Monthly Archives: June 2014

Cooking à l’américaine

MaudEven before I met Maud I was trying to impress her.  If you don’t know Maud (rhymes with ode), you’ll just have to trust me when I say that she inspires that kind of behavior. I noticed her the first time all the parents were summoned to the kindergarten class attended by her son and my daughter. She’s French, and I tend to be drawn to foreign-born parents at my kids’ school; expatriotism inspires a kind of alert thoughtfulness that I enjoy in a friend. Plus the food tends to be better at their houses.

Yes, that’s an assumption I share with Europeans: that Americans don’t care about food.

As someone who does care about food, I was determined that this charming French woman recognize me as un-American, culinarily speaking. I had my first chance when we were both chaperones on a class field trip to the grocery store. As we ambled through Produce, I made some disparaging remark to my daughter about out-of-season peaches, in the tone of voice people use when they’re pretending to talk to their children, but really are talking to the grown-ups within earshot. (You’re right, dear; it is bad to cut in line.)

It totally worked. (Or possibly she didn’t hear me.) Eventually we began to cook for each other and then with each other, and over the couple of years we got to spend together before she moved back to France, I felt I put at least a faint question mark after America’s decidedly bad food reputation.

But I never managed to seem un-American to Maud, because of this one characteristic that is, like the grin that Americans wear on the streets of Paris, a dead giveaway: my cheerful embrace of the culinary shortcut.

Americans love shortcuts. This is a country where you can buy premade, crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the freezer section. Where you can buy frozen pastry dough or pre-baked pie crusts or graham crackers pre-crushed to make it easier to make a graham cracker crust. Or—screw it—just a pre-made graham cracker crust. And that’s if you don’t just go ahead and buy the pie.

In France, it’s true, if you arrive at someone’s house for dinner toting a beautiful tart, chances are you didn’t make it. They have experts to whom they cede special tasks like macarons and financiers and pain de campagne. 

But they don’t buy pie at the supermarket and sandwiches at the convenience store. (Convenience store! We even put it in the name!)

Since I personally don’t buy pie at the supermarket, I felt I had a right to honorary European citizenship. I make my own mayonnaise, for goodness sake! But I still love a shortcut. Anything that helps me cook, but doesn’t do the cooking for me. Pre-peeled garlic to make salsa. Egg whites in a carton to make buttercream frosting. Bags of chocolate chips and pre-toasted almonds for piles of double chocolate biscotti.

Oh, you don’t think of chocolate chips as a shortcut? Just ask Maud. Apparently, due to the small but perceptible drop in quality that occurs when chocolate is pre-chipped, almonds are pre-toasted, and spinach is pre-washed, you’re not going to find that kind of American-style shortcut in France.  They have standards to uphold.

On the other hand, American-style working-all-the-time is on the uptick. This leaves passionate French cooks (such as Maud) in a quandary: They have to do all the prep-work and the chef-work after getting home from work-work at 7. What are they supposed to do, eat at 10? Mon dieu, this isn’t Spain.

Obviously, French people need to live in America in order to cook like proper French people.

Right, Maud?

Process This

Lacinato KaleThe season of scratch-foodie bliss has begun! This morning Adam planted more tomatoes, more cucumbers, and some lacinato kale. Tomorrow morning, after I start some focaccia dough, I’m going to take my daughter to a local farm to pick strawberries. Or maybe we’ll go to a farmer’s market, where someone’s beautiful display of homegrown strawberries will pick us.

Wednesday night, however, we had hotdogs for dinner. Not even nitrate-free, certified happy-cow hotdogs. Ball Park. In store-brand buns.

I am certainly not the only parent who keeps hotdogs in the freezer for dinner emergencies. But the other things in my freezer—a gallon of pesto stacked in pints; home-rendered lard in ½ cup portions; homemade breads; blanched collard greens from last year’s garden—were doubtless appalled. How could I serve my family that processed crap?

I’m not going to argue with my baguettes. Cooking my own food—preferably from ingredients I (okay, Adam) grew—is best. Absolutely. Tastes best, feels best, best inspires a sense of mindfulness and gratitude. A person who bakes her own bread will not raise a child who refuses to eat crusts.

And processed food is the worst. It makes us as a society and as individuals sick and careless and wasteful. Who gives a crap about a half-eaten Happy Meal?

But I learned early in my career as a parent to be . . . flexible.

Fourteen years ago, as a righteous, well-read pregnant woman, I had been adamant about not using formula, to the point where I was incredulous that anyone ever did. As opposed to using food that’s free!?! AND healthier!?! AND more convenient!?! How did we all get convinced to buy something at the store instead?

Then I had my baby. And, for first ten days of his life, I couldn’t breastfeed him. He would latch on and get . . . nothing. My milk just didn’t come in. No matter how hard I tried I ended up breaststarving my baby. He lost weight. I completely lost my shit. He wailed and I sobbed, as new-mom hormones coursed through me (apparently bypassing my boobs).  My baby was hungry and I couldn’t feed him.

Except I could. A clever nurse had a plan: I taped a tiny tube from a tiny bottle of formula to my breast, so that when my baby sucked, he actually got fed. He also got used to suckling, and my breasts eventually got with the program.

After that, all my babies were mostly breastfed, until they all ate mostly homemade baby food. I mean, what’s so hard about mashing a banana or overcooking oatmeal? But when I couldn’t manage it—when I had to leave a jar of baby food for a sitter—I forgave myself. Watching my hungry infant finally get fed had cured me of scratch-foodie guilt.

