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naming

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This is sassafras, which apparently makes a delightful root-beer-like drink that I have yet to try.

I love going off-roading and picking out plants. Especially the edible ones, because then I can add their location to the ever-increasing list of minutiae in my grey cells, and come back when their season hits. Oh, there’s a blackberry cane, I say to myself; wow, that is one colossal patch of garlic chives. I get a bang out of finding beeches, sycamores, mulberries, crab apples—trees people don’t tend to plant anymore because they’re considered messy.* I know them all well. To me, this isn’t just green stuff sticking out of the grass; it’s friends. I’m serious.

Walking through Huber Woods in Locust, NJ last spring, chill as a coconut granita, I thought of how many people I know who are uncomfortable in nature. I don’t mean uncomfortable camping, although the two probably go hand in hand. I mean just walking and bellyaching: ‘This is boring, is that poison ivy, what if a bug looks at me,’ etc.

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This is a pine tree, easy to discern from other evergreens in that its branches stick straight out like arms, parallel to the others.

Did you read the second book in the Wrinkle in Time series, called A Wind in the Door? In it, the characters are in a void and at risk of being ‘X-ed’—that is, wiped out, in Madeleine L’Engle’s cool vernacular. The only way they can be recovered is by what the author calls ‘Naming.’ Heroine Meg figures this out, calls by name everyone out of the void, and saves them all. The Naming re-integrates body, mind, and soul—makes them whole again.

And it occurred to me that I had practically grown up outdoors, and moreover had worked at Huber Woods as a naturalist, cuddling snakes, walking-stick insects**, and other assorted beasties. These things, once I knew what they were and learned about them, were as comfortable to me as the eight-year-old mint-green fleece I have on right now. If you know a lot about your surroundings, that makes a giant difference in whether you feel like a granita there, or as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

Names are powerful. If I can continue being a booky nerd for one more paragraph, let’s remember why John Proctor chooses to walk off to his death at the end of The Crucible.*** He’s happy to lie and say he’s a witch, as long as it’s verbally. But ask him to sign his name to the charges, and that’s where he draws the line. When you attach a name to something, that something gets imbued with power—sometimes for good, like in Meg’s case, or in ill, like in Proctor’s. He didn’t want his name, his very identity, stapled to a lie.

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These are tufts of coyote fur. I actually saw one trooping through Huber Woods one day. Told the rest of the nats and they didn’t believe me.

But the power of a name is good when it comes to nature. It gives us the ability to discern what’s around us, and can help us to relax. I think of earlier this year, when my friend Laura asked me to check the back of her property to see if she had any poison ivy. She wasn’t freaked out about it or anything; she’s just a gardener who’s out in the grass a lot, and was smart to want to know. And now she knows there isn’t any.

I love when my friend Lauren, a talented photographer, shows me a photo she took of a bird and asks its name, or gets excited when I name a flower she shot. She told me when she and her husband (a chef) go on hikes, her husband points out edible plants to their children, and often they all take a nibble. What a profoundly useful gift—to teach the kids to embrace the earth instead of to be afraid of it.

Bottom line: we’ve all gotten so detached from the earth that we have no idea what’s around us. Yesterday I picked wild crab apples and a little girl told me she thought they were cherries. Okay—she was three. Fair enough.

But an hour later an adult said the same thing to me. Cherries have a brief seasonal window, something like 2-3 weeks, in late spring. In other words, the adult was way off, and I’m sure it’s because supermarkets provide more or less the same produce all year round. I see this as a grave problem, and just goes to show I have a lot more work to do to educate. Not to spit in the eye of Madison Avenue (though I’m certainly not above it), but to re-acquaint, re-familiarize, and encourage people to see and feel and taste what’s growing in its own time. Because right now we’re lost in a void, and it scares me.

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These are wild strawberries (sadly, the ones without much flavor. Yellow flowers pre-berry denote no-flavor strawberries. It’s the white flowers you want for that incredible wild strawberry flavor. They’re my white whale).

On your next hike, take a reliable field guide with you. It’s cool, I’m telling you. Look up the plants and animals and birds you see. Name them.

And how wild would it be if you Naming them, getting to know them, getting comfortable with them, re-integrates us—helps to make us all whole again?

