out in that large crepe round shape. Our griddle would only fit one healthy-sized crepe at a time, so that's what he cooked. Once the first side was done, he'd lift it with his favorite pancake turner and flip it over -- always a clean flip, never folded or ripped. I'm still working on that one, too. Again, a master of efficiency, while crepes were cooking he would get a pair of lemons from the fridge and slice them into wedges. He'd flick the seeds out of each wedge with the tip of his knife. Once done, he'd put the wedges higgeldy-piggeldy on a saucer; some on their backs, rocking as he moved the saucer, and some on their sides, at rest for now. Once done, he would take the crepe from the pan and put it on a plate. Crepe, crepe, crepe -- he'd cook them all up while directing us to set the table. Like all meals, knife on the right, fork on the left, dessert spoon above. Plate centered in between them all. Drinking glass above but visually between knife and dessert spoon. For us, his children, we had teaspoons instead of dessert spoons, and salad forks instead of entree forks -- but to us, they were the kids' spoons and kids' forks, not re-purposed cutlery. He'd remind us to take that saucer of lemon wedges to the table, and the sugar bowl. As an English house, we always had a lidded sugar bowl, half full, in daily use. You could say, "it was always tea time somewhere" was a house rule -- tea and cookies were made available for scraped knees, good news, uninvited guests, pretty much any time something wet and sweet was called for. Funny how our parents' voices echo in our heads -- "wet and sweet" will always mean tea and cookies to me. So, all the crepes done, he'd call my mother "Fan! dinner's ready!" and she would pop up from whatever had kept her busy -- and absent for this cooking frenzy of my dad's. We'd all sit at the table. My dad would take a crepe, and the plate would make its way around the table -- my mother, my brother, me, my sister -- coming to rest in front of my father again. Behind it, the saucer of lemon wedges went around -- my dad, my mother, my brother, me, my sister. And then that bowl of sugar, but more slowly this time. In turn, like a slow wave, we'd each squeeze that lemon onto our flat crepe, shake a teaspoon of sugar onto the puckery wetness, roll the crepe up like a sleeping bag, squeeze more lemon, and shake another teaspoon of sugar over the top. It didn't matter how fast you moved, as you had to wait for Mummy to start. So usually we were just finishing our sugar and keeping an eye on her ... the warm rush of happiness I'd feel as she cut her first piece and lifted it to her mouth was akin to Pavlov's dogs. It meant: dig in! We were not slow eaters in my family, and we would all tuck in to those crepes. Each year I'd ask, and each year I'd get reminded -- this was something we did only once a year. After a few years, the name of this special meal stuck as well "Shrove Tuesday" -- though I really didn't understand that until I walked through the Lutheran rituals during the failure of my first marriage, and had them hammered home with the Catholic rituals of my second husband. To me it was "Crepe night" and I couldn't ask for it, I had to wait for it to show up once each year like Christmas and Easter. I had always wondered where this religious ritual came from, how something that significant had crept into my blatantly a-religious household ... but it wasn't until I was long grown and gone that I learned it came from my mother's family. My father learned to make the crepes from her own father, a dapper and serious Swiss man. I can just imagine why -- he wanted to engage Grandpa Meier in conversation, and what better than to ask about household traditions. And then to bring such a sweet, simple tradition forward into his own family -- surely a tribute to the man that raised his wife, a nod to her own upbringing. I am glad for traditions, and though I started having random breakfast-for-dinner nights in my family's cuisine, this is one that gets reserved for that particular Tuesday.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Grilled Cheese

Each time, it was a conscious decision. Sad, perhaps, that now I had to say each time.

The last marriage was over. It was time to move on.

Chris would later say I jumped too early. Not out of the last marriage -- into his bed. And, he would be right. But what he didn't know yet was that I was repeating old patterns. Using a new relationship to help crowbar myself out of the last one. Using the glee of newness to assuage the gloom of grief over death of the old relationship.

What can I say -- sure, it wasn't the best pattern. But it worked. Oh, I hear you laugh. How can I say it worked, if the new relationship failed as well? Yes, the pattern needs work. Perhaps there should be a cooling off period, man-free, following the failure of a relationship. And we should have nice weather in springtime too. Mother Nature and I both have things to work on.

