Gran Jete


When I was 14, my chores included clearing the table, doing the dishes, laundry, dinner on Tuesdays and cleaning the upstairs bathroom. I earned 35 cents a week. To make up for what I considered not enough pay for hard labor, I babysat. I was fierce. I baked with toddlers and I took the big kids for field trips on the public bus. When the parents got home, everybody was sleeping and the house was clean. I couldn’t be touched. I owned Kenyon street, Oxford, and North Beacon, and worked an average of four nights a week. I spent next to nothing. I liked the feeling of money in the bank.

It made my step father nervous.
We were in direct competition for who was the boss of me.
He didn’t have a regular job and I assume he had no money in the bank. He knew he was losing. I bought my own clothes, my own shoes, shampoo and snacks. I could have bought my own food if I had to. I said nothing about school, and never had a complaint come back from the office. I left the house early and came home late. My mother was tired. She worked.

My total control lasted until my first kiss. It was at Jackie Maurer’s on Halloween night, and it was the best thing that had happened to me since my first grand jete. The feeling of flying through the air in a full split, had been replaced.
I was in a constant shudder of hope that it would happen again, right there in the middle of the day. School didn’t suffer, it just got harder to walk the hallways. Even after I accepted that the one who had kissed me would never look my way again.
Inside me though. Inside was a forest with no floor. I was devastated. I couldn’t understand it. How you could love someone from the truth of who you had never dared to share, and they were unmoved.
When you are 14, you don’t question the love you feel, only the love you don’t receive.

It shook the waters of me that had been previously undisturbed. I could think of nothing else but how undesirable I must be. Not in a sad way. I wasn’t sad about it, I was just trying to face the facts. There was something about me that must not be right.
I went shopping. I took the bus to the suburbs where I thought the answer might be. I poked around with my skinny butt and fat wallet in the Junior Miss section. Typically I bought stripes and solids. Painters pants or kakis. Work clothes from the Army/Navy. But I was on a mission for another kiss. I thought a maxi dress would be too much. I picked out a pair of blue grey thin wale corduroy flares and a peasant blouse sprayed with tiny flowers that oozed pink and satin ribbons. I matched it with my Frye boots and a lavender cream shadow for my eyes. I felt I might turn the world and Jacques Q. upside down.
I had forgotten though, about the in house contest. When I came down the stairs in the morning, I was unprepared for comment from the stands.
My stepfather could feel the weakness. He could feel it without touching, that my skin was thinner. I still have a fear of losing my callouses.

“Well you look like a whore in uniform.”
Coming from a God fearing man that believed in good manners.

I lost being the the boss only for a tsunami of seconds. And then I collected myself.
I stayed silent. I turned my left heel into my right arch and anchored my left hand to the same hip. I looked him straight in the eye and smiled. Then I left.

Every night that I was assigned dinner, I made a slightly underdone, barely warm, potato and cottage cheese casserole. And then I would catch the bus for the late class to grand jete across a solid linoleum floor.

One thing

It can be just one thing, that turns the whole kit and kaboodle around. It could be a song or a kiss or a bicycle; depends on what is happening I suppose.
I was standing in front of one the most boring pieces of poultry on the God given planet, vacuum packed skinless, boneless, chicken breasts. There is not one thing to get excited about. Not the plastic, not the pink, not even the price. Because I am 100% sure that I am going straight to Hell if I buy one more piece of chicken that is not organic for my son, the price is steep. I had already given him chicken for lunch and somehow, I was stuck standing in front of the chicken again. As if there was not one other thing that was possible to make. And then I remembered that I had a beautiful, blue and grey striped can of Spanish paprika. Flooding right behind that thought was butter and onions with a side of dirty rice and sautéed, garlicky, asparagus.
Mango for afters.
Once you find the NEW paprika, not pre war or pre 1999 paprika, get a hot, heavy pan going. Season the chicken breast well on both sides, with kosher salt. Pound them to level thickness with the side of your fist. Drop a little olive oil in the pan with some rough slices of yellow onion. Sear the breasts on one side until he edges have gone white. Flip. Sprinkle on some of your paprika, not buckets, just enough to make some magic; a dusting, and only on one side. Give it a knuckle of butter. Flip the chicken again and swirl it around with a few thyme sprigs and or a bay leaf until it is JUST cooked through. Serve with the dirty rice and asparagus and why not, poached marinated leeks with a grating of hard boiled egg.