Or along with the field guide, take me along with you. You know I’d totally dig it.

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This is a groundhog. He and his ilk may look like Sherman tanks but they move like MiG-31 jets.

*Wow—made it to Sentence 4 before throwing in an editorial about today’s societal wussiness. Milestone.

**Hyperbole. I wouldn’t advise it. They’re really cute, but break easily.

***If you’re under 15 and haven’t read it in school yet: spoiler. Oops.

vintage birthdays

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From the days when birthday cards could be seasonal too. This is dated 1979.

I’ve worked lots of birthday parties for kids over the years—magician/illusion parties and face painting parties at different venues, cooking, crafts, and creative games parties at the JCC and parks system. They’re usually on a Saturday or Sunday, and parents of the miniature guests stay the entire time.

It’s a lot different from when I was little, when kids’ birthday parties were held at home for a couple of hours after school. In my case, my mom hired our favorite babysitter to help out with the games, and my aunts would walk over to help out. Moms dropped their kids off, and my friends wore dresses, stockings, and Mary Janes (we called them ‘party shoes’). We played games, then we opened presents, then we ate. Food was minimal; usually just cake, at the end, because we were only an hour or so outside of dinnertime. Done and over.

I can see the appeal of having birthday parties out of the house. First you have to clean the house, then you have the party, then you have to clean again; and that’s right after you organized games and cake and crowd control from 3:30-5. And more moms today work, and couldn’t do a weekday party even if they wanted to.

But I liked our way. Here’s why: If all of the kids today are having their parties at Gymboree, you’re signing up for a colored-blocked version of the movie Groundhog Day: the same party over and over and bloody over. There were no cookie-cutter parties back then, because the parents (usually the mom) took full reign on who and what to have at her house.

Years later my friends remembered the birthday parties I’d had when we were little, and I would bet hard cash that even today they’d remember. I was kind of famous for having the same game at all of my birthday parties. We lapped it up.

An October birthday is a pumpkin-theme requisite, and my mom either heard of or came up with the idea* for a pumpkin hunt, right in the house.**

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Even earlier–probably around 1977.

-First you buy as many sugar pumpkins as there will be guests at the party. Buy ones with stems attached. Place them in different locations throughout the house—up steps, down steps, into other rooms, around corners.

-Next, cut butcher’s twine in really long pieces—one for each pumpkin.

-Tie the end of one string to each pumpkin. Then walk each string to the middle of the living room rug.

-When you’re done, you’ll have a lot of string ends grouped onto the rug. Have each party-goer pick up one end of each string, and at the count of three have them follow it until she finds her pumpkin. There will be much bumping and limbo-style dodging and swerving and laughing.

-With a permanent marker, write the name of each guest on the underside of her pumpkin, and place them on the floor by the door. These are the party favors.***

One of my favorite specialty stores used to make the awesomest design for Halloween sheet cakes, and that was what I had for a birthday cake. It was the five little pumpkins sitting on a gate (like the Halloween poem we learned in nursery school****), in orange, green, and brown butter cream, all on a vanilla butter cream background. They still make their cakes and fillings and frostings from scratch, but regrettably, they don’t make that design anymore. One of these days I will recreate it myself.

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*And she reads this blog and has a memory like a steel trap, so she’ll let me know.

**You could do this outside, too, if you had a lot of yard and a sunny forecast.

***Or, if the kids are old enough and you have Xena-like powers of ambition, spread newspapers on the dining room table or outdoor picnic table, hand out smocks, and let the kids carve.

***I looked for a youtube video, but they’re all saying it wrong. This is the early 70s, Central NJ way.

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate.

The first one said, ‘Oh my, it’s getting late!

The second one said, ‘There are witches in the air.’

The third one said, ‘I don’t care.’

The fourth one said, ‘Let’s run and run and run.’

And the fifth one said, ‘It’s Halloween fun!’

WHOOO went the wind and OUT went the light

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

three trees

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I picked quinces from a lone tree on Route 35 yesterday, because this is what crazy people do in their downtime, and I have the oven heating up right now so I can bake my little tart crusts for them.

Let’s back up.

