the only words I can muster

Be kind today, especially to people who are different than you. Listen to them. Take time to really see who they are.

Listen to music that makes you feel all the things. Read something that makes your brain sparkle with activity. Love your people as big and hard as you can.

Eat something beautiful.

Live.

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life in the fast lane

Yesterday on Facebook, my friend Kim posted a question asking for our reactions, thoughts, and feelings to and about fast food and those who eat it (ourselves and others) for an essay she’s working on.  The responses were numerous and for the most part thoughtful, but one in particular rubbed me the wrong way, and, as one does when overtired from illness and sleep deprivation, I took to Twitter to rant about it.

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Apparently I have some feelings about fast food.

My rant ended there but I couldn’t stop thinking about the role fast food has played in my life at different times, and how I landed where I am now.

Over the years, I’ve written on these very pages about trying to be ethical consumers of what we eat (Dietsch has too), and I’ve also written about how I’ve fed our family during lean times.  Much like my opinions on leggings as pants (once vehemently opposed, now enthusiastically in favor of people wearing whatever the heck they want), my views on the kind of food we eat and how we source it – including fast food – have evolved.

A lot of it has to do with having two young children who, despite my unrelenting efforts to get them to eat more than the same 10 foods, are steadfast in their refusal to try new things.  They need to eat, sometimes urgently, and there are times when only a coated paper clamshell of chicken nuggets and a bright plastic toy will do.

Part of it has to do with moving to the suburbs, and owning a car for the first time in over a decade.  We drive a lot these days, and sometimes fast food is just the right thing in the right place at the right time.

And part of it is simply getting older, recognizing and embracing that life is short, things are not black and white, and you do what you need to do to get through.  There is a time for austerity and moderation, and a time for indulgence.

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When I was a kid, my family ate fast food in the car on our annual trips to Florida for summer vacation.  We always packed snacks and a cooler, but for me there is just something about a road trip that demands that you hit the nearest McDonald’s drive-thru on the way out of town for a paper-wrapped breakfast sandwich, to be enjoyed while poking your nearest sibling and rolling your eyes at your parents’ questionable musical choices.  We would usually stop and spend the night in a hotel halfway between Michigan and Florida, and I looked forward to a visit to Waffle House just as much as I did any of the great little little mom-and-pop restaurants my mother had a way of finding for us to eat breakfast at the next morning.

I stopped eating meat early in my teenage years, so burgers were out, but the Filet-O-Fish was still there for me.  I could get a salad and a baked potato at Wendy’s when I was out with friends, and there was nothing weird about it.  And as a 19-year old, participating in the time-honored tradition of going to the bar in Windsor, the evening was just not complete without a trip through the Taco Bell drive-thru before heading home.

Then in my 20s, as I began to decide who I wanted to be, and what I wanted my life to look like, family vacations gave way to travels with friends, meetups at White Castle morphed into going out for drinks and dancing, or gatherings at clove-smokey coffee shops.  With age came more options, and I wanted to project what I thought was a more refined version of myself to the world.  Sure, there were still late-night Coney runs, but more often than not, eating out meant Mongolian barbecue or Cedarland or mussels and Chimay and the best jukebox ever.  Fast food was the remedy for the next-morning’s hangover, a walk of shame done via car, through the nearest drive-thru, in pajamas and sunglasses over the remains of last night’s eyeliner, making eye contact with as few people as humanly possible.

At the end of my 20s, as I sunk into the deepest depression of my life and my first marriage crumbled, the McDonald’s at the end of my street tormented me.  I could smell the fry oil from my apartment, and I couldn’t resist it.  My indulgence was both comforting and shameful.  I’d stop there every morning for breakfast on my way to the office (Egg McMuffin, extra hash browns, large coffee with milk and no sugar), and I’d sneak over there again to fill the long lonely hours of my evenings, eating in my car and immediately discarding the evidence.  I felt bad about that for a lot of years, but I’ve grown kinder to myself about it over time.  Fast food was the crutch I needed at a time when I didn’t have much else to lean on.

