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Archive for the ‘Whimsical’ Category

milklove

“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me,” chants Mickey, in Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, a bizarre little book about baking, dreaming, sleeping, swimming, in milk.

A baby’s dreamlife, a nursing mother’s diet. I crave all bready things. . . comfort me with wheat and oats, fondue and French toast, bread and milk, milk and bread. Pizza, cream scones, croissants, café latte. So many yummy combinations of comfort food. I actually bought a fondue pot last month. Such a funny food: is it French or is it just 70s? My family has been celebrating Christmas Eve with cheese fondue for as long as I can remember. Has my dad been scorching his fingertips on Sterno since the 70s? The one I bought was a real step up: non-stick and electric. Nothing could be easier than warming up a big bowl of Gruyere, Fontina, and sauvignon blanc. Yum, yum, yum.

And now for a few more pictures of Lizzie, who’s sleeping at the moment on her cream colored sheet, dreaming milky dreams.

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In just under a month, we’ll be moving from Auburn to Minneapolis. Quite a change.  We’ve been soaking up the summery May weather here by spending time in the big backyard.  We found blackberry bushes in the corner near the wren house.  The nasturtiums we planted are blooming in spite of the drought. It sounds silly, but these nasturtiums have given me one of my most satisfying gardening experiences.  They pop up in no time, they’re colorful, they’re edible, and their vine-like stems grow into beautifully negligent nests (a good description of my garden-style).

For a dinner party the other night, I made the orange-scented olive oil cake I’ve written about here before, and decorated it seasonally.

And here are Jack and Jordan the other day.

For Jack’s birthday party last month, also on the deck in the backyard, our little geography buff wanted a map cake, so I made two layer cakes decorated as the eastern and western hemispheres.  Jack drew the continents.

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holy holidays!

Once again, we’ll be traveling during Christmas, so we got a small, manageable, multi-purpose, potted tree: a rosemary bush.

Saturday was an interesting amalgam of holidays, of kitsch and authenticity, peppermint sticks and latkes.  In the morning, we joined some friends at the local John Deere dealer for a picture with Santa and to climb around on tractors.

Oh yeah!

This event reached a height of absurdity when the hay wagon took us on a circuit through the parking lot of the Lakeview Baptist jumbo-church.

We ended the day at little Mimi’s house eating latkes and lighting the menorah. To celebrate oil, I once again made the orange scented olive oil cake I wrote about recently.  This time, though, I had confectioner’s sugar so was able to make the glaze and to dot the top with coarse fleur de sel.  The oranges I used were a variety of blood orange from Florida, just in, which gave the cake a peachy hue.  It was deeply moist and tangy.

All and all, it was a satisfying weekend for the little ones. On Sunday, I bought my first wreath, strung up lights, and lit all the candles in the house. We’re having a spell of 30-degree weather, so it feels pretty cozy.

Today after school, it was time to turn that frozen disk of sweet pastry dough into cookies.

(Those crispy critters out front are my favorites.)

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It takes a long time, because day-to-day life doesn’t stop and wait for you to finish.  Gradually, though, we’re making this place comfy inside and out.  While Peter’s been off winning prizes and giving readings these past two weekends, Jack and I have been giving our yard some love.  We’ve raked pine needles into big heaps that his dump truck then unloads under bushes and trees.  We’ve bought pumpkins and goofy gourds and mums for the front stoop. We’ve swept the deck and hung up a hummingbird feeder. And we planted a little garden.  It looks like dirt surrounded by stones, but if you look very, very closely, you’ll see a hint of green: lettuce, cilantro, and thyme seedlings along with some still-young basil and rosemary.

The streak of 90-degree days and 70-degree nights finally broke, and I actually had to break out the down comforter.  I love fall.  Suddenly, some activities I enjoy are now tolerable again: baking, puttering around outside, riding my bike to campus, sipping a glass of wine on the deck before dinner.

I think I’ll make calzones.  It’s nice to have a moment in the middle of the day to sink my hands into a tub of flour and for a few minutes just stare, and knead.

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It’s what I miss most about Rome.  How could that be?  Something so mundane, minor, lowly.  What about the art, the architecture, the people, the food?

