Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hello, Summer

We headed to the beach for Memorial Day weekend. 

All of us. My sister and brother-in-law, niece and nephew and my parents. We went to a resort at Amelia Island, near the Florida-Georgia border, with half of us staying in the hotel and the rest of us in a beach villa. 

My sister arrived a day ahead of me and called to say my brother-in-law was renting a golf cart for us to use to trek around the resort since we weren’t sure how far we were from each other. The kids were extremely excited to use it. 

My nephew calls the minute we arrive to see if we're ready for the golf cart to pick us up. As they drive up, he yells, “Auntie, come back here and sit with me!” 

Lucky me. I get to sit on the very back seat, facing backwards, as the golf cart zips along the resort paths. 

I hold onto my purse for dear life, hoping nothing bounces out of it that I can't retrieve. 

Or that I don’t get tossed to the ground like cargo at a sharp turn and end up on "America's Funniest Videos."

At dusk, the kids roast marshmallows over a fire pit on the beach as the sun goes down. 

Kids, fire, a stiff breeze, darkness and sharp two-pronged mini-pitchforks. What’s not to love? 

In conversation around the fire pit, the kids listen and join in when we’re not noticing. 

In mid-story at the end of a sentence, I pause for a breath and Nathan pipes up, “Says Auntie dramatically.” 

Devon erupts in giggles, then tries to outdo her brother. 

Just when we’re lost in chitchat again and have forgotten about the interruptions, we hear, “Questions Gran forcefully,” or “Laughs Mom cheerfully” or “Replies Grandpa grumpily.” 

They think up all the words they know to describe the dialogue and add the hilarity of adverbs to it. 

Growing up, I loved listening to my mother, aunts and grandmother tell stories. I loved hearing the familiar tales of their lives through the magic of words. 

In the summer, all the girls in the family – seven of us -- would pile into my aunt’s blue Pontiac convertible for a girl's day out without my uncle and dad. 

The grown-ups would tie on their headscarves to keep their hairstyles somewhat composed in the blowing breeze. But my sister, cousin and I would sit in the backseat with our hair in ponytails flying straight out behind us as we drove. 

We didn’t go on these escapades often, but I thought it was such a treat when we did. 

My aunts and mother would talk about their childhoods with my grandmother offering her two cents’ worth. On the drive, they’d talk about high school antics and old boyfriends and trips to Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, where my aunt met my uncle. And they’d laugh the whole way there. 

Sometimes I think they forgot we were there in the backseat listening to it all, since they were having such a good time among themselves. 

It wasn’t the stories themselves that were so funny. 

It was the pieces of their lives that I wanted to hear over and over again. 

Because those pieces connected me to them.

Maybe I’m a little like my aunts, mother and grandmother. 

Driving in the car, my nephew says to me, “Auntie, tell us one of your stories.” I ask him what he means. 

“You know, that story about the lady who burned cheese in the toaster at work,” he says. 

I wasn’t sure what was so interesting about that story, but my sister informs me that I get a little melodramatic. 

Especially if someone has done something to annoy me. Like leaving burnt cheese for me to clean up when all I wanted to do was toast my English muffin for lunch. 

Perhaps my storytelling does get a bit theatrical. “But don’t worry, the kids love it,” she says.

I've always wanted my life to be more story-like. More like the books I read as a child. 

But even if it can't be like a good fiction read with loose ends neatly tied up by book's end, I realize that my life is a story. 

Told to those around me. 

Enlivened with a smattering of drama and sprinkled generously with a whole lot of adverbs. 

And I can help my niece and nephew turn the pages of the familiar chapters of our family's story as they scribble their own pages that are yet to be written. 

The stories will continue. Welcome summer. We’re ready for you.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Along for the Ride

Pastis Bistro in the Meatpacking District
My recent visit to New York proved to me that it was a city with a lot of people in community. With each other. With what the city offers. And with the city itself. And I got to be in community with them. 

On the subway. 

I rode the subway to see a Broadway show. 

I rode the subway to Times Square. 

I rode the subway to Central Park. 

I rode the subway to Grand Central Station. 

I rode the subway all the way to Harlem. 

And actually, I’m not too crazy about the subway. I’m not a huge fan of public transportation in general. But I realize in cities like New York, it's a convenient and inexpensive option. 

My mother’s friend Mary traveled with us to New York, hosted us at her son's apartment, and decided we would take the subway everywhere we couldn't walk. 

She likes taking the subway. She navigates it expertly with her subway route maps. (Except for the time we missed our stop and two people overheard us talking and thankfully came out of their self-induced subway trance to tell us to get off immediately and go in the opposite direction.)

Grand Central Station
I'm not an enthusiast of city dirt and grime. I like my air clean and fragrant and odor-free. 

I’m not trained to keep up with the crowds to rapidly board the subway. At one of our stops, the door closed behind my mother and me, leaving Mary, our subway navigator outside. 

