On Worry, Creativity, And Being/Having Enough

Balls. From Storm King. Balanced, unlike myself.

I am a born worrier.

I haven’t met a problem I can’t make exponentially worse by thinking too much, too hard about it.

As I start this blog, it’s November 7th, and given the way I work at my mercenary writing (how long it takes and how I budget my time), I could be done completely for the month by November 15th.

But I am WORRIED.

I worry it won’t be done, even though I have never missed a deadline.

I worry it won’t be any good, even though my clients are 100% satisfied and, at this point, obtained strictly from word of mouth for a steady income.

I worry I won’t make enough money every month, even though my total fixed expenses every month are less than some people’s car payments, and I was able to save enough money to send my child to France for a year (and pay off two credit cards) in six months last year. I can’t retire anytime soon, and I won’t be buying a Maserati, but since I don’t care about either of those things, it doesn’t really matter.

I worry.

It should be the first thing listed on the “About Me” section of this website, my skills on my CV, and my LinkedIn profile. I am, after all, a professional.

But what an incredible burden, the fact that I must, for everyone else’s sake, hold all of the worry and woe of the universe on my puny shoulders. That sounds histrionic, yes, but as Celie says in The Color Purple, sometimes it bees that way.

Sometimes I carry the burden of other people’s woe instead of tending to my own. It’s both a selfless act and a crutch. If I worry about other’s people shit, I won’t ever really have to address my own.

I won’t have to open up.

I won’t have to risk failure.

I won’t have to see the shadow.

The problem here is that eventually everything catches up with me, and I find myself in a situation that I have woven out of my own desire to not only care for other people but perhaps to not really care for myself.

It seems to me that female artists are destined to fail at either relationships or the pursuit of their art; they cannot have both (unless you are Frida Kahlo who was married to a serial cheater and a narcissistic fuck of a man who also happened to be grievously talented).

If you make art as a woman, must everything else fall by the wayside?

If you are in a happy relationship as a woman, must art then be put away as if a childish thing now that you are taking care of others?

I am not good at balance. I don’t know where the middle is.

I don’t know how to balance meeting my own needs with meeting the needs of others in my life.

I don’t know how to make mental and emotional space for the creative part of my life when I become engulfed by planning, scheduling, and otherwise coordinating the running of a household.

And then, of course, no one’s needs are met because who wants anything from a person who is visibly miserable, cranky, and generally hard to live with?

And that burden, too, becomes placed on my shoulders.

The challenges of a blended household are not to be trifled with, especially when there is so much history behind the two adults trying to do the blending. A dead spouse is no small matter, but a still-living spouse staring down the barrel of a dead 25-year relationship is no small potatoes either. What happens when children are added from both sides of that unlucky wooden nickel is nothing short of nuclear.

I often say that parenting is the worst best job, but really, if we are being honest with ourselves, which we should always try to be, parenting is pretty much just the worst job. The hours are long and arduous, the task itself thankless and neverending, and the end result completely up in the air – you can do the best you know how and it still not be enough.

Add to this, the age of 17.

I thought 15 was a bitch, but I had not yet met 17. In the rosy blush that comes with an ocean between us and a year abroad for The Child, I assumed she and I had moved past what 15 had wrought upon us (actually, 15 1/2 to around 16 1/2).

I assumed incorrectly. And that, too, feels like my fault. Heartbreak.

What wine pairs well with a dearth of creativity? The demons of relationships past? A child who is struggling?

Here is where I would segue into a recipe, but it’s hard to think of food in times like these, especially when the story that comes before the recipe isn’t lovely and filled with exclamation points.

I have said often (including here in this blog) that food is the way that I show my love for people, that if I am cooking for you, I must be caring for you. But food is also a comfort to me in a less usual way. It’s the place where I find solace, and the place where I have always been able to nurture some form of creative practice, even when the words dry up or are too painful to put on paper.

When I was in the first days of setting up my own household as an 18-year-old, I started the ritual of completely stocking my pantry and my bar on December 31st. I have been poor for most of my life, but when the last day of the year rolls around, I still take what I have and stock up to give myself the feeling of enough.

Because really what is lacking in this entire conversation about worry and balance and heartbreak is the feeling that I am, all on my own, enough.