I’ll explain. Cafes in Italy encapsulate so much of the culture at large.  During these weirdly liminal weeks of re-entry into American culture—when I’ve felt like I’m two places at once, or nowhere—I’ve been going through a process not unlike grief.  Surprising surges of emotion come over me at inconvenient moments, and I wonder if I could still be weak from jet-lag. No, I’m just sad that that wonderful, brief year is all over.  I’ve had trouble expressing this grief because I don’t want to sound like a complete snob or ungrateful spoiled brat while, on the beaches of New England, I weep for the lost vistas or Rome or when, confronted with the plethora of choices at a coffee shop, I tear up thinking about the perfect crema on a Roman caffe.  I’ll admit, I’m sad but life is good. Buonissimo, even.

After that brief apologia, let us return to Roman cafes.  On my last full day in Rome, I didn’t go to view the dome of San Pietro or to gaze up at the oculus of the Pantheon once more.  After leaving Jack at Scuola Arcobaleno for the last time, I stopped in the cafe on Via Fonteiana where we stopped almost every day for a little treat.  I stood at the bar and didn’t even have to say anything, because the friendly guy who makes the coffee drinks remembers what everyone likes.  What an honor for me to be included in his encyclopedic memory of drink orders in this cafe where people come and go constantly all day long! All the other parents from the school stop here before or after dropping off the ragazzini.  In cafes in Rome, people come in and stand at the bar.  There are no lane-ropes marking off where you’re supposed to stand in line. How barbaric! Everyone is relaxed. They seem to have all the time in the world. The parents and the bankers and pharmacists and grocery cashiers and hardware shop owner from across the street stand around, sip a caffe or cappuccino, maybe eat a nutella-filled pastry wrapped in a napkin, chit-chat, drop a few coins, and amble out.  Everything is done with a sense of ease.  There are no paper cups.  No rushing and bumping shoulders at the “condiment station.”

American coffee shops cater to the all-American values of independence and convenience.  But in our rush to make things easier for ourselves (plastic lids to prevent spilling as we speed-walk or drive on to the next important thing/place/event) or more “custom-made” (add-your-own-milk, choose-your-own-ingredients, metastasizing menus) are we sacrificing what is of real value in custom, culture, and civil-i-zation?  Do condiment stations make us more civilized?

After that, I still didn’t go to see the one more piece of great art or architecture that I’d yet failed to see.  I wanted to enjoy my last day of being immersed in the mundane beauty of everyday life in Rome.  I walked down the steps to Trastevere and looked at the laundry hanging from windows, the succulents and bougainvillea spilling from balconies.  Before going to get one last haircut from the mild and nonchalantly good-looking Fabio Serafini, I stopped in to Cafe Paris. (Not the one of Dolce Vita fame on Via Veneto, but a scruffier version in a medieval piazza of Trastevere where the hipsters and homeless people mingle.)  I savored the atmosphere as much as the coffee: the ancient brown wood of the interior, with decades-old ads on the wall, the gruff carelessness and skill of the young man behind the bar.  No excessive friendliness or list of questions about how you’d like that.

What is it then, about Roman cafes that make them nodes of their culture?  It’s the way they encourage people to take a few minutes to savor a flavor and a scrap of conversation.  Uncluttered service. The cultivation of custom in defiance of the drive for efficiency and convenience Americans value so much.  And everything in the atmosphere of a cafe—from the old decor to the elegant cups—speaks to that sprezzatura in which the Romans live their lives, ignoring the grafitti and humidity, talking non-stop in a musical language, eating well, looking good, driving their Smart cars alongside ancient aqueducts and other imperial ruins with nonchalance and style.

Some might see a cultural malaise, oppressive conservatism. These are there. But so is cultivation, an awareness of beauty, culture, and quality that, perhaps because of the proximity of the Colosseum, the Caravaggios, lives on the shoes on people’s feet and in the crema on a caffe.

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My dissertation, that is, is done.  Sadly, so is our packing.

