What I Did on My Summer Vacation, 2018 edition

Some of you might know this already, and maybe a lot of you don’t. Blogging is actually hard.

It’s especially hard for writers like me, who have periods of creativity and then periods of drought. (I actually think of it less like a drought and more like living life, priming the pump, re-filling my stores.) I’m also an Aries sun sign blessed with Virgo SOMEwhere in my chart, which means I get excited about my projects, organize the hell out of them, start them, and then get tired. I’m also a Scorpio rising, which means a lot of my projects stay private, so no one ever knows what the fuck I’m doing.

I digress. What I was saying: blogging is hard for writers like me, who started out writing so many years ago with notebook paper and pen. Who carried notebooks and binders around with them everywhere so whenever they had an extra minute or an idea, they could sit and physically write everything down.

I used to be a prolific writer. Poems used to come easily, and prose even more so. The real work was in the revision, and I did it, but not with so much attention. Because I was also busy being young and living and not understanding that revision is not only about what’s on the page — it’s also about reading the self and understanding what it’s trying to say to you. These days, I sit with poems in their revision phase for months at a time. Sometimes years. I think about intent. I think about voice. I think about character. Who is the voice that is speaking through me? Why are they speaking through me? Is it me? Is it someone else? What do they want? (What do I want?) How are they saying it? What matters about how they say it?

So anyway. I forget where I was going with this. Oh yes. My point: blogging is hard for me. When I’m writing for the page, I do not (and cannot) blog. When I am not able to write for the page for whatever reason, I blog instead. And when I cannot do either, I live. I try to stay present, in the present.

This summer, I’ve been doing a little bit of everything. I went on my first-ever writing residency in Knoxville, Tennessee. I stayed at Sundress Academy for the Arts’ Firefly Farms, caring for a dear donkey named Jayne, a sass-machine goat named Munchma, tons of sheep, and some pesky (but entirely relatable) chickens. And when I wasn’t throwing down bales of hay or hand-feeding Jayne treats, I was reading and writing. I wrote pages and pages of prose about food and family and memory and relationships and everything in between. I wrote more poems than I’ve written in the past year. And I’m excited. I finally feel like my full and actual writer self again.

***

M and I moved to a new place. It’s a townhouse in the same neighborhood we’ve been in for the past 6 or 7 years. We weren’t expecting to move, but when we made the decision to do it, it felt like exactly the right thing to do. We hit hiccups here and there, and there was sweat and there were tears, but I’ll tell you one thing: if you can, hire movers. I can’t tell you what joy I had watching two young college-aged men efficiently carry all our furniture and all our heavy boxes out of our old apartment and into our new place. If you can afford it, it’s well worth it, even if you can only afford to hire them to move your heavy stuff. I swear to you. Worth. All. The. Pennies.

***
We also took a spontaneous trip to Seattle to see Pearl Jam. I came home from work one night, and M said, “So…you want to go to Seattle tomorrow? To see Pearl Jam?” It’s been a dream of M’s to see Pearl Jam in their hometown, so we did it. We spent 36 hours in my favorite city, and we didn’t get to see or do much outside of waiting in a merch table line for 4 hours, or actually watching Pearl Jam perform a truly epic 3.5 hour show, or getting within an arm’s length of Eddie Vedder.

But we did have some delicious and unexpectedly comforting noodles though. I still think about them.

***
What else did I do this summer? I got a new job. At a bakery.

Do you remember that scene from Office Space? The one at the end when Ron Livingston’s character is finally free of his cubicle job, and he’s relishing in his new job as a construction worker? That moment when he stops shoveling for a minute, smiles at the sunshine, takes in a deep breath of fresh air, and finally looks content?

That’s me these days. It’s not easy work, and some days I come home with my body aching and cramping in places I didn’t know could ache and cramp. Sometimes I find gigantic bruises on my legs that I don’t remember getting, but then I vaguely remember that something happened and it hurt a lot, but I kept moving and then I forgot about it. (Kind of like life.)

But I learn something new every day. How to make neat-edged cookies. How to wrap treats and box them neatly. Remembering complicated orders. How to work quickly without fucking up, which I am not always successful at, but I’m learning. All of these are little things that, if you’ve never worked in the service industry, you take for granted.

(Also, an aside: tip your servers. Always. At least 20%. If there is an option to tip (do you see a tip jar? when you pay with your card, does it give you the option to tip? etc.), always do it. The people who serve you bust their asses every fucking day and they don’t get paid enough to do it with the amount of patience and grace that they do. Believe me. Okay, stepping off my soap box now.)

