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Monthly Archives: February 2017

On Writing, Raw and Slow-roasted

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple months ago, I met with a writer friend of mine for some advice about re-stepping into the freelance world. “I wouldn’t blog,” he said, in the form of a question mark, after a brief hesitation. I was asking him about the dilemma I encountered freelancing a couple years ago:

On the one hand, your blog tends to get the bottom pile, backlog version of your best ideas, which are saved for (potential) paid publication; on the other hand, after querying and researching and syncing your words with whatever brand you’re lucky enough to land that month/day/week, it’s like coming up for air to write whatever the hell you please for friends, or at least, friendly, generous readers who have formed a little community around your site.

On the one hand, blogging is something of a distraction from bigger projects that involve more risk and revision, requiring more gestation to discover what they actually are — I’m thinking of the collection of short stories I’ve decided to start for which this blog post, in part, is a thinly veiled form of procrastination.

Then again, there’s something life-giving and soul-soothing, and less narcissistic than Facebook, I think, about being able to scroll through your past reflections when you’re feeling down or disillusioned. In its simplest form, a blog is a record of experiences — like all writing, a confirmation that this “one wild, precious life” of which the poet Mary Oliver speaks is being lived with a measure of meaning.

If you’re still reading, thanks for putting up with all this navel-gazing about blogs. It’s part of a larger conversation I’m having with fellow teachers/writers about the role we want writing to have in our lives. I think it’s a conversation about focus, and meaning. It’s a conversation I find myself having with my husband, too, about where he wants to go with his passions for Irish fiddle and writing poetry, and what does it mean exactly to develop your passion? As I explained to my colleague at the brunch I blogged about last week, I’m realizing that freelancing for magazines here and there is edifying (hah) and fulfilling, in its own way, and I plan to continue that, but I’m finding that I crave a bigger project, one that’s born out of a desire to write for writing’s sake, whether or not the writing is published or paid for.

Which brings me to roasted vegetables… One of my struggles with the Paleo lifestyle is the same struggle I speak of with writing… This need for immediate gratification, and this reluctance to put in the damn time for something that is primarily created for, and consumed by…yourself. If blogs are raw carrots in the food universe, then surely my student Kumari’s manuscript — a fantasy novel about wolves that she has been writing for four years that her English teacher (ahem) encouraged her to revise (with my help, ahem) for another year before she submits it to a literary agent — is balsamic roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, my husband’s book-length files of poetry and extended essay on the meaning of organized religion is more green beans with onions, mushrooms, and peppers than ants on a log.

I write this to encourage myself, and any readers that I may have (hello! thank you for reading!) to take it slow, and pursue any passion project — with the patience and pureness of heart that passion requires.

Today I had the privilege of observing my students participate in a workshop by Antony John, a young adult novelist who happens to be a parent at the school where I teach. We are at the beginning of our short story unit, and I told my students I would write a short story with them. The two short stories I am in the process of writing for my “collection” are semi-autobiographical and deal with rather personal, adult themes, so I needed to start from scratch. Inspired by an article in the Feb 13 & 20 New Yorker called “Valley Cats: Are L.A’s Mountain Lions Dangerous Predators or Celebrity Guests?” I thought I’d put myself in the position of lion P-45, who has a cult following of sorts but keeps eating people’s pets.

To generate this idea, I, along with my students, all shared our favorite of 10 conflict-crisis-resolution formulas, but today Antony John steered us in a better direction: focus on character first. Events are secondary. (On Tuesday we’ll be drafting character sheets.)

When my student Sophia asked how to get unstuck when you’ve started a short story but don’t know how to finish it, Mr. John returned to the idea of character and embodying them like an actor to figure out what they would do. Also, he pointed out that that we often start short stories with an opening scene in mind, and figuring out the plot, aka, getting unstuck, involves working backwards: what events led to this opening scene?

Before the students came back from lunch, Mr. John and I had a brief conversation about the challenges of setting parameters for story writing versus poetry. I’m no more an amateur short story writer than I am an amateur poet, but I find short stories a lot harder to teach than poetry. He mentioned that his visit to last semester’s classes occurred two weeks before the election, and now, in the Trump universe, he’s been reflecting on the broad value of storytelling as a form of empathy. In that vein, he encouraged my students to draw on what they know, but to veer from the autobiographical and create composite characters.