Even though we didn’t have a prearranged plan, we all managed to get off at the next stop and attempt to find each other. We were talking on the phone to Mary, twirling around and describing which street corner we were standing on. 

Just then, the crowds parted and Mary was standing a few feet behind us, talking on her phone, twirling around staring at the street signs. Whew. A subway-navigation disaster narrowly averted.

I realize there is some sort of subway etiquette code that New Yorkers adhere to. 

On my very first ride, I asked a man if he was saving the seat next to him. He seemed astonished that I would ask. I soon learned that unless you want to stand, don't ask, just grab. 

But I’m sure many strange and outrageous things occur on the subway. To avoid acknowledging any of those strange and outrageous things, people stare straight ahead or close their eyes completely. They act as if they are alone on the subway, with their earbuds connected to their devices. 

I can see the benefits of this approach. While the subway was moving, a woman opened the back door and walked from car to car, announcing in a loud voice that she was hungry and needed money. Everyone ignored her. 

It was unnerving to me, but from the non-reactions of my fellow subway riders, I guess it happens pretty often since they were unfazed.

Central Park
Just one woman, well into her 80s, recognized that I was a tourist and breached subway protocol to ask me where I was from. 

She told me about the Broadway play she’d just seen. A one-woman show. In the character of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Who took all of her clothes off at the end of the show and entered a pool of water. “And let me tell you, she was no spring chicken,” the lady told me. 

Since I couldn't quite think of a response, I started to understand why people might avoid talking to fellow travelers on the subway.

Our host Mary's one concession to the weekend of subway travel was to let us take a taxi to and from the airport so we wouldn't have to drag our luggage on the subway. 

I sat in the backseat as we darted in and out of traffic, greatly enjoying the view above-ground. 

But I realized that I had acquired a new aptitude. One I'm not sure I aspired to, but now relished nonetheless. 

I was a subway-rider. 

I rode the subway all over this big city of New York. 

For a weekend anyway. 

As I trudged up and down the stairs to subway stops, often bungling the scanning of my subway pass, I was part of the crowd of New Yorkers heading home or to Broadway shows or to their exciting big-city jobs. 

I know we're made for community. I know we're made for relationships. But I’m thinking maybe I was made for a slightly smaller community. 

A community with a little less hurry and scurry. 

And definitely a community where I don't have to take the subway. 

Enormous billboard in Times Square paying tribute to my favorite makeup in the world: MAC.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Savoring the Flavors of New York

Listening to my grandmother and aunt talk about their adventures in cooking and compare recipes in baking as I grew up kindled my interest in food. 

But I've never attempted much cooking since I'd rather bake. 

I'd rather read books about cooking and chefs and restaurants than try it out myself. 

I'd rather watch a cooking show on the Food Network than attempt to create my own dinner menu. 

But during my recent weekend in New York, culinary inspiration met me practically on every corner. 

I took a food tasting tour of the gritty East Village neighborhood and I went to tea at Lady Mendl’s in Gramercy Park. 

I tasted adventure on New York’s wild side and sipped the genteel tea of elegance at a historic brownstone. And I’m not sure which flavor I fancied more.

Before we got started on the East Village food tour, the guide asked our group if we were willing to try everything scheduled at our stops. 

With a reluctant yes, I found myself going below street-level to Jum Mum’s tiny eatery with just two tables. 

I was pleasantly surprised that the steamed pork dumplings with sweet soy sauce, garlic, scallions and cilantro were delicious. So far, so good. 

The next stop was Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant that’s been around since 1954. The tour's website had advertised pierogies at this stop, which are a Pittsburgh staple, but the guide said we'd be tasting borscht. 

I was pretty sure I’d never eaten it before, and I don’t care much for beets. When the bowl was set in front of me, I thought I wouldn’t like it. 

But it was scrumptious. Whatever they did to the beets, cabbage and pork, served hot with a dollop of sour cream, I liked it and could have eaten another bowl. 

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I often ate my aunt’s delicious stuffed cabbage and the borscht's familiar ingredients reminded me of one of my favorite foods.

The tour moved on to a tiny corner drugstore for an egg cream drink that was mostly chocolate fizzy water. 

I choked down a sip before we got pizza from Iggy’s, hot dogs and papaya juice from a street stand and then stopped at the Milk Bar. Christina Tosi is the chef, owner and founder of Momofuku Milk Bar, named “one of the most exciting bakeries in the country” by Bon Appetit magazine. 

I sampled green pea and almond ice cream and compost cookies. I really could taste the green peas but having them in ice cream seemed strange to me. But it was the compost cookies that made me shiver. 

Although they tasted mostly of oatmeal and sweet butterscotch chips, they were also made from ground up potato chips, pretzels and coffee grounds. 

I absolutely hate the texture of coffee grounds. 

I’ll throw out an entire cup of coffee if I spot one ground floating in it. 

So I just couldn’t put the thought of those black specks out of my mind to enjoy the cookie. (I'm thinking that Milk Bar can keep its compost cookies and maybe New York can find a place to recycle them.) 