I can fabricate that feeling in myself with a stocked freezer, pantry, and bar cart. It’s visible proof of enough. External proof, to be sure, but proof in its own way.

For this purpose, one of the things I like to make is crackers. I eat them warm straight from the oven.

They won’t make the road we are on smooth, with straight, even lines and clearly marked directions. They won’t make my relationship with my child go back to what it was before 15 1/2.

But they are easy to make and eat when the world inside and outside of the house is overwhelming and too much. And sometimes that is enough.

Everyday Crackers

Ingredients
3 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour blend (you can also use store-bought GF flour, or regular AP)
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
4 T. olive oil
4 T. butter, frozen and grated
1 cup water
Add-ins: 2 tsp. fennel, 2 tsp. sesame seeds, ¼ t. cracked black pepper, toasted and cooled

Method
Preheat oven to 400⁰. In the bowl of a food processor, combine dry ingredients (including add-ins). Pulse to mix. Add olive oil and butter, then pulse to mix (the mixture will resemble cornmeal). Add water and mix until dough comes together. The dough will be sticky.

Pick your cracker shape.

Shape 1 (huge time saver): Turn out half the dough onto a floured surface. Roll to approximately 1/16” thin. Cut into squares with a bench scraper or pizza cutter. Proceed as below.

Shape 2 (rustic crackers): Working the dough as little as possible, pinch a bit of dough out of the food processor (approximately 1/4” balls). Place on the cookie sheet. Pinches of dough should be an inch apart. When you have filled the cookie sheet, lightly flour the flat bottom of a glass (or a measuring cup, or anything flat), and press each pinch of dough to 1/16” thick. The thickness is not as important as evenly pressing the dough is; uneven crackers will brown on one edge and not the other.

Poke each crackers three times with a toothpick (this is important!).

Place cookie sheets in the oven and bake for a total of 12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through for even browning. Remove immediately from cookie sheets and cool on a wire rack. These crackers will stay fresh in an airtight container for three days, but you can pop them in a hot oven for a couple minutes to re-crisp if necessary.

Recipe notes

  • Oven temperatures vary and can greatly affect your outcome. Keep a close eye on your crackers, especially towards the end, to see if modifications to the bake need to be made.
  • These crackers can also be rolled out and cut into rectangles or squares with a pizza cutter. Toppings should be pressed into the rolled out dough so they don’t all end up on the counter (or the floor). Try to work quickly and not handle the dough too much.
  • Between batches, place the dough in the refrigerator.
  • Use all olive oil instead of butter to make these vegan. They may be slightly tougher.
  • Topping options are nearly unlimited, and you can also add fresh herbs into the dough when you add the water.
  • For a most delicious variation, add the zest of two lemons, ½ cup of dried blueberries (no sugar added), and 1 T of chopped thyme. Makes a beautiful, subtle, purple cracker. Serve with soft cheese.
  • These crackers can be made in a large bowl without a food processor. Work the dough as quickly as you can, and make sure all ingredients are incorporated.
  • For easier clean up, these can also be baked on parchment paper.
  • Store crackers in an airtight container. I have had them for as long as a week with no loss of texture, but I ate them all before I could experiment further.

 

 

A Balm For Memory Loss: Smith Island Cake

Only six layers. I know, I know.

For someone of my age this may seem an overly dramatic statement: I am losing my memory.

For the record, I am 46, born in 1971, so just a shade away from 47 which is officially the late 40s but I don’t really care.

What I care about is that I cannot remember things.

Part of this is a car accident when I was 16. I can remember THAT: staring up through the spiderweb of the windshield, one leg on the driver’s side of my dream car, my 1971 refurbished Volkswagen Bug, the emergency brake raking open a long, bloody seam up the back of my left thigh, and the rest of me in the passenger side. An EMT with a shaky voice, tending to a cut on my head, saying, “It’s fine. You’ll be fine,” and then nothing until the vision of my mother storming through the curtains in the ER, brusque: “You’re fine. You’ll be fine.”

The doc, several weeks later, telling me that my memory would be affected forever by the early trauma to the frontal lobe.

Part of this is other trauma in childhood, some of which I remember and am addressing with My Therapist, some of which I believe is so deeply buried that the excavation itself would cause trauma.