By the time I hit my 30s, after ditching the first husband and about 65 lbs., I had the income and access to eat pretty much whatever I wanted.  Mike and I were together by then, but childless and with two incomes.  We cooked at home for each other a lot both before and after we married, but we also didn’t think twice about dropping $200 on a nice dinner out on the weekend.  We read Pollan, we saw Food Inc., and we spent so much on groceries each week that to think about it now makes me blush.  We met and spoke with farmers and chefs and food artisans in the communities we lived in, every single week.  We paid attention to where our food came from, and we were loud and frankly a little judgy about it.  We were, I must say, pretty freaking obnoxious.  We rarely ate fast food, and when we did it was always in secret, and with a heaping helping of shame.

The only shame I feel now is for ever feeling bad about my choices, and even moreso for ever making anyone else feel bad about theirs.  Most people are just doing the best they can do in the moment, and who am I to say that the choices they make and their reasons for making them are any less valid and right and good than mine?

I have privilege.  While I do know what it’s like to have $30 to spend on groceries for the week to feed our family, I have also always had bus fare or another means of transportation available to me when I needed to buy food.  I have always had a clean and safe kitchen to cook in, and a clean and safe place to store our food.  I’ve always had or had access to pots and pans and flatware and clean, abundant running water.  I have even, at times, had the time, space, and resources to grow some of our food.  I have always had the option to choose whether to buy and cook food at home, or to dine out at an establishment of my choosing.   And I have always had someone to feed me if I couldn’t feed myself.

I had parents and grandmothers who knew how to cook, how to navigate a grocery store, how to prepare a meal plan for the week and how to craft a shopping list from it, and who had the time and ability to pass all of that knowledge down to me when I was a kid.  We ate home-cooked meals the majority of the time, but we also had the means and the money to eat out.  Sometimes we ate at little family-owned places in and around Detroit, and sometimes we ate at McDonald’s or Arby’s or Wendy’s or another fast food chain.  My grandma famously loved Taco Bell, and if it was good enough for her…

So while I am actively working to pass the same food knowledge down to my kids that my parents and grandmothers did to me, I don’t ever want to pass down shame or stigma about food.  The kids shop with us, go to the farmers’ market and farm stand with us, and we ask for their input when planning our family dinners.  They are helping me plan this year’s garden.  They stick their fingers into bread dough with their daddy and roll out meatballs with me.  They’ve made pizza and brownies and fresh pasta, with our help, and they enjoy doing all of it.  They also eat fast food meals a couple of times a week, and when we first moved here, that was super alarming to me, but now, I don’t mind.  They are happy and healthy and well-adjusted and that’s really the most important thing I can give them.  I can give them options, and the tools to make the best decisions for themselves depending on their circumstances.  Sometimes that might be the $23 farm stand chicken, and sometimes that might be the Big Mac.

What they have given me in return is the ability, finally, to sit back, unclench, and unapologetically enjoy the damn french fries again.  I am so grateful for that.

These days, I strive for balance.  Most days that means an egg, a swipe of hummus, and as many vegetables as I can pile on my plate for breakfast.  It means 3 to 4 hours on my feet in the kitchen every weekend prepping lunch salads for the week.  Sometimes it means a smashburger made with grass-fed beef from our local farmer’s market, and homemade lacto-fermented pickles.  Sometimes it means ordering too many fried appetizers for Friday night delivery after a long work week.  Sometimes it means fried chicken at a turnpike rest stop after saying a last goodbye to a loved one.

I’m over the idea of food as “good” or “bad.”  Food is food, it has a certain number of calories and nutrients depending on the type of food and how it is prepared, it fuels your body and it may or may not make you feel a certain way before, during, or after you eat it.  You may choose to eat certain types of food more or less frequently depending on any or all of that.  It would be lovely if all food was 100% nutritionally and ethically pure, as good for the body and psyche as it is for the environment and the people who farm, raise, produce, prepare, and/or sell it, but that’s not our reality. The best any of us can do is make the best choices we can depending on our own unique circumstances, and not judge or shame others for theirs.