Last year around this time I took a jughandle* and ended up heading east on this same stretch of highway. Between two parking lots, one belonging to a repair shop and one belonging to a defunct Asian restaurant, I spied with my little eye a very weathered fruit-bearing tree. This is something that makes my heart race, and I have given up trying to figure out why. I didn’t know what the fruit was—it had a yellowish-green cast, so it was either pears, Golden Delicious apples, or quinces (all botanical cousins)—but by the time I had the opportunity to get back out there again, they’d all dropped and were gone.

Yesterday I went back, and they were so gnarled that even after I pulled them down I still wasn’t completely sure what they were. Either pears or quinces. Here’s 5-foot-3 me, jumping to grab equally gnarled branches to get a hold of the fruit as cars tear past me, their owners likely wondering what I’m smoking. I got six of them.

It wasn’t until they were in the warm car for a while that they gave me their name: quinces. (There they are above.) Swanky women in days past used to put quinces inside their dresser drawers; it was their version of potpourri. The quince and its cousins the apple and pear are in the Rose family. But unlike their cousins, the quince cannot be eaten raw.** You cook it in a sugar syrup with cinnamon, or in red wine. The flavor and aroma are exquisite, like an apple or pear that’s just returned from holiday on the Italian Riviera and is full of delicious secrets that it finally pens in its later years, then pokes into the fire. This is a fruit that most people haven’t heard of or seen, and it tends to be expensive. Oh, but not this time.

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Just ate one. Good stuff. I forgot to prick the dough (as you can see) before I blind baked them, so they came out more like flaky cookies than tart shells, but I can handle a flaky cookie.

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Next we have the fruits, literal and figurative, of a walk I took to the beach a couple of days ago. I have a modest apartment in the kind of town that manicures everything, even the lion statues that stand post at their driveways.*** Enormous 100-year-old seaside Colonials maintained within an inch of their lives. It’s nice, but I’m more comfortable with the rustic and unprettified. I found it without even looking, between two properties owned by summer visitors, just steps to the street. And that translates to The Apples Are Mine.**** They, along with the quinces above, are examples of unsprayed, unwaxed fruit—something else the average person doesn’t usually see. This is how fruit looked to our great-grandmothers.

And I was startled to find a bonus: a crabapple tree that had been grafted to this old apple tree.

Haven’t decided what to make with them yet, but they’re so fresh that I can take my time deciding.

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So there you have it: a blithe admission that I am not above foraging from abandoned or forgotten trees. Why should I be?

‘Wait, Maris—that’s it?’ says the observant reader. ‘You said three trees, and we know you’re crap at math, but…’

I didn’t forget. There’s one more: a persimmon tree, the only one I know of in my area. Today I went by to check its progress. Coming along nicely, don’t you think? ;)

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*It’s a way to turn around on NJ highways. Along with pork roll, makes out-of-staters scratch their heads at us.

**Maybe not ‘cannot,’ but if you did, you’d be sorry. It’s tough and astringent. Let’s say ‘you’re better off not.’ There.

***Maybe hyperbole, maybe not.

****And the deer’s. I was surprised to find scat under the tree, just a 1/2 block to the ocean. Amazing. Until about 3 years ago, I’d never ever seen a deer in my area, and certainly not so close to the beach. Times be changin’.

Ants in my pants yesterday, what with the rain and all. My brain felt like a pinball on the first day on summer vacation, if pinballs had that sort of thing. This went on all morning.

When the rain stopped, I did the only sensible thing: I put on a long white cotton dress, dusted plum eyeshadow onto my eyes, cheeks, neck, and shoulder blades, clipped a sheer organza curtain to my head as a veil, and trekked out to the Zombie Walk here in Asbury Park. I had a calling to be The Corpse Bride, you understand.

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This bride had cold feet. Cold everything, to tell you the truth.

It’s always mobbed there. Hundreds of people—adults, kids, dogs, all zombiefied. You don’t want to drive in if you can avoid it because often enough the zombies climb all over your car and you get stuck in the middle of the road.* I love seeing people I know, but it’s just as much fun goofing off with a bunch of strangers. Everyone’s being silly. People say and do things they wouldn’t typically do; it’s like we pull aside the sheer organza veil between the everyday and the whack and let ourselves go all upended. People driving by grin and wave at me and I do the same back because I forget I’m supposed to be freaky. It’s strange, this world we create for a few hours. Relaxing. And lots of boardwalk vendors offer zombie specials.

