Good things that happened today

I went to bed, and woke up with, the worst headache I’ve ever had, and went to work anyway. A colleague brought me some Advil, and then went out to get me some more.

The weather was cold, rainy, and dreary, so I treated myself to a decaf pumpkin latte. The warm cup felt cozy in my hands.

As I walked home from work, it started to rain, so I stopped by to see a friend in her shop along the way. There, I bought two Christmas ornaments: one for me and one for a friend. Her cat let me pet him.

A wheelchair-bound woman was struggling to get up the ramp when a young man asked if she needed help. She quickly accepted and within seconds he pushed her to the MAX stop. A small task, but an enormous gesture.

I had no plans for the evening, so I cooked myself a meal of roasted Brussels sprouts, my favorite, and ate them while watching an old episode of Fantasy Island. I just heard the line “Why don’t you just boogie on out of here, Duke.” A healthy pleasure accompanied by a guilty one.

Sometimes when things look bad, they really aren’t.

FANTASY ISLAND - Gallery - Season One - 1/20/78 Ricardo Montalban (as Mr. Roarke) and Hervé Villechaize (as Tattoo) star in "Fantasy Island".  Tales of visitors to a unique resort island that can fulfill literally any fantasy requested.   (AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.) RICARDO MONTALBAN, HERVE VILLECHAIZE

FANTASY ISLAND – Gallery – Season One – 1/20/78
Ricardo Montalban (as Mr. Roarke) and Hervé Villechaize (as Tattoo) star in “Fantasy Island”. Tales of visitors to a unique resort island that can fulfill literally any fantasy requested.
(AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.)
RICARDO MONTALBAN, HERVE VILLECHAIZE

Baking memories

I haven’t done a lot of writing this holiday weekend. Instead, my creativity came out in the form of cooking. This makes a lot of sense for Thanksgiving Day, but for some reason the cooking bug is staying strong through the weekend. On Friday, I made piragi* for the very first time. Piragi are Latvia’s pierogis (I’m Latvian on my maternal side), and couldn’t be simpler: tiny bread rolls stuffed with bacon and onion. You read that right: Bread, bacon, and onion all in one bite. You’re welcome.

I remember eating these each time I visited my grandparents in Ontario (first in Toronto, and then in Millbrook where they moved to a small farm upon retiring). Thanks to the baking talents of Nanny, the tiny rolls were always there in a basket or large bowl, covered lovingly with a tea towel. Nanny and Pappa’s house always smelled like pirags (for some reason, they constantly left off the “i”), probably because Nanny was constantly working on a new batch, the last ones being devoured as soon as they were made. I remember watching her when I was younger, making my own little rolls with leftover dough; Nanny was pretty fussy about the pirags themselves turning out just right, so she rarely let the kids chip in with filling or rolling. My mother reminded me of my high-school graduation party where Nanny made over 100 pirags – twice. The first batch wasn’t perfect enough to meet her standards, the rolls not completely closed, or the egg brush glaze not quite right. Something small set her off, and so she painstakingly rolled out another 100 for the guests. Those were perfect, but never enjoyed because our golden retriever ate all of them. And so the imperfect batch was served to the guests. No one seemed to notice.

Last night, it was time to make pirags without familial guidance, without any expectations. Yet, I found myself comparing my efforts to hers, critiquing the size and shape, the taste of the filling. In truth, I can’t remember exactly how hers tasted, except delicious. I had a few challenges as I worked with yeast and rising dough for the first time, and as I tried to figure out how large a chunk of dough I needed to stuff and fold, but overall I claim success. After all, you really can’t mess up bread, bacon, and onion that badly, despite Nanny’s insistence.

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Imperfect success! Delicious.

*Note: The link isn’t to my family’s recipe, just one I found online

Thank you

The house is still. The thick coat of morning frost is gone as the sun is bright. After snuggling in bed for a few hours, reading a mystery novel, I brave venturing out from under the covers and plod downstairs. The house is warm; one of the many things I am thankful for.

Morning is spent dusting and straightening. I turn on the television, and the house fills with the excitement of the football game – just like it does in thousands of households across the country. A weird national bond. A hometown touchdown, and the crowd roars. I check in with loved ones who won’t be joining me today, and read an online update from a friend whose struggle with cancer is going as well as we ever could have dreamed. I am thankful for the ability to do all of these things with the help of modern communication. I briefly think about the time when handwritten letters full of delayed news were the only means of reaching out and my heart aches a little trying to imagine the challenge of staying connected back then.

The house is clean enough. Now I sit, watching the game. A moment of rest before guests arrive to begin cooking. This year, we will feast on Ethiopian cuisine, forgoing the traditional turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Though we’ve never made any of these dishes before, Doro Wat, Gomen, Atakilt Wat, lentil salad, and a lamb stew will fill my table this evening. Six wonderful friends to share it with.  I am thankful for my friendships, and our willingness to break from the norm and use a major holiday to venture into the culinary unknown. I dug out an old, Latvian tablecloth for the occasion.