Fast forward decades, when this – this memory loss thing – wasn’t really an issue, to now, when it has suddenly become one.

I can’t remember shit.

Not the funny, old-timer CRS (Can’t Remember Shit) disease.

Whole swathes of my life, gone with no real understanding of what happened or where they went.

Me in a formal dress next to a boy in formal dress: no idea the occasion or the boy.

Yesterday – what I did, where I was.

Some of this can be attributed to the lifestyle of a freelance writer. I have only one real standing appointment every week; otherwise, the days are all meaningless, fabricated markers of time. Other of this can be blamed on my Ayurvedic dosha – vata – which has me consuming large quantities of information and then promptly forgetting it.

But this loss of memory is distressing.

I can’t remember significant events in my life, events that make me the person who I am. Events that have forged relationships with people I love.

The thing that has saved me in many ways is my friends.

In my head, I call them the Keeper of Records.

I have friends who have known me for forty years- they have a grave responsibility to recall the child that they thought I was to the adult I am now.

I have friends who have only known me since this move back to Baltimore in 2014. They have less responsibility, perhaps, but they also have less invested in me. Perhaps they will grow weary of reminding me of their important dates, or nudging me towards our shared memories that are even now, just these few years on, receding.

It’s hard to go on record like this. It feels like failure.

And nothing soothes that feeling better than baking, and eating, cake.

Full disclosure: I have never before eaten Smith Island cake.

#Shocking

As a native Marylander, this is also something of a failure, but I choose to let this one go. I am letting it go because as I type this I am having a big slice for breakfast, which means not only am I not a failure in the long run, but I am also a fucking grownup who can eat cake for breakfast if I feel like it.

Plus, as I was researching this recipe I found out that the one lady on Smith Island who is super famous for her “authentic” Smith Island cake uses BOXED CAKE MIX.

GTFO. That’s just DUMB.

So I looked deeper and found the “original” recipe from Frances Kitching, an innkeeper on Smith Island who is believed to have created this iconic cake. This lady is the real deal; from her linked obituary, she delivers gems like:

“The best thing you can do to a crab is let it be. Clean it, fry it, and watch that it doesn’t pop in the skillet and burn your arm.”

And, when someone asked if they could keep their beer cold in her fridge while they ate:

“You’d be the first. I have simply turned down some people who appeared to have been drinking when they came here to eat. They were in no condition to enjoy and appreciate good cooking.”

The New York Times even stopped by her inn in 1979 to write a story about her. The article is notable in its description of not only the meal the writer enjoyed but also in the beauty of the descriptions of life on Smith Island.

In 2008, Smith Island cake became Maryland’s state dessert. You will note in the description that in order to be a Smith Island cake proper, flavor doesn’t matter, but the number of layers does: between eight and 12 is the standard.

So don’t look too closely at the picture above (hint: mine only has six, but in my defense I was feeling a little woozy when I made this AND it’s my first one AND I am not actually particularly fond of crepe cakes, which is what it begins to be when you have too many layers, so BACK OFF).

Never you mind the layers. I am calling it a Smith Island cake that cannot count. The next one will come correct.

But in the meantime, back away from the boxed cake mix and use Frances Kitchings’ own recipe, as I did. I subbed out my gluten-free all-purpose flour blend, and it was, as usual, spot-on.

And also, for those of you following along at home, this little thing happened:

I wrote this.

Chad and I have been working on The Food Market {at Home} for nine months (my name is on the inside: “Written with Suzannah Kolbeck”), and it came out on Black Friday. You can order it online, or you can get it at either of his two restaurants, The Food Market in Hampden and La Food Marketa up in the county. I am not shilling this because I make any cash on the deal (I don’t), but it’s a nice big deal, and I am proud of the work.

There is even a recipe for Smith Island cake in here, Chad’s interpretation with a crazy good strawberry-flavored whipped cream cheese filling, microbasil, strawberry dust, and dehydrated strawberries. You, too, can get fancy at home (without too much fuss – seriously).

 

 

Slow Down. Open Up. Wait.

From Storm King. The first of probably many different photos I will sneak into these blogs. Just a heads-up.

It’s the first few cold days here in Baltimore, so cue the inevitable references to the busy time of the holidays.