So anyway. I’m doing something completely new and different. It’s hard work, but I like it. It’s teaching me a lot in terms of tangible skills, but also more important things about truly and actually caring for the self physically. I’ve learned so much over the years about emotional and psychological self-care, but physical self-care has come as an after-thought. This new work is forcing me to pay attention to my body and listen to it. If I don’t, I literally cannot do the work.

***

What’s ahead? I don’t know yet. I’m working on some things. After the heat and excitement and ever-changing days of summer, I’ll be shifting my attention to writing projects outside the blog for awhile. Friday Bites will not be making its regularly scheduled appearances, but I’ll still be writing about cooking and baking and sharing my home creations on the blog. Scary movie season is upon us (although it’s really year-round for me), so I might jump back into my Days of Horror series soon.

The name of the game these days is staying open and flexible, working with what I have, and, as always, staying grounded amidst the vast fields of uncertainty that life is made of. Stay tuned.

An Ode to Anthony Bourdain (feat. Banana-Rum Icebox Cake)

I’ve started this post over and over. A lot has happened in the past month and a half. I got married. I went on an epic mini-honeymoon road trip. We had a second reception in my hometown, right next door to my high school’s prom. I couldn’t decide on whether I wanted to write about my wedding cake, or make a top 5 list of the things we ate on our honeymoon, or whether I should just steam ahead and write about what I was cooking.

And then Anthony Bourdain died.

***
I always forget how torturous baking can be in the summer in Indiana, whether or not you have air conditioning. No matter what you do, the oven turns the entire apartment into a sweatbox. There’s an icebox cake cookbook that I’ve been checking out of the library for the past couple years, but I’ve never made any of the recipes.

This year, I’m determined. There are so many good options. A Milk Dud cake. A black pepper rum cake. Peanut butter cup cake. Lavender-blueberry.

What I decided on: banana-rum cake.

***
I’ve loved Anthony Bourdain for a very long time. Over the past few years (that, interestingly enough, coincide with the years I spent at my last job), I lost track of him. I think part of me had given up on him. I was tired of seeing and hearing about the world through the lens of a snarky white guy. I was disappointed with his choices to do things like hang out with Ted Nugent. I was tired of the “bad boy” thing, of the Hunter S. Thompson-inspired aesthetic thing. Of all the testosterone and macho stuff.

In the last few months, I began following him and his girlfriend Asia Argento more closely on Instagram. I watched as he vocally and strongly supported Asia, particularly at the Cannes Film Festival when she publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her. I watched as he supported the #MeToo movement, and modeled what it looked like to be a self-reflective man who realizes that he’s been contributing to rape culture. He asked himself why the women in his life didn’t feel comfortable enough to come to him with their stories of assault? He asked himself not only what he did, but what did he let happen? What did he let the men around him get away with?

***
The technically-late-spring weather here has been erratic. One week, it’s unbearably humid, sunny, and in the mid-90s. The next week, it’s overcast, humid-ish, stormy, and in the low to mid-80s (which feels a whole lot better than a humid 95 degrees, trust me).

This week is a stormy one, which means it’s cool enough for me to cook. So I started to caramelize bananas.

The bananas had been ripening on the counter for the past week or so, so they had lots of brown spots. I sliced up six of them, then threw them into a large sauce pan that had a nice chunk of nearly-browned butter in it.

Yes, I have a shitty red, plastic cutting board that has been with me for the past 10 years. I want to get rid of it, but I also love it?

Yes, I have a shitty red, plastic cutting board that has been with me for the past 10 years. I want to get rid of it, but I also love it?

As soon as the bananas hit the butter, the sweetest and best smell filled the air. I love the smell of browning butter and I love the smell of bananas. I didn’t know that, together, they make a knee-buckling aroma that I would gladly swaddle myself in for the rest of time.

After letting the bananas soften up a bit, I put in some brown sugar, a healthy glug of spiced rum, and a pinch of salt. Caramelizing things is the best thing.  

***
It feels important for me to tell you that the day Anthony died, I made boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner. I also made an avocado cream out of yogurt and spices (and avocado), and a lime sour cream made with lime zest and spices. I ate the mac and cheese along side my veggie burrito leftovers, and topped them both with that lime sour cream.

I took my weird, oddly comforting meal to the living room and ate it while I watched the Manila episode of Parts Unknown. I had never seen it before.

At the beginning of the episode in a voiceover, Anthony says, “Filipinos are, for reasons I have yet to figure out, probably the most giving of all people on the planet.”

I began crying into my weird sour cream and mac-and-cheese dinner, and I didn’t stop for the entire episode.

***
Next: the pudding. I threw sugar, cornstarch, salt, whole milk and heavy cream into a saucepan, whisked them all together, and then whisked an egg in. Then I turned the stove to medium-high and whisked the mixture constantly.