We’ve been saying goodbyes to good good friends here in Rome, and will leave on Thursday.  It’s an anticipated sadness and loss, so it’s one that ebbs and flows, comes and goes at unexpected moments.  Life goes on, too, as do the food and wine discoveries. Why did it take 9 months for me to learn about this vino vivace I’m sipping right now?  Monsupello, an off-white slightly fizzy wine made with Pinot Nero grapes (skins taken out), from the Pavia region in the north of Italy.  The reason I didn’t know about it sooner is that Jeannie and Valeria, friends and moms of Jack’s friends, discovered it at our local enoteca—wine shop—and bought it all up.  But with the new season, new caseloads have come in, and we’re all drinking it.  I had it first on Jeannie’s balcony in Trastevere while Jack and Nico “went fishing” with coat hangers over the edge.  Then I had it two nights later at Valeria & Andreas’ apartment.  Two Roman veterinarians, they told us about their dreams of opening a restaurant in London or Berlin that serves good basic Roman cuisine.

Late, too, I found out about Necci, a wonderful little cafe that does everything from breakfast pastries to toy-swaps for the kids with aperitivi for the parents.  Jeannie, Sarah, and I went to Pigneto, a Roman neighborhood outside of the city center, last week, on a mission to taste the artisanal cornetti (Italian croissants).  The chef, a British guy named Ben, is one of those admirable chefs who uses only local and seasonal ingredients and who is reviving old ways of making things.  Jeannie and I had chocolate cornetti and agreed that they were the best we’d tasted in years.  Light crunch to the pastry flakes—dark, warm chocolate within.

Necci is a fun place with great deck seating, kid-friendliness, a sense of humor, and delicious food.  Some pictures.

Jeannie & Sarah

banana flush pull

After a long, leisurely hour and two cappuccini at Necci, we walked down a central neighborhood street that has an open air market during the morning.  I bought a melon, a bagful of cherries, and susine plums.

Then we wandered with our fruit-heavy bags back to Sarah’s car, stopping in little shops along the way.  One of them was a funky second-hand store, with everything from a vintage Singer sewing machine—from the 1910s—to Pokemon cards.  Now, if I had known then what I know now, I would have bought a huge handful of those cards.  For the past few days of goodbyes Jack has been cathecting all of his mixed emotions onto his carte di Pokemon.  I buy a pack for him (and they’re exploitatively expensive!) and he gives them all away as regali.  Or his more cunning friends convince him to trade 4 for 1.  I tell him I won’t buy him anymore, and he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to school or see his friends again.  I say, “I know you’re sad that we’re leaving. Let’s talk about what you like about Rome” and he’ll say, “I like the buses and the carte di Pokemon.”  It’s been a sad time for him, because he’s had such a wonderful year.  He learned Italian and finally feels comfortable with his Italian friends and teachers. He loves his school.  He loves life here at the Academy where there are always friends available right next door. So he channels his emotions into the things he can grasp at and consume until we go away (friends are too complicated for these operations): Gormiti (little Italian elemental action figures), Pokemon cards (which, he doesn’t know, are everywhere), and ciambellini (the mini doughnuts they make at the Kosher cafe we stop in almost every morning before school).  We all do it.  I’m drinking more coffee because I know I won’t taste coffee like this in the New World.  I’m putting one more slice of mozzarella on my plate because it might be my last for years. I’m getting a cup of pistachio gelato even if Jack doesn’t want any.  We’re trying to squeeze in one more coffee-date, playdate, late-night conversation with the wonderful friends we’ve made here.  And I’m trying to drink in the views and sounds of Rome so that I won’t forget any of it, so that it won’t become muted and hazy when we get back to “real life.”

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Primo Maggio

Shama

Yesterday was La Festa dei Lavoratori—Labor Day—in Italy.  Out in the garden, at least 4 picnics and cookouts went on, merging and mixing and drifting apart again as the children wandered in and out of every group, from 1 pm till dark.  The weather was perfect: no clouds, mid-seventies, breezy.  There were, as usual at these things, all kinds of meats and plenty of wine—mostly bianco, rosato, and prosecco.  The seasonal foods that we’ve been eating every day could be found on the table, or grill, too: fava beans and asparagus.

There was also plenty of soccer.  Jack got some lessons from Luca.

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