It’s less than a month until Thanksgiving, which means it’s less than two months until Christmas, which means it’s about to get primal in the Target over the last (fill in the blank) holiday toy.

I’m not buying it. Literally.

I am done with buying dumb shit for people who don’t need it. I have no interest in scurrying around to fulfill our country’s image of what the holidays are supposed to be.

But more importantly, I am not buying the conceit that the holidays are filled with merciless and driving good cheer, buoyed by copious amount of holiday punch and $5 trinkets from the White Elephant gift exchange.

Truthfully, I dropped the pretense of the picture-perfect holiday years ago, maybe around the time when I was younger and my brother and I told each other what the other was getting for Hanukkah and then it sucked a little, opening our presents, because we both already knew.

It may have taken me a little while to really exorcise the holiday demon because Dane was a huge fan of holidays and had an image in his head about what they should be, complete with overspending and overcommitting to holiday celebrations.

But this is not about that.

As the light fades from the sky and the darkness and cold return, I am starting to pay attention more.

Turn in.

Slow down.

How often do we grant ourselves permission to be deliberate? How often do we actually choose to consider what we are doing instead of simply walking through one big, long, knee-jerk reaction of a life?

What a gift it would be if we really paid attention to the people in our lives – close up and far away.

What if we slowed down enough to hear their hearts beat? To listen to them with both ears and our own open hearts?

I am not talking about sacrificing yourself on the altar of But They’re Your Family or Deep Down, They Really Love You.

I am talking about being deliberate and intentional with your chosen family – blood or otherwise – as a meditation, of sorts.

I am not here to give you suggestions about how to do this with your family.

Today, I am not even here to give you a recipe (although here is a really fucking delicious drink, plus some meditations from Wendell Berry, and here is some delicious food. That shit is so seasonal).

Today’s message is simply this: Slow down. Open up. Wait.

Let me know how it goes.

VisionQuest: Pumpkin Risotto With Chipotles In Adobo

Looks can be deceiving.

For my entire life, I have been nearly blind.

Since second grade my eyesight has been rapidly deteriorating, due in part, I believe, to a lonely childhood spent reading in near darkness and moving cars for hours on end.

My dad used to pick me up from school early (once a week? Once a month?) to go to an eye doctor who would give me eye exercises that I wouldn’t do. For me, this time with my dad was a good excuse for both of us to get forbidden mint chocolate chip ice cream from the High’s store in Meyersville and spend a little time together. The eye doctor really did seem like the perfect ruse to get more ice cream, especially since the only result was ever-thickening eyeglasses and an eventual prescription for contact lenses that I frequently lost, way before disposables and much to the chagrin of my parents.

As I have gotten older, my eyesight has changed so that now I can not only not see things that are far away, but I also can’t see things close up.

To wit:

my·o·pi·a
(mīˈōpēə)
noun
nearsightedness; also lack of imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight

and also:

hy·per·o·pi·a
hīpəˈrōpēə
noun
farsightedness

It’s a metaphor, y’all.

Not only have I spent my lifetime being blindsided by things that I never saw coming, but now I can’t even see what’s right in front of me.

It doesn’t even matter if a tree falls in the forest. I can’t see the forest OR the motherfucking tree.

It’s hard to reframe this stunning lack of clarity. I could break the words down to their parts: hyper = “beyond,” but myope means “shut”, so that ruins that attempt at positivity (off topic, a word I loathe and which I am not 100% convinced is actually a word).

I could envision myself walking through a softened landscape, all pleasant and blurry, like a vaseline-smeared Summer’s Eve commercial.

Mostly, though, I just feel dumb and perpetually set on my ass by things that happen, both large and small.

Thoughtfully, my inner voice confirms on a regular basis that I am, in fact, a total fucking moron. After all, “lack of imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight” is a feature of myopia. So there’s that.

But still.

We all of us walk around thinking how what we see is a confirmation of what we know. We rely on sight, that dumbest of all of the senses, to provide the most vital of information. But our vision is constantly changing, and it’s a known fact that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable – the weak instrument of their eyes processing what is seen through the filter of their feeling and experience so that what they saw isn’t often what actually happened.