Banana Rum_3.jpg

While doing all this, I listened to Anthony Bourdain’s 2011 interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. He must have recently done the Ted Nugent episode, because he talked a little bit about it. About how, in all his travels, you can always find something in common with someone, no matter how different your worldviews are. Those common things are usually food and drink. He talked about how he had argued with Nugent and gotten him to agree that Michelle Obama’s lunch meal program was a good thing.

Three years ago, in a pre-45 world, I would have written this whole thing off. I would have said (and did say) that it wasn’t enough. Ted Nugent is a pretty disgusting human being, and he’s said some unconscionable things.

As it stands, it’s still not enough. But I also wonder, with the world we live in today, would Anthony have done anything differently in the same situation? Would he still have agreed to do the segment? Would he have leaned harder into difficult conversations? Would he have felt an obligation to try to straighten out Nugent, white dude to white dude? Would he have felt there was something at stake?

***
After the pudding thickened and began to bubble, I did a final frantic 45 seconds of vigorous whisking and then took it off the heat. I mixed in another healthy glug of rum, some butter, and vanilla extract.  I set it aside to cool a bit, next to my cooling-to-room-temp caramelized bananas. (My room temp was probably 83 degrees, so *shrugs*. Was that the temperature the cookbook authors had in mind? Probably not, but that’s how shit goes in my house.)

***
The day Anthony died, a friend sent me a New Yorker piece written by Helen Rosner. It’s a beautiful piece, and one of the best ones written in memory of him.

In it, she outlines exactly why I gave up on Anthony all those years ago:

“I asked him, point blank, if he considered himself a feminist. His answer was long and circuitous, what I’d come to think of as classic Bourdain: more of a story than a statement, eminently quotable, never quite landing on the reveal. He talked about his sympathy for the plight of women and gay men, his formative years as a student at Vassar, his forceful resentment of the “bro food” movement with which he remained entwined, and his unwavering support for reproductive rights. “I don’t know if that makes me a feminist,” he said. “It makes me a New Yorker. Doesn’t it?”
— Helen Rosner

Honestly, Tony. What’s so hard about admitting to being a feminist? For all his “bad boy” stuff, he could sure avoid actually answering a question.

***
After chilling my mixing bowl and whisk attachment in the freezer for about 10 minutes, I took them out, loaded them into my stand mixer and poured in a whole bunch of heavy cream. I whisked that creamy stuff at a medium speed until it just started to thicken, at which point I threw in another healthy glug of rum, some powdered sugar, and some vanilla extract. I turned the stand mixer up to a medium-high speed and meant to whip the cream until it formed stiff peaks. I’m pretty sure I overmixed it a hair, but it still tasted amazing.

And then: construction.

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***
The day Anthony died, I read so many Twitter and Instagram tributes, and so many from Black folks and people of color and women. They talked about how he didn’t exoticize or appropriate their culture. How he turned the cameras on even the “ugly” things, like politics, race, culture. About how he never presumed to know more than the people who cooked for him. How he never said ‘no’ to any dish. How, when he visited our home countries, we felt seen and validated.

And so often, more than I was expecting, he was described as “kind.”

***
So I took my brightly colored 8x8 baking dish and poured in a generous layer of boozy pudding, then lay some graham crackers on top.

Then came a layer of caramelized bananas. Then a layer of pudding. Then graham crackers. Then bananas again.

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I should have stopped there because the dish was full to the top. But I went against my instincts. I poured more pudding on top. It began to spill out the sides a bit, but I carried on. I plopped my slightly-overmixed boozy whipped cream on top, and that’s when things started to get real messy. As the laws of displacement began to the place (that’s the official scientific name for it, right?), pudding started to dribble over the walls of the dish and all over my kitchen table.

Before putting saran wrap over the top, I set the baking dish precariously inside a slightly larger one, so that the pudding that oozed out would pool somewhere that wasn’t all over the top shelf of my refrigerator.

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***

On the morning that Tony died, I took out my copy of A Cook’s Tour. It’s an old edition, and it’s dog-eared and well-worn. I flipped to the passage where he wrote about coming to the devastating realization of the impact of the Vietnam War on the country that he was clearly falling in love with. He wrote about the loathing he felt for the U.S. and its mindless destruction, and the loathing he felt at himself for his complicity in the U.S.’s actions and his privilege as an American tourist in Vietnam. I remembered how I felt when I read that passage. How he had put words to all the anger and helplessness and rage I felt when I had traveled to Thailand. When I read A Cook’s Tour, I finally felt like I wasn’t alone. That I wasn’t asking too much by wanting to see everything and acknowledge everything when I traveled or read about travel or watched someone travel somewhere. It wasn’t too much to ask to see the whole damn picture. It was okay to have complicated feelings and still see the world, engage with it.