This emphasis on empathy, and its heightened virtue in our narrowing, fear-mongering political climate, helps me justify the next few hours I’m about to spend on this Friday evening writing for writing’s sake, working on a character I’ve decided to call “Cora” who’s grappling with having children (or not) in a different way than I am, though I’m drawing on my own struggles. I’m going to let myself love on this unpaid, unpublished writing project with the same attention I gave to these green beans and brussels sprouts a few weeks ago:

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Green Beans with Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup white or yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms (any variety)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • 1 lb green beans
  • Salt and pepper
  • Ghee, or clarified butter

Instructions

  • Thinly slice the onion. Thinly slice the mushrooms. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips.
  • Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Place the ice bath in the fridge.
  • Salt some water and bring it to a boil. Blanch the green beans in the salted water for 20 seconds. Drain them and immediately plunge the beans into the ice bath.
  • Heat some ghee (clarified butter) in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and swirl to coat. Once the fat is hot, add the sliced onions, and cook until translucent.
  • Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften.
  • Add the peppers and cook until both mushrooms and peppers have softened to your liking.
  • Turn the heat to high, and add the green beans. Toss and stir the pan, cooking the green beans with the other vegetables for a few minutes longer.
  • Season the mixture to your liking with salt and pepper.

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Balsamic Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Ghee, or clarified butter
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Boil the vinegar and then reduce to a simmer — you want it to be reduced by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and chop your sweet potato, slice your red onion, mince your garlic, and trim and halve your Brussels sprouts. Then mix the chopped sweet potato with some melted ghee in a bowl. Spread it on the lined baking sheet.
  • Add some ghee to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the pan. When the fat is hot, add the Brussels sprouts and cook for a few minutes, allowing them to brown. Add the onion and the garlic for about a minute. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.
  • And the sautéed veggies to the sheet pan of sweet potatoes and spread everything out in an even layer. Roast for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the sweet potatoes and sprouts are tender.
  • Drizzle the pan of roasted veggies with the balsamic reduction.

Winter Brunch Menu

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Last summer I posted quite a bit about my experiment with the Whole30, a nutritional plan that is similar to Paleo: you’re supposed to eat mostly meat, vegetables, and healthy fats, along with some small servings of fruit. The idea is to drastically reduce your intake of sugar, only consuming sugar in its natural form (fruit). I got really enthusiastic about

eating the veggies

and

flank steak suppers

and

chicken with coconut curry

and I could go on… and maybe I will: since resolving to go back to a more Paleo-centered lifestyle a few weeks ago, I’ve dabbled more in tasty ways to make green beans and brussels sprouts, and I’ve fine-tuned my go-to-guac recipe. The results were pretty lip-smacking, so stay tuned for another Eating the Veggies post.

I did, vow, however, that when I entertain, I am allowing myself to create all the sugar and carb-laden concoctions I want. Aside from the joy of eating that stuff, it’s so much fun to cook! So here’s a winter brunch menu that I’ve put together for a few dear colleagues tomorrow on our day off:

  1. Baked Eggs with Tomatoes, Mozzarella & Oregano, from School Night
  2. Baked Parmesan Hash Browns
  3. Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones
  4. Winter Fruit Salad with Lemon Poppy Seed Dressing

Pantry Items Needed
(In order of each recipe)

  • Olive oil
  • 28 oz crushed or diced tomatoes
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • All-purpose flour
  • Granulated sugar
  • Baking powder
  • Unsalted butter
  • Baking spray
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Honey
  • Parchment paper

Grocery List
(In order of grocery store layout)

  • Yellow onion
  • Garlic
  • A bundle of scallions
  • Fresh oregano (or another fresh herb of your choice)
  • 3 firm pears
  • Bag of clementines
  • 4 Honeycrisp apples
  • 4 kiwis
  • 4 bananas
  • 3 large lemons
  • Pomegranate
  • Heavy cream
  • 1/4 lb fresh mozzarella
  • 1/2 cup grated Parm
  • A dozen eggs
  • Frozen hash brown potatoes — Simply Potato recommended
  • Chocolate chips
  • Poppy seeds

Mix the Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones and the lemon poppy seed dressing a day head.

I make smaller scones using this pan from King Arthur Flour. I find that this pan results in really fresh, moist tasting scones.

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Instructions, Scones

  • Generously spray your scone pan with baking spray. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  • Cut 6 T. of unsalted butter into small pieces and place in the freezer. Place 1/4 cup heavy cream in the refrigerator. Bring eggs to room temperature.
  • Peal and core pears. If you’re making smaller scones, like me, dice them instead of cutting them into chunks.
  •  Roast the pears for 20 minutes, until they are dry and slightly browned.
  • Slide the roasted pears onto a plate and place in the refrigerator to cool down to lukewarm. Turn the oven off.
  • In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whisk 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt together.
  • Add the cooled pear, diced butter, heavy cream and 1 egg to the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until the dough comes together.
  • Add 1/4 cup chocolate chips and mix for a few more seconds.
  • Press the dough into the well-buttered pan.
  • In a small bowl, whisk one egg with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt. Brush the tops of the scones with the eggwash. Then sprinkle them with 1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar.
  • Tightly cover the pan with foil and place in the freezer.