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I went in to the little shop and found a crock pot that the owners had filled with a gallon of apple cider. There was a small ladle resting on a saucer and three bags of little paper cups for us to use. It was lovely.

When I got home, the ants-in-pants thing had abated, so I changed into pajamas and dove into making fondant.** I made a lot of that years ago. It tastes nothing like the dreck from AC Moore, largely because it has milk and sugar and butter in it. The milk is sweetened condensed milk. Maybe you know of this substance and have tried it. Maybe you have the wherewithal to keep from spooning it out of the can and into your face without stopping. I am not blessed thusly.

Fondant, warmed and pourable, is the ‘icing’ that tops petits fours. But it’s also a proper candy in its own right. You can roll it into balls and dip it into yummy things. And you can shape it as long as you work quickly.

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Spatula’ed out of the bowl and onto a powdered-sugared scattered cookie sheet.

Once you make it up, you’re supposed to knead more powdered sugar into it. I will remember next time that heaping it as I did above is foolish, and covered my hands like so much Nickelodeon slime. Spreading it far and wide across the cookie sheet means more surface area touches more sugar. THEN you knead. Noted.

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Here it is containing almost as much sugar as a six-year-old on Halloween night, and ready for the fridge.

I learned a valuable lesson yesterday: if you can’t think straight and need a recharge, doing something insane is an excellent place to start. I’m still trying to get all of the mascara off. And I’m thinking the fondant would make a really cool present for someone if I can keep myself from breaking off pieces of it and eating it this week.

*I typed that with a straight face because it’s true. Someday I’ll live someplace normal.

**Still had the heavy plum shadow all over me. If anyone had looked in my kitchen window they’d think I needed a solid couple of days off.

it takes a village

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The wood-burning oven at Rafele.

You might say I made the most of my press pass.

Last Wednesday my sister and I, together with a handful of Australians, Brits, Canadians, and a pair from Sacramento, ate up most of New York City’s West Village. Sorry about that.

To be fair, it was the old Italian section of the Village, which at face value sounds as if we were among scuffling men in overcoats worn at the elbows, mourning loudly of Kids These Days, but it actually meant the district in which some of the oldest Italian specialty shops can be found. Which means good eating. But while Italian they may be, our tour guide Naheem pointed out, ‘Today we’re eating like Americans….We’re going to taste our way through it. Now for realsies, let’s go.’

My sister Amanda is the PR rep for Foods of New York Tours. She totally twisted my arm to bring me along on this odyssey*, which started with pizza.

There are 800 pizza places in New York City. We ate at one with a loyal following since 1975: Joe’s. One-ingredient sauce.** Dripless. Firm cheese. Pliant crust. Only four pizzas are baked at once. These are pizza requisites to those of us in the New York tri-state area, but to out-of-area/out-of-country/out-of-bloody continent patrons, what we call requisites can be sadly lacking. Amanda and I wept a little tear thinking of the crap that passes for pizza in other places, because we’ve eaten it, too.

I asked one of the Aussie ladies if the pizza at Joe’s was different from the pizza she gets at home, and her eyes widened and said, ‘Oh, yes–this is amaaaazing!’ I asked how it differed, and she said, ‘It’s not greasy.’

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Peripheral customers.

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The inside-outside counter at Joe’s.

Next we hit O & Co., the olive oil and vinegar purveyor. They do right by olive trees by harvesting their fruit without shaking the trees, and do not use heat to extract the oil from the olives (which destroys nutritional value, to say nothing of flavor). From little spoons we tasted a buttery, thick, late-harvest oil from Provence, then an early-harvest oil that tasted like crushed arugula. Fascinating.

Bread rounds smeared with Pecorino-Romano truffle cream came next, and as I stood munching on my little slice of fungi heaven I remembered that my sister is not a mushroom person. The hushed conversation went like this.

‘You’re grossed out. ”I’m grossed out.’

Cheap balsamic vinegar was next, and tasted like the kind of wedding wine you get in mini bottles with the happy couple’s name in Lucida Calligraphy on the label. It made my eyes water and got me on a coughing fit. The good-quality balsamic vinegar from Modena tasted almost warm, and was sweet, smooth and thick as honey.