Those were the thoughts flowing through my head that first morning after. Chris offered to make me a grilled cheese. It was a great suggestion -- I love grilled cheese. He sat me down on the sofa in the living room and walked down the breezeway to his kitchen area at its far end. He had music on -- a mix of Beatles, 70's rock, and newer indie rock. I'd never heard of Death Cab for Cutie before -- now I loved them, despite the odd name.

Chris buttered the bread with the soft butter on the counter. It was that nice, seedy, Poulsbo bread -- not too light, not too heavy. He put one piece on the hot electric grill and then pulled the big hunk of cheddar from the fridge and grated a bunch onto it. The second buttered piece went on top, and he shut the grill so both sides fried at once.

Once he got it started, he walked back over, well bounced, really, on his toes, a grin on his face as he sung along to the song his computer was playing. "I'll have to leave for work soon," he said, "but you can stay as long as you like. Take your time with the sandwich. Would you like some coffee?"

"Sure," I said.

"How do you like it?" he said.

"Make it like yours," I said. See -- I was still using that mimicry form of flattery that had stood me so well in high school. Like what they like -- or at least, try what they like -- if you do like it, go with it. Did it matter that I'd spent years schooling myself to prefer my coffee black, minimum calories and maximum caffeine effect? Heck no. Chris's chocolate flavored creamer and half-and-half went into my coffee and he handed me the mug, chattering about his job that day. I sipped it -- strong, thick from the creamer, sweet from the flavoring. Wow! It was half-candy, half-coffee.

Chris knew exactly how long it took to cook a grilled cheese on his grill -- he walked back over, opened the lid, and there was grilled cheese perfection. He picked it up, ripped a paper towel off the roll, and wrapped the grilled sandwich with the paper towel as he walked toward me. His economy of motion was like dancing -- flowing task into task with an ease of long practice.

"Aren't you having one?" I asked.

"No, I have to get going," he answered.

I sat there, chewing my grilled cheese. It was perfect -- the cheese melted through, not enough to drip out of the edges as the double-sided grill had gotten the edge cheese to sizzle into that hard edge that keeps it all in the sandwich. The rich flavor of the bread played well with the butter and cheddar, there was not a missed note to this sandwich. That was the best grilled cheese sandwich I'd ever had. And the first one a man had ever made for me.

I felt like a princess, sitting on Chris' sofa, listening to his mix list, saying goodbye to him around the bites of my sandwich as he headed out the door. It was a bit odd to be in his house with him not there -- that was another first. I sat and chewed that yummy sandwich. When it was done, I sat some more.

I wanted to sort out the feelings in my head, in my center. I felt off-balance. This was proof -- Zee and I had long since failed, I was moving on. This felt like a good man to me. He was interesting, hard working, and he filled his house with flowers -- vases everywhere. I was smitten.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Chips and Soda

I was thrilled. I'd been walking on clouds since he asked. Sure, I had been working to influence him. I'd bought the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, taught myself the game. I remember sprawling on the floor by our sliding glass door -- best spot in the house on a sunny cold winter day -- dice, pencil, books, and paper in hand, working through that first sample adventure. Making sure I could play this game that had the smart boys at school so enthralled. It was fun, it was interesting, I was intrigued. I could see why they were interested -- you could control things, to an extent, but also there were variables. So you didn't know exactly what would happen. It was more exciting than a movie, with its static plot that stayed the same from viewing to viewing. More interesting than the local top 40 radio station, with its rock and roll hits that all sounded the same to my tone-deaf ears, singing about the love -- and heartbreak -- that eluded my teenage life.

So, Tee asked me. Would I like to join his player's group? I was thrilled! I was driving, so I could get myself there, as long as my parents let me go. Now, as a mom, I realize how happy my mother likely was that I had friends to go and see. Even boys. Three boys, in fact, and me. How I would check and double check if it was my daughter heading in to that den of boydom. But I went, no barriers, few questions. Perhaps my mother recognized how completely ensconced in my innocence I was. Eventually, that would be my undoing -- but at that point, all Tee and his crew wanted was a fourth player.