Fast food is just food, and there’s a place in my life for it again.

everybody’s hands are different

img_2321This belonged to my grandmother.  And now it’s mine.

We lost her one week ago today, and since she and her influence are all over these pages, it only feels right to memorialize her here as well.

I’ve spoken before here and elsewhere about what a remarkable woman she was.  She raised 7 children, largely on her own, after my grandfather passed at a young age.  She was a voracious reader, finishing 3 or 4 books a week up until nearly the end of her life.  She never received formal education beyond 8th grade, but she was one of the wisest people I have ever met.  She started quilting at the age of 70, and she was both talented and prolific.  Her gardens were an oasis, and her beloved roses were still blooming last week in Michigan’s late October chill.

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And her food… her food.  Her food was as good as anything you could get in a restaurant, better, even, because she fed every single person who sat at her table with love.  She was a natural cook, who rarely used recipes, who measured things by sight, by taste, by feel.  “Everybody’s hands are different,” she’d say, as she gathered a pinch or three of salt or garlic or cumin, showing me how much to use in her cupped palm before adding it to the pot.  She just knew when it was right, and she taught me to trust my hands and my instincts, too.

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To sit at Grandma’s table was to feel safe, to feel cherished, to feel comforted, to feel connected.  I was so scared to walk in to that kitchen last week and feel that something was missing, but when we got there, I still felt her presence, her love all around us.  She passed that on to my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my whole family.  There was abundant laughter alongside our many tears as we gathered at the table without her, eating, drinking, sharing our stories, remembering her love.  What an incredible gift.

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One of my aunts pulled me aside at the visitation on Friday and told me that she thought I should have Grandma’s cast iron skillet.  I’m sure you can imagine how I cried.  It was an honor to cook with my grandma, and a privilege to be fed by her, and while I have been sharing her food with others for years now, to have this little piece of her kitchen live on in my home is really something special.  I will think of her every time I use it.

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I simply would not be the cook that I am without my Grandma’s lessons, her guidance, her encouragement, and her love.  She made me a better woman, a better mother, a better human being in countless ways, but our shared love of cooking, and of feeding people, was an incredibly special bond.

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I am so grateful to you, my beloved abuelita.  I will miss you so, so much.

No dress rehearsal, this is our life

We got back from Michigan a week ago, after a very short, very sweet visit with my grandma. Two days of driving for two days of sitting, talking, just enjoying being in her presence. It was lovely. 

The kids handled the long drive surprisingly well, and were smitten with their Gigi, and I was thrilled just to be with her again for a while after nearly 3 years away. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, given the chance.

She’s 95 years old, so “next time” is not a given. But we hope.

I’ve had a whole lot of feelings to unpack around this trip, around family and life and balance and priorities, and not a lot of time or opportunity to do so until now. I jumped right back into work when we got back to Virginia, assisting with a trial and trying to tame a furious flurry of stuff that had come through on my other cases in my absence. I missed some bedtimes and morning kisses, but overall we got through fine. 

It’s funny to think that after a year here, we are still adjusting to our new normal, but here we are.

And it has now been a whole year. That anniversary came and went this week, with memories popping up on social media of our Brooklyn goodbyes, our one-year younger kids curled up like kittens in the giant hotel bed, our stressed-out rants and the comforting words of family and friends, and then, the quiet slog of settling-in.

And now we are in September, which always feels big and important for the endings and beginnings contained therein, but which feels even more so this year. We’re on the cusp of one of the biggest transitions of our lives as a family:  Kindergarten, the start less then a week away now. We have bus schedules and supply lists and weekly folders to pay attention to now, we will plan our lives around school schedules for years to come. 

I’m thrilled for our boy but I’m desperately sad to be losing him to the education-industrial complex so soon. It feels like we held him for the first time just yesterday. I feel like I’ve missed too much of his life already. I want more time. 