We made an impromptu pop-in at Royce’ Chocolate, where we ate chocolate-covered popcorn, green-tea candy-covered almonds, and tiny squares of…I don’t know, but they tasted as if the pastry chefs made butter cream out of powerful milk chocolate, semi-froze it, dusted it with cocoa, and balanced it on a toothpick. A mouth-melter.

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The next sample, from Faicco’s, might have been my favorite, one, because it was the very first rice ball I’d ever had that didn’t taste like hot spackle; and two, because it was so wonderfully crunchy. No bigger than a plum, it was peppery, cheesy, and I need to stop thinking about it. Moving on.

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There. Now it can haunt on. You’re it!

Palma is the romantic little spot we visited next, and is inside a renovated old carriage house. The restaurant is in front, and the owners live in the back. It’s genteel; you can smell the genteel. Naheem joked, but nailed it: ‘You go in, you eat, you say you’re sorry.’

And the details—milk-glass and fat fragrant roses and paint that’s been loved off century-old cabinets. One whole room was sky-lit, and earthy elements of wood and stone and tile were everywhere. I loved all of it before we even ate. The owners make a point to offer dishes from small Italian cities, dishes people don’t usually get to try unless they travel there. When we ate it was from a platter of chopped cauliflower that was vinegary and delicious. And that’s true, I mean it; but that’s all I remember, because the notes I took were about the setting. It’s really that lovely. Go.

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I mean, look at this. A wooden farmhouse table with roses in little glass cups. We met the woman who cuts and arranges all of the flowers. And tiny, colored ceramic cups.

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Right?

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This was the door, heavy and marred and made more glorious with a wooden latch. I was ready to move in and sleep on the floor.

Rafele came next, where the chef/owner keeps the food pure and the setting comfortably homey. I’ve never been an eggplant fan; it’s usually over-breaded and as light as an insulated leather utility boot. But this rollatini was filled with buffalo ricotta and mozzarella that was like liquid velvet, and was delicate as a pappardelle noodle. The sauce was made from tomatoes grown on the restaurant’s Catskills farm.

Oh, may the industry’s current fancy with farm-to-fork cooking continue. There are a lot of things we can rightfully complain about in today’s world. This is not one of them.

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Rosemary, squash and painted piggies at Rafele.

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Plein-air artist. Came across a few of them. Natural habitat and all.

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This was wild—the entire facade of a teensy, triangular shaped locksmith’s place. All in keys.

If ever there’s something to leave room for. Milk & Cookies, a little storefront with a wallop of sweet smells, you are my friend. I’d been before. This time, we all got cookies right out of the oven: oat-based chocolate chip. Translation: hearty and fat.

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And butter-staining. Look, it’s smirking.

While we ate cookies, I asked another vacationing Aussie, a young redhead, if she liked the food she’s had in New York so far. She told me that she had a good slice of pizza outside Yankee Stadium (bit of a head scratcher, that), but didn’t like McDonald’s. I politely made a face and said, ‘You didn’t really expect it to be good, did you?’ Her boyfriend said that when they told their friends they were coming to the U.S., they all said they just had to go to McDonald’s. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘It’s all over the world. You’ve had it before.’ They said they’d heard the price was better here. And so it was. But they learned the difference between price and value, I suppose.

Cool little non-food side trips on the tour: This is one of the two alleyways leading out from 86 Bedford, also known as Chumley’s, the notorious speakeasy from Prohibition days (Naheem: ‘Where my Canadians at? That’s when you saved us from ourselves.’). When the place got raided, the cops came through the front door, the owners would yell ’86!’*** and the patrons would tear out the side entrances, into the alleyways, and scatter.

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This is one of the boot scrapers (for mud) on the front steps of many residences, and is a reminder that this area used to be very much the country.

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And this is a slice of spicy, firm-edged soppressata made in house back at Fiacco’s, a five-generation business. We were warmed to hear how this shop fed New York City’s bravest, exhausted and famished in the weeks after 9/11, and how those firemen come back every single day to support the shop. Community goes both ways, and it always will.

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Murray’s Cheese is an institution. I had never been. Place is massive. Cheese caves right there, cured meats drying behind panes of glass.