I drove there with my Player's Handbook, paper, and pencil. The DM Guide I left at home -- I didn't need to let them know I'd over-prepared, as usual. Not like they wouldn't know anyway, but hey. Pulled in to the driveway, down a wooded drive. Walked up the steps and knocked. "Hey", Tee said, opening the door, "we're down here", he pointed down a staircase in their standard dual-story entry. My nerves had me shaking in my shoes, but I followed him, closing the door behind me and bouncing down the steps to see his friends around the table already.

It was a little, square card table, set up in a finished basement play room like the one in my house. I remember reds, browns -- dark colors on the floor and wall. But I was interested in the game. Okay, I was interested in Tee -- but I knew that the way to him was through the game. So I played my heart out. Did voices, made reasonably sound choices, stayed in character, rolled dice, celebrated good moves and rolls, worked on recovering from bad choices and rolls. Tee kept us all on task and on track in his adventure.

And when we were fading from hours of chatting our way through this game, out came the standard fare -- chips and soda. Tee ripped open the bag and put it in the middle of the table, and handed around cans of cola that we ripped the tabs from and drank down. Munch, munch... "what do I see to the east?" munch, munch "Nothing" munch, munch "and to the west, anything?" Siiiip "hmmm, there might be something in the distance, let me roll and see" ...

The chips and soda kept us going for another two hours. I hadn't had that much social time even with my own friends in years. We had half an hour before classes started, half an hour at lunchtime, but other than that there was no time for play in my life. Funny how when boys became interesting all of a sudden I could spend 4 hours playing games with them, eating chips and slurping soda like one of the boys. I treasured that time and was happy to be there while our game continued in the weeks that came.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


"... and on Sunday we'll just have gravy" Zee sang in his strong church tenor as I ferried dishes to the table and he made his way from stovetop to dinner table. We were having a family staple -- rotinis and freshly made marinara sauce. Zee's song clearly meant pasta sauce, not meat gravy. But it tickled my vocabulary tester, since my strong British roots have gravy as that brown sauce that tasted like the meat it was served with. My mother had taught me how to make gravy pretty much as soon as I could stand at a stove, and for good reason -- it requires pretty much constant attention.

Zee's gravy, on the other hand, was a marvel of cooking. His mother, I'm pretty sure, spent the standard full afternoon over huge saucepans of bubbling tomatoes and herbs, reducing down that fresh fruit into its delightful marinara freshness. Zee, however, has spent half his lifetime figuring out how to do what the able-bodied do as quickly or better. As much as he let his injury hold him back from his dreams, he was a marvel at figuring out how to do what he wanted to do, to have a normal life.

The gravy was a wonderful example. Let's say it's 4:00, dinner's at 5:30, and you have nothing started. That was pretty typical for our house. With two young children to feed, it required balancing their tastes against their nutritional needs. Pasta marinara was one of the sure-fire dishes in my arsenal. Before Zee, the sauce was Ragu -- perfectly acceptable to my British taste buds.

Zee usually started with fresh tomatoes -- he'd buy the least expensive ones, which in winter were Romas. Those are nice and firm, not a lot of extra water in them. We were terrific Costco shoppers, too -- so the pantry was stocked with cases of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and olives. His homemade pesto was in the freezer -- we grew basil en masse every few years, and he would grind up basil and pinenuts with olive oil and put it in the freezer so we would always have fresh pesto on hand.

Zee's favorite cooking utensil was his secret weapon for fresh gravy and quick meals: a 4-quart pressure cooker. That thing hummed through all cooking. Mashed potatoes, pot roast, stewed chicken, and marinara -- all were instant dinners with the pressure cooker to hand.

So there we would be in the kitchen. Nik and Nat would be working on homework at the kitchen table, I would be helping Nik with whatever new math they were throwing at him that week, or helping Nat with her spelling. Zee would come out of his office about 4:00 and say, "how about pasta tonight, you kids?" They would smile and nod.

Zee would maneuver over to the fridge and bring out the fresh parsley, an onion half if there was one, the romano, and that amazing pesto from the freezer. I'd bring over a can of chopped tomato, tomato paste, and large black olives from the pantry. The bowl of tomatoes was on the counter already, from the weekend's grocery shopping.

It was always a marvel to see Zee walk. He had a cane, and seemed to throw each leg forward with a little shift of his hips for each step. You wouldn't know what his injury was, just that there was something. He always appeared confident, but after our few years together I knew he saw each step as a risk, and that he was in danger of falling each and every time.