Our arrival in Detroit happened to coincide with the last show of the farewell tour of a longtime favorite band of mine. (One thing some of you may not know about growing up in Michigan, is that you learn to love a lot of Canadian music.) So after Mike and the kids were asleep, I sat on the edge of the bed in our darkened hotel room, listening through headphones as Gord closed out the show in perfect fashion:

First we’d climb a tree
And maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently
And listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday
Casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal,
This is our life

***

That song has always been a favorite, but it feels particularly resonant right now. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since that night. 

You never want to think that any given time that you see someone, when you hold their hand or laugh with them or eat a meal they’ve lovingly prepared for you, that that might be the last time. But last times are sneaky like that. You just don’t know when you’re in one until the moment has passed, and then it’s too late to do anything about it.

This was the first time in my life that I can recall that I visited my grandma and she didn’t cook for us. And at age 95, she has absolutely earned that right – I’m not mad or upset in the slightest. But I am sad that the “last time,” the moment, has passed, and we missed it.

When we visited 3 years ago, Julian gleefully tucked into a plate of grandma’s migas. Mirabelle has never tasted my grandma’s cooking, and likely never will. 

So I am sad about that. And I’m sad that my biggest cooking inspiration and teacher, the person who taught me how to toast the rice in the pan before adding any liquid, and to cook the chicken until it looks drier than you think it should be because if you don’t, the tacos will be soggy, the woman who taught me the importance of sitting around a table and sharing a meal together, and who helped me realize the joy that could be found in the simple act of feeding people, has, for the most part, stepped out of the kitchen. She doesn’t have the energy to cook anymore, and she can’t eat a lot of the things she used to love, and I’m sad about that, too.

When we got back to Virginia, all I wanted to do was cook her food. I wanted to fill our kitchen with the smell of frying tortillas, onions and garlic toasting, chiles roasted until charred, their blackened skins rubbed away to reveal tender flesh. Pinto beans cooked in bacon fat in a black iron skillet, mashed to creaminess and dotted with cheese. Guacamole and pico de gallo and salty corn chips. 

Beer to wash them down. Bourbon to numb my sorrow. 

I often joke that my ability to cut onions without crying is my superpower, but that night, I was powerless to stop my tears. I tried hard not to let the kids see or hear me. I want the memories they associate with this food to be happy ones, of a table full of family, boisterous conversation, laughter, animated discussion, security, and love, not of mommy standing in the kitchen mourning someone who is not even gone. 

I want to figure out how to find time to cook again. I need to keep her food alive. 

I want my kids to grow up knowing this food, I want them to share this food with the people they care about, like grandma taught me to do.

I want more time to climb trees with them, to talk, or sit silently, or both. 

I want them to hear the music that kept me going through my darkest times, and that I celebrated my triumphs and joys with.

I want us all to spend more time with the people we love while they are still here, while we still can.  To appreciate the moments before they pass. 

No dress rehearsal. This is our life.

What kind of life do I want it to be? And how do I make it happen? 

(This post was originally published on jenblossom.com)

when October disappeared in a flash

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Just in case the four of you who still check in here from time to time are wondering, we’re doing fine, slowly settling in and adjusting to our new home in NoVa. This has not been the smoothest of transitions for a variety of reasons, but after two months here, I think I’m finally getting to the point where I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel like I’m living someone else’s life.

My new role has kept me extremely busy – and even though I was warned, I had no idea just how busy I was going to be. More days than not, I see the kids for 10-15 minutes in the morning before I head out the door, and then if I see them at all when I get home in the evening, it’s for just a few minutes before their bedtime. As you can imagine, that’s been hard on us all. But our kids are nothing if not resilient, and we’ve been trying to fill our weekends with as much fun and together-time as we can muster.

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As you can also imagine, our dinners have been, of necessity, as simple as possible. Mike has taken on the lion’s share of the cooking, and we’ve been the lucky recipients of a few edible care packages from my mom. But I’ve had a few chances to knock around in our new kitchen, and one recent dinner that elicited a lot of comments on social media was my tried-and-true sheet pan nachos. So for those of you who asked, here’s how I make them.