There is this thing in psychology whereby people recount their traumatic experience to help others heal, referred to as “bearing witness.” In this process, we share what we feel, not what we see, in order to lighten our load and to help others work through their own traumatic events. Psychologists believe that this practice not only helps patients heal from horrific experiences but also helps a community offer empathy and support.

When someone gets up on the witness stand, they talk about what they (think they) saw.

When someone bears witness, they recount their feelings and experiences.

In the first case, it’s nearly impossible to get right.

In the second, no vision – myopic or otherwise – is necessary.

Art is like this also, even the visual kind. Yes, it’s a medium seen with the eyeballs, but painting can provoke wildly differing reactions, like triggers. Same with literature, music, etc. It’s the feeling part of the experience, the experience of the viewing and everything that the viewer brings to that experience, not the projected upside down mirror image that the brain processes that is the thing.

When I am asked if I would rather be deaf or blind, I pick deaf 100% of the time because OH MY GOD MOUTH NOISES, but in thinking about sight these days and what it means to really not see something coming, I don’t know if it matters one way or the other. If I get surprised constantly anyway, perhaps it’s time to stop looking for things and just get on with the business of feeling them.

Experiencing them.

In the same way that what we see is often not what we get, risotto doesn’t look like much. My Particular Friend commented once about how it always looks so unassuming, this plate full of rice, until you fork some up and experience it firsthand.

This risotto is definitely like that.

First of all, it is the most basic of fall flavors – pumpkin – but if you find that objectionable you’ll have to build a bridge and get over it (see Recipe Notes). Then a little warming spice and some salty cheese. This isn’t just the plate of rice that you see at the top of this post. You will just have to experience it for yourself.

Pumpkin Risotto With Chilis In Adobo

Ingredients

6-8 cups vegetable stock

Splash of olive oil

1 medium onion, diced small

Splash cooking sherry or white wine (1/4 cup? ish?)

2 cups arborio rice

1/2 cup pumpkin purée (see Recipe Notes)

1-  2 T puréed  chipotle in adobo (see Recipe Notes)

Optional: 2 tablespoons butter

Cotija cheese (for serving; see Recipe Notes)

Method

Place stock in a pot and warm to near boiling.

Heat olive oil in a pan and add diced onion; season with salt and pepper. Sauté until nearly translucent, and then add arborio rice and toast, stirring constantly. Toast until rice is light brown and begins to release a nutty fragrance.

Add a splash of sherry or white wine and stir until the wine is nearly gone.

Add heated stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly. Don’t cheat, and don’t listen to that “no-stir” risotto bullshit. It’s bullshit. Stir your rice.

Keep adding stock and stirring until just before rice reaches al dente. You can test this by tasting, but another way is to take one grain of rice and smear it on a cutting board. The rice should smear away except for one little white speck in the middle. That’s al dente. Stop just before that.

Add pumpkin purée and adobo purée and stir until fully combined. Continue adding stock until rice is al dente, and then remove from heat and stir in your (optional) two tablespoons of butter (leave it out and this dish is vegan, without the cheese). Season with black pepper and a little salt.

Crumble cotija and serve. Also optional to add a little fresh cilantro.

Recipe Notes

  • I use vegetable stock because I am cooking for a vegetarian, but chicken stock works fine.
  • A word on pumpkin puree: I used this because I had leftover from a batch of ice cream, but you could make your own butternut squash purée or even use tiny diced cubes of sugar pumpkins or butternut squash. This is largely a matter of preference and time.
  • No one knows what to do with a huge can of chipotle peppers in adobo, so here’s a pro-tip. Open the can when you get it, dump the entire thing in a blender/food processor, and purée . Freeze in ice cube trays and use in soups, sauces, etc.
  • I didn’t have cotija, so I used crumbled feta from Prima Foods: hands down the single best feta I have ever had. You can use whatever you like, but don’t skip the cheese (unless you’re making this vegan). Tames the heat and adds some salt.

 

 

 

 

A New Driver Deserves A Drink: The Angry Mule

Back of the tooth: “Flossing isn’t just for gangstas.”

This morning my favorite (youngest/only) daughter got her driver’s license.

I remember getting mine as if I was the one behind the wheel a few hours ago. I took my test in a red Ford Escort with a manual transmission, back in the day when you still had to parallel park to earn that plastic. I had plans that weekend, plans that relied on me passing that test.