Tony wasn’t perfect. He has said several things over the years that I still cringe thinking about. But he was human, in the best possible way. Which means that in these past three or so years while I was busy giving up on him, he was evolving as a person. While I wasn’t paying attention, he became a person I could stand behind again, look up to.  

***
After 24 hours, the banana-rum icebox cake was ready. And good lord, is it boozy and incredibly delicious. I eat a piece and feel a warmth in my chest, like I’ve just done a shot of bourbon in a Wild West saloon. Sweet, but not too sweet. So much booze. It’s the perfect treat for these hot days.

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***
I love the end of Helen Rosner’s article. She wrote:

“The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
— Helen Rosner

***
The things that I have made in honor of Tony in the past week, whether inadvertently or purposefully, have been incredibly strange. The Annie’s boxed mac and cheese with lime sour cream. This banana-rum icebox cake. He’s not particularly known for being a desert kind of guy. I’d like to think that he’d appreciate all the booze in it. I know I do.

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***
In a way, Anthony ended up modeling my ideal of human behavior. He was imperfect, flawed in so many ways. But he was self-reflective. He looked inward without flinching and with nuance. He held himself accountable. He spoke out about things that matter. He was endlessly curious, asking questions and really listening to the answers.  He traveled just to travel, but he also traveled for the people. To let them tell their stories. To show his viewers that they shouldn’t be afraid of the world, to pay attention to people and their food. To always say ‘yes’ to whatever is put in front of you.

***
I should end there. I'll leave you with this interview that Anthony did with Fast Company. I'm 90% sure that the answers he gives them are not what they're looking for. Their questions want quick, superficial, easy responses that they can turn into sound-bytes. His answers are long, reflective, and incredibly deep. That is, I think, the essence of Anthony. To never give an easy answer, to always take in the bigger picture. To examine not only that we're here, but to look back with nuance at how we got here.

Rest well, Tony. Thank you for everything.


This Week's Recipe:

What I did on my summer vacation (2017 ed.)

I've been away from this blog since April. When I look back on it, it seems unfathomable that so much time has gone by, and it also feels like a hundred years have gone by.

I always forget about the rhythms of my writing. I don't know how I forget it, but I do. Maybe it's the 20 years of having a summer vacation that has embedded itself into my psyche. The cycles of hunkering down, working hard, studying, and producing from September to May. Then, when the weather starts to warm up and the days start to feel lazier, I give myself permission to take it easy. In years past, it was a subconscious decision.

This year, it's been a little bit of both. This year is different from all the other years. Every day there is a new tweet to rail against, a new infuriating policy to protest, a new disaster to mourn. This presidency has affected my psyche in ways I'm hesitant to admit, but it's undeniable. I'm living with a cynicism I've never lived with before.

Aside from all the large scale stressors, we're finally (!!!) planning our wedding. Each wedding dress I look at is now distinct from one another (please see 2017: The Year of No Intention), and I have actual opinions on them. I was hoping I'd have an actual strong opinion on our wedding colors, but I still don't. I have days where I'm so excited for our wedding that I wish it were happening tomorrow, and I have days where I avoid looking at the countdown timer on my WeddingWire app because the number of days til our wedding is too few. I've begrudgingly and apprehensively bought two wedding planning books and a wedding planning binder (and also wondered who the hell I am these days). 

This summer, my brother graduated from college after being an extremely hardworking Van Wilder for many years. M and I were there for his graduation. After, we took a family trip to Lake Tahoe, where M learned that when we say Tahoe's water is very cold, we are not kidding.

What else?

I went to Phoenix where it was 110+ degrees. I lay out on a 5th floor hotel rooftop deck at night, and felt homesick for the dry, hot, desert wind. We took M's dad on a surprise birthday trip to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals. The Cardinals lost both games we went to, but the weather was beautiful and the Bud Light Lime hit the spot (I know). I went to San Francisco for the Las Dos Brujas writing workshop, and wrote poems that I'm still working on and love dearly. I saw dolphins while hiking the Marin Headlands with poet friends. I got to show M the Golden Gate Bridge for his first time, and also introduced him to the (also very cold) Pacific Ocean.

This summer, writing has not been a priority. I've written here and there, and made some breakthroughs at Las Dos Brujas, but for the most part, it seems that my subconscious decided it was time for a break. It was time to take a step back and recognize that I have a very large plate, it is very full, and if I am not very careful and very intentional, I will burn all the way out.

I'm asking myself questions about balance and boundaries, about what caring for the self truly means. I'm asking myself questions about how to nourish myself and my writing when so much else in life and in this world seems to take and take and take.

So I'm back now. I don't have a lot of answers, but here we are. Figuring things out. As always.