Solve Your Menu Problems

One way to solve your menu problems: Have the same thing every Monday. Have the same thing every Tuesday. You can do it Wednesday and Thursday if you want to. There was this young guy Dominic I worked with once at a job, that had nothing to do with food, and we traveled. He was from deep in Queens. He lived at home and had never traveled before. He had never been on a plane. That wasn’t a big deal to me. He had white sneakers that shone like a beacon on the city streets and a coat with a collar big enough to lean on for a nap. He told me that his sister highlighted his hair for him. He highlighted his eyebrows. I had never seen that before. There are a lot of firsts in your twenties.
It was dinnertime, and I said, “what do you guys want for dinner, quiche?” I don’t know why I said quiche, probably because growing up, we ate it on the edge of too much; it was like anybody else asking if you want a ham sandwich. I couldn’t help it. I was raised vegetarian.
Dominic said, “a what?”
“Quiche. A piece of quiche. You don’t have to, we could get soup or something.”
“Soup?”
“Soup. What is the matter with soup.?”
“It’s Tuesday.”
Now this threw me. I was in a land I knew nothing about.
“What do you mean, it is Tuesday?”
“What is quiche?”
“It is eggs. On a crust. With cheese.”
“So ask me if I want some eggs.”
“It is not eggs. It is quiche.”
“Why would you eat that?”
“We were vegetarian.”
“Kids don’t do that. You are kidding me.”
I remember I had had the same argument when it was decided that we weren’t going to have meat anymore.
“What did you eat?”
“Vegetables. Beans. Quiche. Waffles.”
“Waffles?! But no meat. Oh, man. I am sorry about that. That must have been rough.
Tuesday is meatloaf. Meatloaf, mashed potato, peas.”
“What is Wednesday?”
“Pork chop.” Then he needed to know.
“So on Monday, it could be anything. Could be waffles, could be peas.”
“Sort of.”
“First of all, no meat. Second of all, you don’t even know what is coming.”
Somehow I had become the poster child of all things unfair and uncertain in the world. Dominic much preferred dependability and meat. And now that I am old, I can see the point.
I am not saying give up being a vegetarian. I would never say that. It is just that in a way, a little piece of meat can make menu planning a little easier. He was right. As soon as you think, pork chops, roast potatoes with rosemary and garlic is right behind it. And if you love it and you know you always have it on a Wednesday, well Wednesday just got a whole lot dependably better.
In the world of Dominic with a little Faye love:
Monday
Turkey meatloaf stuffed with cream soaked crouton, garlic, fried sage and on the side, roasted cherry tomatoes and garlicky spinach
Tuesday
Pasta with meat sauce, string beans and salad of torn herbs and vinaigrette
Wednesday
Chicken pot pie with homemade biscuits, salad of Bibb lettuce, radicchio, blue cheese, and red onion
Thursday
Fresh ricotta ravioli with fresh tomato sauce and basil served with broccoli rabe dish of radishes and green olives
Friday
FREE DAY
Saturday
Whole roasted fish with buttery, lemony rice, braised leek and peas with fresh mint
Sunday
Lasagna, Caesar salad, OR cheese board and soup of choice.
How about that? Doesn’t feel so bad, does it.

Make pastry cream

I am not doing so great. Not terrible; no walls are falling down. It is just a weariness from putting my world in order, which has to be done.
You can, not go to the dentist, but it is not going to be pretty or make it any easier in the end. There is no way through but through.

I tell you this, not because I want to. I would rather tell you how to make a creme anglaise so good that there is no such thing as saying no thank you. The kind of creme anglaise you have to pull up a chair to and get serious with.
I tell you this, because if you are struggling with whatever is working your subterranean nerve, you are not alone.

Creme anglaise

Creme anglaise 1 cup cream, 1/2 vanilla bean, cut down center and scraped with all added to pot. bring cream and milk to a simmer. Whisk 3 egg yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar until thick. Add a bit of cream to egg yolk, then a bit more, whisking constantly. Return to a simmer, never allowing to boil and always whisking. When it coats the back of a wooden spoon and your finger dragged through what is left on the spoon leaves a mark, it is done.

Serve it with an apple tart or just a spoon for direct dipping in.

Cook

I had breakfast with my neighbor this morning. She had bread from She Wolf, pastries from Little Spain and fruit from the farmers’ market. She loves food as much as I do. I stole pastries from my cafe and paid with my own cash money for Harney&sons cranberry tea and my ever favorite slab bacon, from Greenpoint.
We used to just know each other to say hello, but then there was a situation which put me on the lamb, which put me in the position of knocking on her door, to ask if she were by chance, looking for a temporary roommate.
Her answer was, “No. I am not looking for a roommate, and I will never want a roommate. But you are welcome to stay.”
No questions asked. I stayed for three weeks, until I figured out a permanent crib.
We both wake up at the crack of dawn. We would find each other in the kitchen and make our own coffee and drink it together, and sometimes I would steal pastries from the cafe then too. I cooked for her a few
times, but not enough.
Now, we are friends; so now I can make it up to her. I will just keep cooking.
Always good to have cooking in your pocket.

Love

When something happens like 19 people are shot and killed, again, innocent, loving, living individual people who all had lives and hopes and friends and family and a path in this world, as everyone should, that was never meant for annihilation while shopping or going to church or to the movies or to school, we all die a little death. We belong to them and they belong to us and so we live together and we die together. We are not as separate as it would be convenient to be. We have a responsibility for each other, which is why we feel it, why we should feel it, when one of us dies a death that wasn’t meant to be. A death, that maybe if we grabbed a hold of that current that binds us and found the voice to speak to it, we could demand together that we need to care more, love more, shout louder, stand stronger in the name of the freedom to live a day as we intended to live it, in peace and safe from a well fed and hate fueled fire of bullets.
It is not war we need to fight. Revenge will not lift us from this. It is raging anger worn as a coat over an abyss of fear that drives and accepts this horror show.
It is love that we have to figure our way to. Don’t be fooled. There is no weakness in coming to the conclusion of love. Love takes more courage, knowledge, and action than any war ever fought.
In war you fight to the death. In love, you have to keep going, keep growing and keep living.