We were treated to several kinds of cheese (the white variety was very young and unpasteurized, and was so wonderfully, sweetly fresh tasting. It tasted like spring, if that’s possible), with a dried apricot chaser.

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Not a cannoli girl so much, but Rocco’s—43 years in business—did a pretty nice job of it. Everything in this sweet shop is made on site and by hand except for the sfogliatelle, for which we can give them a break. The cannoli shells were fresh and crispy, and the filling was not insipid pudding or icing but proper sweetened ricotta with citron.

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And baby chippies.

Happy exhale.

*Oh, like you just met me.

**Guess.

***This historic remnant is still in use today, when we say to ’86’ something. This needed to be explained to our out-of-town guests. They dug it.

as you wish

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Strawberry blueberry mulberry clafouti–a combination I threw in the pan one day, and now it’s my favorite.

I recently read Gaiman’s Coraline, in which a ballsy little girl outsmarts, outruns, and hands assorted monsters their rear ends; but this same little girl won’t touch anything her dad cooks.

I’ve been trying to make sense of Little Miss Paradox, and think I might have it: she doesn’t like that he cooks from recipes, that they always produce freakish chicken with tarragon or some such nonsense. This is a child who goes looking for adventure, and when she can’t find any, looks harder. She gets scared, she gets into trouble that’s far more whack than her dad’s chicken, she gets herself out of it, and she goes looking for it again. It follows that she wouldn’t want food made according to a set plan, dinner that’s made on a tidy little track going from Point A to B.*

My kitchen sees both, when it comes to me. I’m equally comfortable with a recipe and with winging it; and admit with zero shame that I have found trouble at the end of both wooden spoons.

On the other hand, there are those who are thrilled with a set plan. My octogenarian uncle had absolutely no problem having a weekly dinner schedule—precisely the same dinner on Monday, and another on Tuesday, and etc., for his entire marriage. When another elderly family friend goes to his favorite Italian restaurant, one that has been around since the 1940s, he gets the ravioli. And I mean every single time. Yet another family friend (gone now) had pizza every Friday night—the same kind of pizza, no less, and it had to be from the same pizza place—for decades. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s a male thing. I don’t know. But I don’t think so.

What makes a person choose recipes versus routines? And what makes others scoff at both?

*Neil, if you’re reading this, correct me. And ohmygod, hi. And wow.

the fix

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My mom’s potato salad with mayo, salt, black pepper, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pignoles, and fresh minced garlic.

Last week I dropped my old PC and new laptop off to the kids* at the Microsoft store to do a data transfer. I wasn’t worried about system withdrawal. So I’d be without a proper keyboard for a few days—so what. So substantial agita ensued, that’s what.

That’s the bad news. The good news, which came as a total shockeroo, was that suddenly I was wild with energy and ideas. I needed to be creating something, producing SOMEthing, all the time. So I hit the kitchen. When I was 90% finished with one recipe, I’d start thinking about what I was going to make next. I’m not saying it wasn’t manic, but I sure ate well.

I note, with some dismay, that I didn’t take pictures of too much of what I made. I don’t remember what happened all that clearly, but best guess, I was too busy eating it all. My reputation precedes me.

Here then, a list. Made all of this within 2.5 days.

-Watermelon-lime smoothie

-Carrot cake with a blop of yogurt cheese on top that I stirred some cinnamon sugar into

-Panzanella with local, organic vegetables: basil, onion, cucumbers, and tiny heirloom tomatoes

-Bourbon-spiked jalapeno ketchup (which has already graced many a turkey burger, and I have lots more)

-White-peach vanilla jam

-Fried zucchini blossoms (going back for more because I have a delirious crush on them, not least of which because I didn’t torch them this year, and am obsessing even as I type)

-Potato salad

I have my units back now. But I have more peach jam to make, as well as a quart of beach plums to pit and jam up as well.

The beat goes on.

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Carrot cake. I bought the carrots from the teenager at Silverton Farms who had just pulled them out of the ground and washed them–she handed them right to me.

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Local organic heirloom tomatoes, Red Bank Farmers’ Market.

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That red stuff between the onions and the cheddar? That’s my ketchup!

*The unvarnished truth.

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