Sometime in September I’ll be (garden willing) in a damp and dirty apron, sterilizing canning jars while cranking quarts of sauce through a food mill. I’ll have no idea what time it is. Then one of my kids will enter the kitchen carnage and, above the blaring music, casually announce, “I’m hungry!”

And I’ll do what any sensible foodie mom would do while putting up a year’s worth of tomato sauce: I’ll order a pizza.

School Bus + Train Tracks = ?

school busLena begged months ago for me to chaperone her final field trip of the year, and I agreed, not truly believing the day would arrive when I had to spend precious school hours shuffling through a damp cavern tour.

The day arrived. Parents had to drive our own cars, and we could meet at Howe Caverns or follow the buses. Lena wanted me to follow; she was worried I would get lost. I was worried I would lose my mind waiting for dozens of third-graders to settle onto their buses. I assured her I would be on time.

I was—along with a dozen other parents. But the bus wasn’t. We waited. And we waited. Parents kept arriving, including some who had started out following the buses, but then passed them. Where could they be? As the moments ticked by and the small talk faltered, I began to imagine all of us—the scrum of social moms, the scatter of silent dads, me and another mom marveling at the classic ugliness of the middle-of-nowhere Tourist Attraction—as characters in some awful short story that begins with snark and ends in school bus tragedy. I hate those ones that lure you in and then punch you in the gut.

The first bus arrived, and along with it, the story. The other bus—Lena’s bus—had been stopped at some train tracks when the lights started to flash and the crossing bar came down on its roof. With cars lined up behind it, and teachers inside it screaming, the bus managed to reverse just in time to miss an oncoming train.

Our children were now pulled over, waiting for the first bus to come back to get them.

We were told to expect freaked-out children, and when the bus finally returned with our precious cargo, we spilled out of the lobby and clustered in the parking lot, waiting to receive the sobbing crew, take them into our arms like the babies they were until very recently, and murmur reassurance into their ears.

Naturally they clambered out of the bus laughing and talking. “Finally!” was the first thing Lena said to me, in her best impression of an exasperated teen. And where was the bathroom? Courtney urgently had to pee.

Field trip ensued. The kids exclaimed at the stalactites and stalagmites and argued with the guide when he told them not to touch (“What if we touch it just a little?”). Over their heads, the parents talked about The Incident. Was the crossing faulty, such that the train arrived too soon after the warning signal? Was the bus actually on the tracks before it backed up? How close did the train come? Were the kids in danger or just inconvenienced?

That’s the question that comes up again and again for parents: what do you take seriously and what do you not? Although we’re pretty sure we’re going to mess up our kids, most of us are still anxious to minimize the damage. But which way is more damaging? I could shrug the whole thing off, sympathize with the hapless bus driver, lift an eyebrow at the fury of fellow parents. Not taking it seriously suits my temperament, but surely it does not always suit the occasion. In this case, it could make my daughter feel less safe, less protected, maybe even less loved. It could even—through my failure to take some action—put someone else’s daughter in danger in the future.

By taking it too seriously, though, I could turn something trivial into something traumatic. We’ve all seen a kid look to the parent to see whether a scraped knee is an “oh my god, sweetie, are you ok?” moment or a “you’re fine, honey” one. We all know how alarming a parent’s alarm can be. And, conversely, how soothing a parent’s nonchalance can be.

At the Caverns, I was in the dark: was this a big deal or was it not? Lena, though chatting and laughing, held my hand almost continually when we walked, and leaned her back against my front and pulled my arms around her when we stood still. But maybe she was just cold, because once we returned to the sunny outside, she ran off to do the “gem mining” (sifting through a bag of prepackaged sand for the “gems” within). Later at the picnic tables, she cheerfully pointed out all the great food the other kids had packed. “See Mom?” she said. “Now are you going to give me Pringles in my lunch?”

Meanwhile, the principal had arrived, and the social worker and a member of the crisis response team. They milled around for awhile taking our emotional pulse, and then the principal gathered us together and told us we could take our children home with us if we wished, but that there was a new bus and driver if we wanted our kids to go back to school as planned.

Lena rode the bus. First, though, she hugged and kissed me goodbye; when I left she was holding her teacher’s hand. At home, she was excited to tell her dad the news. But when I tucked her in that night, she said, “I wish our bus hadn’t taken a wrong turn” (which was how it had ended up at a train tracks in the first place). “It ruined everything.”

Did it? I asked. You had the same field trip you would have had, didn’t you? With a little extra wait? Plus you have a good story to tell. “That’s what Alison’s mom said,” said Lena. Well, at least I had some company in the nonchalance camp. I kissed her and left, as usual, with little ceremony. “Goodnight, baby. I love you,” and a flick of the light switch.

When I went back to the kitchen, I picked up Lena’s school folder to put in her backpack, and found a letter from the principal inside.

This morning on the way to Howe Caverns, our bus drivers accidentally made a wrong turn. In their attempt to turn around, the buses stopped at a railroad crossing. The bus drivers stopped before the tracks and followed all necessary protocols. While the bus was in no danger, the crossing bar momentarily touched down on the first bus. . . . 

In other words, “you’re fine, honey.”

I did the math. The principal had managed to get a letter into these kids’ backpacks in the ten minutes between their arrival back at school and their departure for home on their regular buses. The language of the letter said “no big deal.” The fact of the letter, on the other hand . . .

Maybe I should have given Lena a few more kisses.