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These are super easy and endlessly adaptable, and you can even prep most of the components ahead of time. I start by lining my pan with parchment (foil also works but isn’t quite as sturdy), and drizzling on just a tiny bit of olive oil. Then for each pan I’m preparing, I spread 1 can of refried black or pinto beans in the center, leaving maybe a 1.5 inch border around the edge (I’ve found one sheet pan serves 4 adults generously). I put a layer of chips around the edge, then scatter a cup or two of grated cheese all over (cheddar, Jack, pepper jack, mozzarella, or any combo works well). That goes into a preheated 350 degree oven just until the cheese starts to bubble.

While the tray is in the oven, I get the remaining layers together (amounts are per pan): a can (or 1.5 cups cooked from dry) black or pinto beans, drained; another 1-2 cups grated cheese; seasoned ground or shredded beef or shredded or chopped chicken (I cook mine with a mix of cumin and garlic and chili powders or paste, plus a little tomato – like so). Or skip the meat entirely and pile on some zucchini or corn or mushrooms. For the nachos pictured here, I had a container of peperonata to use up, so I put that on too – but plain roasted peppers and onions also work well.

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All of that gets layered on to the beans/cheese, with some additional chips squished in (I sort of stand them on edge to they don’t get too soggy). Then it all goes back into the oven for about 10 minutes to warm through. I finish it under the broiler (did I mention our new oven has a broiler on top? We are SO EXCITED about this), pulling the tray out when the cheese is golden brown.

Then just before serving, add your cold toppings. I like to shred red cabbage and toss it with salt and a little fresh lime juice to scatter over the top, but shredded lettuce works just as well. Sliced or chopped avocado is great, as are diced fresh tomatoes, black olives, pickled or fresh red onions, scallions, pickled or fresh jalapeños, sour cream or Mexican crema or Greek yogurt, and of course your favorite salsa/hot sauce. And I always serve the nachos with extra bowls of chips on the side.

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Oh, and if you happen to have leftovers, the “put an egg on it” rule totally applies. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

*****

A little shameless spouse-promotion
: while we were in the midst of this major life upheaval, my dearest wrapped up work on his second book! Whiskey: A Spirited Story with 75 Classic and Original Cocktails is set for release in May of next year, and is currently available for pre-order. As if that weren’t enough excitement, that same day the revised and updated paperback edition of Shrubs hits stores, with a foreword by Imbibe executive editor, Paul Clarke. Both books feature lovely cover art by Vancouver photographer, blogger, and woman-about-town Kristy Gardner. Never a dull moment Chez Dietschblossom!

ain’t love grand

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I moved to New York for love. And then I fell in love with New York, and more specifically, with Grand Central Terminal. The guy I moved here to be with didn’t seem to mind (he loves it, too).

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We fell into an easy rhythm our first go-round in the city. On Fridays, after work and before hopping on a train home, I’d stop off at the Market Hall at Grand Central Terminal, grab cheeses and charcuterie from Murray’s, perfect produce from Zabar’s stand, bread from Eli’s, maybe a steak or chops from Ceriello’s, or some oysters or sea bass or sardines from Wild Edibles, and a bottle or two from Grande Harvest Wines, then schlep it all home to Brooklyn. The Market became part of our routine, a way to treat ourselves after a long work week, and to kick off our weekend with some indulgent treats.

tomato mania

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Grand Central and its Market were so much a part of our lives, in fact, that when that guy and I decided to get married, we couldn’t imagine not swinging by for a few photos as part of our celebration.

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When we moved back to the city after our years in Providence, Grand Central was one of the first places we visited. Julian has come to love the terminal’s soaring ceilings and bustling halls as much as we do.

so much fruit

As time and money have allowed, I have resumed our tradition of a Friday market stop, for cheese and charcuterie, tiny tomatoes and jammy figs, burrata and bread and sweet treats for the kids.

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And now, once again, we are leaving.

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I know, of course, that New York is not the only great food city around, and I look forward to exploring all that the greater DC area has to offer us, but I don’t know if any place will ever give me the same thrill as the one I get when I walk up from the 6 train and into the main concourse, or when I pass through the doors on Lexington Avenue into the cool, fragrant air of the Market.