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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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A Chance of Meatballs

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So I hadn’t cooked for a few months — dinners at the Ginger and Padraic O’Donnell house consisted of me working at my computer and snacking on Skinny Pop and Padraic, gracious and accepting of my flaws whilst being settled into more healthy routines — whipping up some scrambled eggs or roasted salmon or low key tomato sauce and pasta. But — my mother and father in law were coming for their second stay at our newish house, and gosh darn it, I was DETERMINED to make spaghetti and meatballs.

There’s a backstory here…

I like white noise when I work, so I often grade to the tune of Barefoot Contessa on YouTube, and I was smitten with the episode where she surprises her boss by making him something down-home and casual, and of course the best version of down-home and casual — a rocking plate of the best meatballs and homemade tomato sauce you’ve ever tasted, plus homemade garlic bread. (Actually, let me correct myself — I’ve probably never had a strong craving for spaghetti and meatballs, but from a cook’s perspective, I feel like meatballs combine the best of baking and cooking — instead of balls of dough, you’re crafting cute balls of, eh, ground meat, and laying them out neatly on a cookie sheet, plus the idea of spaghetti and meatballs, such a classic, stoked my enthusiasm… And, garlic bread, that I can eat for days…) I was also enamored with the idea of simply replicating an entire Barefoot Contessa episode, just following, which is a fun and delightfully brainless way of cooking that I often fail to consider.

So what started as a simple family dinner — my parents, my brothers, and my mother and father in law — quickly amassed into four pounds of ground meat and two loaves of ciabatta fit for a feast:

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I make sense of my impulse toward massive quantities of meat this way: First, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the passionate cook in me who has been lying dormant in lieu of what Padraic just today, on summer break, referred to as the “grog” — is that a word? I knew exactly what he meant — a sleepwalking state of grading, planning, waking up at 5:30 am, and then repeating that process for weeks on end. By god, I shall awake myself with copious amounts of Italian food! seemed to be the work of my unconscious. Then there’s the factor of in-laws-visiting-our-newish-home, and the internal pressure I felt to redeem myself after treating them to sloppy, mediocre Mexican delivery around a folding table when they visited in October — then, our very new house was a very slow work in progress, and my head was half in my work. Then there’s the factor of my parents coming over, as well as my brother, and this sudden feeling, “We live near my family now! By god, we should make memories! And entertain!” And finally, there’s the f— it mentality I have when called upon to make rough mathematical calculations — more is more, we have a freezer, and it’s easier to double a recipe than it is to one-and-a-half it.

The meatball event started with a trip to Bolyard’s Meat and Provisions, which I can’t help but tout since I am now a proud resident of the Maplewood corner of Saint Louis, formerly known as Maplehood and now dubbed Mapleweird. It was my first time visiting my local butcher, and look, I found this:

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And this! I envision my future nephew to be a hip little dude, if his older sister is any indication. So I figured he needs a fresh start in this world with a touch of the Mapleweird:

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Now commences the meatballing:

Ina Garten’s “Real Meatballs and Spaghetti”

Adapted & Doubled by Yours Truly

Serves a small army*

Materials

Big mix bowl
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Liquid measuring cup
Small bowl and fork for beaten eggs
Two clean hands
Large pot or dutch oven
Kitchen tongs
Several sheet pans (preferably rimmed)
Parchment paper
Paper towels
Can opener
Mixing bowls of various sizes
Two large skillets

Meatball Ingredients

3 pounds of ground beef
1 pound of ground pork
2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (I used Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread)
1/2 cup seasoned, dry bread crumbs
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup store bought fresh Parmesan cheese
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil
Olive oil

Sauce Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup red wine
2 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pasta Ingredients

3 pounds spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
Parmesan cheese

  • Dump the meat, bread crumbs (dry and fresh), parsley, Parm, salt, pepper, nutmeg, egg, and 1 1/2 cups warm water in a bowl. Mix lightly with your hands.
  • Line several sheet pans with parchment paper.
  • Using your hands, lightly form 2-inch meatballs and place them on the parchment. (Don’t be afraid to form solid, cohesive, meatballs than won’t break apart in the cooking oil. I took the injunction to “lightly form” a little too seriously and some of my first meatballs fell apart in the dutch oven. A deft but firm touch when forming meatballs…)
  • Pour 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup olive oil into a liquid measuring cup. Pour the mixed oils into a large pot or dutch oven and heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat. As the oil heats, cover a dinner plate in paper towels and place it next to the dutch oven on the stove.
  • To test whether the oil is hot enough, see if the oil sizzles when you add a meatball. If it sizzles, you’re good to go. Reduce the heat to medium-low and fill the pot with as many meatballs as you can, assuring that they have room to float around a bit. Let each batch of meatballs cook for 10 minutes in the oil, turning them regularly with your tongs. Drain the balls on yet another sheet pan lined with paper towels.
  • Once you have your small army of meatballs cooked, set them aside. Chop and measure out your ingredients for the sauce — chop your onions, garlic, measure out your red wine, open your cans of tomatoes, chop your parsley, and measure out your salt and pepper. Pour out the oil in your dutch oven or pot while pouring scalding hot water from the faucet down the drain at the same time. Then let the dutch oven or pot sit in the sink and soak with dish soap as you continue with the sauce.
  • Place two large skillets on two burners, side-by-side. Pour a tablespoon of olive oil into each, and heat it over a medium flame. Add half the onions in one skillet, half in the other. Sauté the onions until translucent, about 10 minutes. Divide the garlic and cook in each skillet for 1 more minute. Turn up the heat to high and split the wine between the two skillets, until almost all the liquid evaporates. Stir in the tomatoes (one can per skillet), as well as the parsley, salt, and pepper (divided into two skillets).
  • Divide the meatballs into the two skillets and let them simmer in the sauce on low heat for 25-30 minutes (or less, if you’re getting hungry).
  • Meanwhile, make 3 pounds of spaghetti according to package directions.
  • Serve, and grate a little extra Parmesan on top.

*Make this in two batches. You will not have pots and pans large enough to make it in one big batch.

While I’m at it, here’s Ina’s recipe for the garlic bread. I’m sure her recipe writing skills are better than mine. If you want to “adapt” it my way, just double it:

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This tale ends with packets of frozen meatballs doled out for days to grateful grandmothers, hungry neighbors, and one overstuffed husband. Meanwhile, I learned, a couple times, how easily frozen garlic bread thaws in the microwave, which translates to, send the garlic bread home with the fam next time. 

Despite the tight fridge space, the freezer bags, the monotony of one plate of leftovers after another, and probably a few other inconveniences, I learned that if food is love, and love and family go together, I have plenty of love to go around. Here’s to this guy, arriving soon!

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