I remember the front wheel kissing the curb as I straightened up after parking, and my heart sank. If I was directed right after I pulled out of the parking space, that meant I had passed. A left meant disappointed friends and another boring weekend, trapped at the whim of parents who were sick of driving me around. I pulled the car out of the space and brought the front bumper parallel to the stop sign, expectantly looking at the test administrator. With a bit of a sigh, he pointed right.

I couldn’t watch The Kid as she began her test today. Mr. Tyrone walked the perimeter of the car, asking her to turn on various lights, and I couldn’t remember if she actually knew where the hazard lights were (or how to turn them on). She was spacey as we drove to her appointment, and I was just worried in general.

It’s no small thing, this putting your kid in the world and hoping for the best. It’s not just the lack of control over what they do; it’s the lack of control over what everybody else does. No one can be forced to treat your kid well.

No one gives a rat’s ass if you think they are amazing or if you did your best.

Mostly, from birth until you stop posting family selfies and ridiculous updates all over your social media, most people in the world are simply humoring you and your obsession with your child.

#TrueStory

It’s okay. We are built to be the center of our own universe. We can’t expect everyone to feel the same way about the things we care most about.

The one person who would have cared at least as much as me, beyond just a regular, garden-variety well-wishing, is sitting on the top shelf of my closet in a little wooden box.

When Dane died, Luke Bryan released “Drink A Beer,” a song that nearly killed me at that point in my grief. It was a country song, but we were in Georgia, and if I am being honest, Dane was more than a little bit country. Nevermind the “good lord” references; that’s beside the point.

Listen.

This song has been reverberating in my head since I handed Sicily her own key on a tooth-shaped key chain. As I type this and listen to various versions of it, I miss him. I miss Sicily’s father. I miss him because of her, and I miss him because of me. He would have been so proud today, and he would have cried as she drove away to spread these new wings of hers.

Neither of us are/were the praying kind, but I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to sending something into the universe about protecting my heart as she drives to her next adventure/heartbreak/triumph/devastation.

After we spent a little more time in the company of the delightful folks at the MVA, Sicily drove us down to Jimmy’s in Fell’s Point for breakfast. I spent many drunk and hungover mornings with my friend Luke at the old Formica counter in Jimmy’s, drinking draft Budweiser so cold that it had thin sheets of ice floating at the top.

It doesn’t even shock me that I didn’t realize the Luke Bair (my friend)/Luke Bryan (that singer) connection until that last sentence came out of my fingers, or that I just randomly suggested breakfast at Jimmy’s to celebrate.

I didn’t get a beer because a beer at 9:30 might send the wrong message to my newly-licensed driver, but if any day warrants a drink, today is it.

Perhaps it should be a little forlorn, today’s drink, but grief takes it out of me so that I can’t even muster the strength to be forlorn. I made up this little cocktail over the summer but didn’t set it down until yesterday. #Foreshadowing

I know there is a drink with the same name, but this is not that, and I am certainly open to alternative suggestions.

Raising a glass tonight to myself, my sweet new driver, and my beloved husband who would have been so proud and is still very missed.

The Angry Mule

Make your own. The store-bought crap is no good.

Jalapeño-Infused Vodka

4 cups vodka

5 or 6 jalapeños

The Rest

Ginger beer (I like Gosling’s. Anything but ginger ale. #Heresy)

Pineapple juice

Method

PLAN AHEAD. Make your vodka by chopping up the jalapeños and placing them in a clean quart jar. Cover with vodka. Include the seeds. Let sit in a cool, dark place until you can’t wait anymore. A couple days, a week. Or just give it a taste. You may find it’s too spicy and want to add more vodka (see below).

Strain into a clean jar.

Fill a pint glass with ice. Add two ounces of vodka, then ginger beer almost to the top. Splash of pineapple juice, a little stir, and you’re in business.

Recipe Notes

  • The batch of jalapeño vodka I currently have working is actually bright green. This is a very, very good thing. This means that I can cut this batch with even more vodka and have even more jalapeño-infused vodka. #HellYes

My sweet baby. Jazz hands and potato chips at two years old. Not much has changed.