Books, warmth, friends, communication, food, heritage, courage, health. May you have these things, and more, this Thanksgiving.

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Together

We made chicken soup from homemade stock — added carrots, cabbage, and green onions. At the bottom of four bowls, we placed a generous scoop of mashed potatoes before ladling in the soup. Two of the servings went to the cooks, one was given to a friend studying hard, and the other to a friend who has a cold. she didn’t leave the couch all weekend. The mashed potatoes dissolved into the soup to create a thick, creamy broth. We sat together and ate, telling funny stories.

It tasted like healing

Franz Joseph

Franz Joseph, South Island, New Zeland

 

Reading, writing, and cooking

For years, my mother and father have insisted on no presents for Christmas. I try to abide by this, and for the most part I am successful (every once in a while, I sneak in a small gift when I see something that resonates – a photo, or book – when I simply can’t resist). Instead, I donate money in their name to a cause that I believe reflects their values. For many years, I donated to the Oregon Humane Society in my old dog’s name since that’s where we found each other. My parents also met their most recent dog when he was found wandering the roads by their former country vet.  My brother and sister-in-law found their dog at the pound. We are a family of rescuers.

Lately, however, I’ve been donating to local classrooms through Donors Choose; my parents have always encouraged educational pursuits, so it only seems fitting. Oregon has some of the worst educational outcomes in the country, despite high levels of spending, so perhaps giving money to classrooms here seems like a somewhat a foolish decision. Still, I comb over the wish lists of 100s of teachers across the state – most asks revolve around technology. While I agree that classroom tech can result in better learning and better preparation for the workforce, I find I am not really drawn to those requests. I instead give to those asking in order to provide materials for less fundamental educational needs: Not math, but art; not tablets, but science equipment that allows students to mimic the analyses they see on countless crime shows. I want to support student learning in ways that foster connection in themselves and the world around them.

Last year, I gave money to a rural classroom teacher so she could buy cooking supplies for her middle-school students. In her request, she stated how her kids lack the basic skills needed to make a meal, and how the school no longer supports this sort of learning (does any school now, I wonder?). While I never learned how to cook in school – pretty much figuring it out through reading, watching, and trial and (lots of) error – I see cooking as a skill that should be taught. Cooking meals improves nutrition and eating habits and therefore overall health. It can even help with math skills when the need for doubling or halving a recipe arises; I’ve never seen a recipe without fractions.

Cooking slows a person down and allows them to focus on the now, and the people they are with. Preparing a meal can bring a young person closer to their family or culture, or help them learn about others. When people cook together, it requires communication and coordination. A home-cooked meal shows love, whether it is made for a large family or just one. When I sit with a meal I have made, I feel less alone.

When I was younger, I had the reputation for being a horrible cook. I’m not sure where that came from – possibly because I was such a tomboy, or perhaps I went to great lengths to place that label on myself, finding it a source of pride for whatever rebellious adolescent reason. Maybe I didn’t want to try to cook because I was afraid of failure. It’s taken a while, but I am less concerned with the idea of something not turning out right now. Yes, there are some great cooking and (especially) baking disasters,  but I’ve learned that oftentimes a culinary mishap can be salvaged. And, even if it can’t, the process itself proves to be relaxing and enjoyable to the point where I can actually say, “I like to cook.”

What I tend to eat for breakfast/lunch and sometimes dinner too, if we don't go out.

What I cooked for myself in Korea; I bet it will be a staple during Portland winters.

A few days ago, Dave and I tried our hand at jackfruit carnitas. A friend of his had made them a couple of weeks ago, and he thought they were great; websites touted that this vegan option was indistinguishable from the “real thing.” For some reason, he advertised our experimentation on social media and a friend, who is an excellent cook, wanted to taste the results; the invite was given.

I followed the recipe almost exactly, and even consulted with a friend who is known to put together excellent meals to make sure the spice combination sounded right. Seven hours in the slow cooker, and the result was bland. In a knee-jerk reaction to fix things, I added too much chili powder, which created a paradoxical spicy-boredom. We warned our soon-to-arrive guests of the preliminary results. They didn’t care and I believed them. When they got to our house, the cook came in, tasted the concoction, and simply stated “needs salt.” One quick fix and things turned out well (his amazing contributions of ceviche and caipirinhas made for an amazing meal).

I wonder if school cooking classes can incorporate lessons on failure. The practice of trying, the experience of things not working out, and the trouble-shooting of solutions; learning to adapt to an unexpected outcome. When we teach a young person how to cook, we teach them more life skills than simply providing sustenance.