The tasting tour finished at an Italian bakery where I sampled a creamy cannoli among the cases and cases of baked goods on display.

After the exhilarating excursion to the East Village, the next day I found myself in an elegant dining room overlooking a charming courtyard garden at Lady Mendl’s. 

Her 1834 brownstone is the setting for a grand five-course tea. I enjoyed a delectable tiny mushroom tart, adorable tea sandwiches, scones with Devonshire cream and preserves, Lady Mendl’s signature creamy chocolate cake and a final course of petite tea cookies and chocolate-covered strawberries. My spicy and rich chai tea made every bite scrumptious.

The gritty and the elegant. It got me thinking. I know where I’d usually like to be. 

I kind of like my adventure in bite-sized pieces. 

I prefer my excitement in tiny nibbles. 

With a lot of familiar whipped in. I only want change and the strange in small morsels. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. 

But sometimes the different, richest, most flavorful experiences reside there. Out on the gritty side. Where a spoonful of uncertainty is. 

I'd like to cultivate a taste for it. 

Maybe I can start with learning how to cook a few dinner dishes to add to my repertoire of my one and only pasta with spinach and Italian sausage bake. 

Now that's a recipe for adventure that's more to my taste. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Making Biscuits, Scones and Friends in Manhattan

While I was in New York City last week, I took a pastry class at Le Pain Quotidien’s Bleecker Street Bakery to learn how to make biscuits, scones and shortbread cookies. 

I’ve always had trouble making scones and tried dozens of recipes without finding one I really like. 

The class promised to help aspiring bakers find their biscuit hand. Since I was certainly aspiring (thanks to my one word for 2013), I registered before I could change my mind. 

I wasn't sure what to expect or how skilled my fellow students would be. 

In the bakery’s kitchen, floor to ceiling windows faced the street. With my hair scrunched under a black baking cap and wearing a white apron, I felt like I was on display. 

But I soon realized that not much holds the attention of New Yorkers for very long. A few people – who I’m sure were tourists -- stopped to gaze at us rolling out our dough, but they quickly grew bored and hurried on after a few minutes. 

My fellow biscuit-makers were all local New Yorkers -- two via Paris and one via London – but they all assured me they were baking novices. 

We were handed bowls with dry ingredients, containers of eggs, milk, vanilla and pre-cut pieces of butter to combine into dough with our pastry scrapers. 

I wasn’t sure I believed my fellow bakers as I watched them proficiently combine their ingredients with their pastry blenders and confidently shape the dough into perfect mounds. 

My pastry dough scraper was quickly covered with the dough that was all over my fingers and I felt like a messy baker. My dough also seemed to be misshapen. 

The instructor chuckled and said “Well, your dough looks like a little mountain in the middle when it should really be flat all the way across,” as she deftly patted it into shape. 

Even though I reminded myself that this wasn’t a competition, I was pretty sure I would have ranked last in the class with my baking skills. 

As I snapped a few photos of the instructor’s samples, the girls laughed and asked if I was going to claim the instructor’s work as my own. I told them it was indeed a tempting thought.

Pastry instructor Brie's cheddar scones and apple scones (honest!)
My fellow bakers were so confident that two of them asked the instructor if they could top their savory scones with the cheese instead of using it all in the dough. 

She said she’d never been asked by students to change a recipe but told them to feel free to experiment. 

After we made vanilla shortbread cookies, cheddar and scallion scones, apple scones and cream biscuits, we all gathered around the communal table in the bakery’s dining room to enjoy the fruits of our labor. 

Jars of fig jam and raspberry jelly and hazelnut and chocolate spread were set out for us to spread on our biscuits while we chatted and ate.

The NYC girls told me how they have their groceries delivered to their doors. They said there’s no reason to go to Target or cook dinner or buy paper towels. Delivery service is their go-to for easy living. 

They talked about half-hour subway rides to get to work. They talked about living in Paris or London before moving to New York, as if it were a city next door instead of an ocean away. 

They talked about living a few blocks from the bakery in the heart of Manhattan. I admired these cosmopolitan girls.
New friend Aris is a native New Yorker.

I brought home the recipes we made and attempted the vanilla shortbread cookies. It was easy and delicious when I made them in class. 

But the ingredients were measured in grams instead of cups and tablespoons so I converted them online. 

As I peeked in the oven, the cookies were a puddled flat mess. When I tasted them, they were far too salty. 

I’m sure something was lost in translation. But instead of trying to figure out the recipe, I drove to the store and bought a kitchen scale. 

I will try making the cookies again. 

I thought of the pastry girls and how the communal table coaxed everyone to get to know each other once we sat down. 

I am inspired by this entertaining idea of a gathering table filled with just scones and jams and coffee and good conversation. 

And I can't wait to invite some friends over to join me at the table.

With pastry class instructor Brie in the bakery's kitchen.