When he took things out of the fridge, it was a true concert. First, he'd balance on the counter to pull the door open. Then he'd lever himself so he could reach inside to get out what he needed. Our fridge was never overflowing -- he needed room to get his good right hand on the item and bring it out. Once he'd released the item onto the counter, he could stand up again and shut the door.

I always held my breath when he leaned over to pull out the pressure cooker from its spot under the counter next to the cooktop. When our relationship was new, I tried to do more for him. But he benefited from doing things for himself, and so I had learned to hold back and let him do what he needed to.

However, watching him chop an onion was almost beyond me. So, when I came to the counter with the cans, I would take the onion, the large knife from the knifeblock, and one of the cutting boards, and start chopping it up. Zee would take the other cutting board and a serrated knife to roughly chop up the tomatoes. Every two tomatoes, he would lift his board and tip the pieces and juice into the pressure cooker. I'd chop up half the onion and add it to the pot. Then I'd open the tins and pour them in. If it was Roma tomatoes, the juice from the olives went in; otherwise, only half of it, with the rest disposed of. Zee would spoon out a tablespoon of the pesto into the pot, pour in a glug of olive oil from the bottle kept on the stovetop, and take the bottle of cooking wine from the counter to add a glug of that, too. And last, before closing the cooker, he'd rough-cut the parsley and add a big handful of that.

With the heat on medium he'd get the lid on while I took the cutting boards and knives to the sink for a rinse and wipe down. I'd dry one and bring it back over for grating the cheese. We had lovely blocks of Romano, first from Costco and later from online shops Zee found with even more cheese selections available.

Our favorite pasta shape was the Rotini, but it was fun to have Butterflies or the other shapes -- sure, they all taste the same, but some held on to the sauce just a bit better. Zee loved having a nice loaf of bread with it too -- it made a great plate sweeper for the leftover gravy. As much as I tried to make bread from scratch, we both agreed the local bakers did a much nicer job. So I'd search them out and find good looking loaves to bring home.

While the pressure cooker did its thing, I was busy filling a spaghetti saucepan from our sink filter dispenser. Slow road, but so much tastier than the chlorinated stuff straight from the tap. Zee was getting the latest tasty loaf from the bread box, and chivvying my kids to wrap up their homework and start setting the table.

Pressure cookers are interesting tools...they sit there quietly for some time, and then pop! the little pressure monitor pops up and the pot starts a quiet tootling. This was a sign that it was time for action stations.

Nik and Nat were pulling out pasta bowls, napkins, cutlery, and glasses.

Zee would turn the heat off on the pressure cooker, and put the heat on under the spaghetti water. By the time the pressure cooker had cooled, the water would be boiling. I'd add the pasta, a pinch of salt, and a glug of olive oil to that pot while Zee opened up the Marinara and examine his gravy. He'd give it a stir, and usually return the heat to medium so it could simmer while the pasta cooked. He'd also turn around to get the pasta serving bowl out of the cupboard. Those pivots were interesting -- he'd reach behind himself with his right hand, and once it caught, he'd be turning and bringing his left arm over to rest his left hand on the counter while his right would reach up, open the cupboard, and take down the bowl. It was a lovely, large, light bowl -- large enough for a family's supper, but light enough for Zee to maneuver it from one counter to another when it was empty.

Once it was all cooked, Zee would start heading to the dining table. My kids would be sitting already, Nat kicking her heels at her seat, Nik fiddling with his cutlery. I'd be lifting the pasta strainer out of the spaghetti pot, then dumping the Rotinis into the pasta bowl. I'd pour the marinara over it, and give it a stir. Then it was a bunch of back-and-forths: pasta bowl to table, grated cheese next, bread and bread knife on their cutting board. Whew!

As Zee headed to the table, he'd chat with my kids. It was a year or so before he shared that child's rhyme with us about gravy-and-bread on Mondays, pasta-and-gravy on Tuesdays, ... on down to just gravy on Sundays. We all laughed at the silliness of it, and could recite it back to him by the time he reached his seat. It was a catchy tune.

Funny what sticks -- I remember very well how to make that lightspeed fresh marinara sauce, but the exact words of the gravy tune -- I've lost them.