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Lemon Poppy Seed Dressing

  • Measure 3 T. fresh lemon juice and 3 T. granulated sugar into a bowl. Whisk together until the sugar is dissolved.
  • Slowly pour in 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, and 3 T. honey until everything is blended thoroughly.
  • Mix in 2 teaspoons poppy seeds. 
  • Transfer to this convenient salad dressing bottle and put it in the fridge.

Morning of…

  1. Bake the scones straight out of the freezer for 30 minutes at 375 degrees F. This is the time for large scones; I would check at the 15 minute mark to see if the smaller scones need less time to bake.
  2. While the scones are baking, prep the Baked Parmesan Hash Browns
  3. While the hash browns are baking, prep the baked eggs
  4. While the baked eggs are baking, prep the fruit salad

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Instructions, Hash Browns

  • Spray a muffin tin with baking spray.
  • Squeeze the frozen hash browns with paper towels to make sure they’ll get super crispy.
  • In a large bowl, mix the bag of dried hash browns, 4-5 sliced green onions, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 2 T. olive oil.
  • Spoon the mixture into the muffin cups and bake 45-60 minutes at 400 degrees F. until crispy.

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Instructions, Baked Eggs
(Serves Four)

  • Chop 1/2 the onion and mince 2 cloves of garlic. Open your can(s) of tomatoes.
  • Bring 8 eggs and 1/4 cup heavy cream out to room temperature.
  • Chop the mozzarella into 1/2-inch pieces.
  • Roughly chop the fresh oregano into 1/4 cup.
  • Set a saucepan over medium-high heat and add 2 T. olive oil. Let the olive oil warm up.
  • Add 1/2 small yellow onion and sauté until translucent. This may take about 5 minutes.
  • Add 2 cloves minced garlic and sauté until soft, about 2 minutes.
  • Stir in 28 oz diced or crushed tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.
  • Once boiling, reduce the heat to low, and simmer about 15 minutes until the  mixture is thickened.
  • Season to taste and set aside to cool.
  • Place four large ramekins (the cookbook specifies 4 1/2 inch ramekins) on a baking sheet.
  • Spoon 5 T. of the tomato sauce and 1 T. of heavy cream into each ramekin. Top with the mozzarella and the oregano, dividing them evenly.
  • Once the hash browns are done cooking, break two eggs into each ramekin and season with salt and pepper.
  • Bake about 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven — you want the egg whites to be opaque and the yokes set, but still runny in the middle. The eggs will keep cooking a little after you take them out of the oven.
  • Let cool slightly.

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Instructions, Fruit Salad

  • Peel and segment 8 clementines
  • Chop 4 apples
  • Peel and dice 4 kiwis
  • Peel and dice 4 bananas
  • Cut pomegranate arils out of large pomegranate
  • Combine in a large bowl and top with dressing

Enjoy! Here’s to brunching on your day off.

 

 

The Meaning of Michelle

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My response to the tornado of events precipitated by the Donald Trump administration has been one of occasional action and full-fledged nostalgia.

On the morning of inauguration day, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a picture of my friend Allison and me on a crowded, neon-lit Michigan Avenue the night Barack Obama was elected. We were wearing Yes We Can Change shirts featuring a tight-lipped, determined Barack Obama, and we held each other with glowing, teethy smiles.

I re-watched YouTube videos of Barack Obama casually chuckling at the potential reality of Donald Trump becoming president, when asked on CBSN one year ago. I indulged in a second viewing of President Obama roasting Donald Trump at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I pinned images of Michelle in glamorous, curve-hugging, shoulder-draping gowns at state dinners. 

Then I called and tweeted some congress people, donated some money to the ACLU, patted myself on the back, and visited Amazon to order The Meaning of Michelle, a series of personal essays about Michelle Obama’s legacy.

The first essay I read was “She Loves Herself When She Is Laughing: Michelle Obama, Taking Down a Stereotype and Co-Creating a Presidency,” by Rebecca Carroll. Having just finished Their Eyes Were Watching God with my American Lit class, I was curious about the comparison Carroll makes between Obama and Zora Neale Hurston.

Carroll writes that Michelle is the “embodiment of what black American writer Zora Neale Hurston meant when she wrote: ‘I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.’” I think what she means is that both Michelle and Zora are/were both resolutely themselves in the public eye, which, as Carroll writes, was “no small thing for a Black woman in the 1930s, and sadly… no small thing for a Black woman in the 2000s either.” Carroll argues that Barack Obama, struggling to find his place as a biracial black man with an unconventional upbringing, was attracted to Michelle for the very reason that she was grounded in her blackness, and fully immersed in it. Carroll identifies with the former President’s longing for this grounding partner, growing up as a “Black adoptee in a white family.”

In “Lady O and King Bey,” Brittney Cooper writes of the “mutual girl crush that Michelle Obama and Beyoncé share.” Cooper points that Michelle, as First Lady, had an opportunity to reclaim something that black women are often denied:

“In a world in which Black women were always treated as women but never as ladies, a Black woman becoming the icon of American ladyhood is a triumph of the hopes and dreams of all those race ladies of old.”

Given the significance of Michelle Obama’s ladyhood, her public admiration of Beyoncé implies that she also lays claim to another version of black womanhood, one characterized by body confidence and sex appeal, and also a taking of pleasure in “flouting the rules of social propriety.”

For example, when Beyoncé performed “Formation” for the 2016 Super Bowl, critiquing “anti-Black state violence” and wearing costumes with a sartorial nod to the Black Panther Movement, Michelle told Gayle King in an interview, “’I care deeply about the Halftime Show. I hope Beyoncé likes what I have on’ [She] was dressed in a black blouse with black slacks.”

Super Bowl aside, I can imagine there have been many times Michelle may have wanted to channel Beyoncé in “flouting the rules of social propriety.” For example, when “Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin remarked that Michelle Obama had a ‘big butt,’ and thus no business leading the Let’s Move! Campaign,” as Cooper writes. In explaining Michelle Obama’s need for Beyoncé, Cooper writes that

“sometimes ratchet is a more appropriate register in which to check your haters than respectability will ever be. But overtly ratchet Mrs. Obama simply cannot be. Beyoncé can be as ratchet as she wants to be though, and in this, I think the First Lady finds a place to let her hair down and put her middle fingers up.”

According to Cooper, the friendship between Michelle Obama and Beyoncé is both remarkable and “regular as rain,” or rather, “reign.” Their friendship is a testament to the fact that:

“The U.S. is no nation for Black women. It is too limited a container for the magic we bring. And because the American national imaginary is built on the most limited and stingy ideas about who Black women get to be, when we are called to navigate the terrain of racial representation as public figures, many sisters return to the most basic truth we have – we need each other to survive.”

In “Becoming the Wife,” Cathi Hanauer identifies with Michelle’s willingness to set aside a prestigious career to become “Mom-in-Chief.” When Hanauer met her husband, she was an established writer looking to do “something more meaningful” by applying to an MFA program. Her would-be husband was a struggling writer working odd jobs as a ski instructor and a janitor. He eventually became the editor of The New York Times’s Modern Love column, a wild success, as Hanauer gradually increased her role as primary parent and homemaker.

In Michelle Obama’s case, as is widely known, she was Barack Obama’s mentor before she became his helpmate. After she married Obama in 1992, they lived “separate professional lives”… up to a point. As Hanauer writes,

“What did change, work-wise, for Michelle – as it did for me, and as it does for so many college-educated women, particularly once children are involved – is that we both reached a point in our lives and marriages when we agreed to become… The Wife – as our husbands took on the more important and lucrative work role. We did this for the greater good of our marriages, our families, and in Michelle’s case, the world; and maybe even, as mothers, for ourselves. Michelle became Mrs. President. And I became Mrs. Modern Love.”

There’s something refreshingly real about the way that Hanauer frames the choice to become the wife, the helpmate once children enter the picture – that it’s a choice borne out of practicality, human limitations, a humility in not demanding oneself to be everything to everybody. This willingness to inhabit a prescribed role, and a traditional, non-glamorous one at that, seems like a matter of maturing for the younger versions of Michelle and Cathi, embarking solo on their careers with Plans – at once laser-sharp and limitless.

When I mentioned this essay to my husband, he said that the notion of success, in his view, has evolved from sacrifice to achievement. We used to judge women, and to an extent, men, by how much they had sacrificed for others, whereas we judge them now by their individual solo accomplishments. I think one of the reasons Michelle Obama is so popular is precisely owing to the amount and quality of her sacrifice, for her children, for her husband, for her willingness to make her motherhood and wifehood public, assuming a role that seems both demanding and tedious. This feeling of admiration and gratitude doesn’t confer as easily onto Barack Obama, as his public sacrifices seem tied up with his personal ambitions.

And then, in spite of our admiration, there’s a collective instinct to see Michelle pursue her ambitions, full-force. Ironically, perhaps, this is how Hanauer ends her laudatory essay on becoming the wife:

“I can’t wait to see what she does next. And what she does after that, when her children are grown and she can focus with far fewer distractions on her career. She has said she’ll never run for president herself. To that, I say: Never say never, Michelle. Let’s just see where we all are a decade from now.”

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