Love with everything you have got. Make it contagious. Do everything you can to keep us together. All of us.
Feed people.

Tests

When I was 26, I moved to Champaign Urbana. I was a wife. It was different out there. For one thing, it is flat. If you had a marble, you could roll it from Kanakee to Champaign, and it would get there, on time.
Corn and soy stretch as far as you can see. It is like an ocean. Driving through with the crops rising on either side, makes you feel like Moses.
When the moving men got back in the truck to go home, I had an interior sign held up that said “don’t leave me here.”
I food shopped a lot. At Schnucks, there was no problem parking. There was an aisle dedicated to corn dogs. I tried to make friends with the check out girl. She was super friendly, but a little weirded out when I asked her what she was doing after work.
My upstairs neighbor, who sold drugs for a pharmaceutical company invited me to a Junior League meeting. At the initiation, a sort of cheerleader stood up and gave a speech about love and happiness and inclusion. She asked if anybody had a question. I raised my hand and stood up and asked why it was that nobody had skin not even a shade darker than mine in the auditorium. I said it made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t asked back.
I was 15 years younger than my husband’s colleagues. They had that look in their eye when I spoke that you get when you look at puppies in a window. They are cute, but you have no time; if you go in, you’ll miss your bus.
I swam every day and worked out a lot.
I hated to cook then.
I auditioned for a play and I got the role of the shrink in Agnes of God. I tried to relearn how to smoke in my basement for the part. It made my husband uncomfortable. He was sure I would start it up again. I had a bit of a habit when I was nine.
I did find friends; I found beautiful friends, but to really love someone in that way that feels like home, can take a while.
I missed my family, who are not the type to call much. I did terrible tests like waiting to see how long it would take my mother to call me if I didn’t call her first. I waited six weeks and then picked up the phone. I didn’t mention the test.
“What are you doing, Mom?” I asked her.
“What do you think I am doing? I am baking. It is Christmas.”
“I am homesick.”
“You are what?”
“Homesick.”
“I don’t know why all of you mumble into the phone.”
“I miss you, Mom.”
“I miss you too, Doll.”

That is all you need.
This is what she was baking in that minute; you don’t have to wait for Christmas. Just think of Christmas. It will cool you down.

Cream cheese cookies

1 stick butter
3 ounces cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese together til light. Add sugar gradually and beat more. Add the flour and salt and stir just to combine.
Drop on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees until the edges are just golden.

They are excellent plain with a lime Rickey ice cream soda or
if you don’t have the ingredients, just eat them without. Or a little orange marmalade or homemade raspberry jam. I know, I don’t stop.

I Admit it. I am my son’s wing(wo)man

Filomena was walking out her front door to sit on the top stoop as I was walking up the street at about 8:15. I had been waiting down at the front on a bench by the water; waiting for Ferdinand’s call to tell me he was ready for dinner.
“You want to come inside?”, she said. And she started to turn around to go back in and make me a cup of espresso or a pork chop.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Why not?”
Filomena is lonely. Her friend Giuseppe has gone to Italy for a month, so she has no one to talk to. She will smile at you if you are ambling past, and maybe a wave, but she doesn’t speak English, so that is it. I speak enough Italian to keep her happy.
“I have to make the pasta,” I told her. “Ferdinand called me and he is ready to eat.”
“He has gotta eat.” she said.
She wouldn’t even think to question my role as wing(wo)man. She has been doing it for 65 years. It is her calling. We talk one wing(wo)man to another. What we cooked last night, what we are going to cook tomorrow, where to buy the best meat, how much we paid for it, and how much they ate.
“He said he is hungry tonight, Filomena; I am going to drop the whole box of macaroni.”
“Brava ragazz’.”
That is me. Brava Ragazz’. That is why I love Filomena.

Speak up

You can’t be a little pregnant. You either are, or you aren’t. I wait for that feeling when I have to decide something life changing. The feeling when you have no doubt. You know. Not, “Oh, I think my boobs hurt.” When you can feel it growing. That is when I make my move.

That is how you cook. Confidence. You have to get on the horse. Otherwise, what are you making? You are making who you are. You are making what you want. Work on it. Be clear. Then speak to it.

Get in the Swing of a Good Thing

Sometimes you just have to keep things private. Tiny crimes. Everything, when you are on the subway. Midnight at the fridge. Or when you have a thought that wanders in and makes itself at home in the still of night. Won’t let you go. Won’t rest til it’s spoken and known. That kind of thing.
And you thought I was a bean spiller. Ha.
Let’s just go right to the beans.

Couldn’t be easier, but buy the good ones. Who are you helping not paying another two dollars for top shelf dried beans? My favorite are Rancho Gordo. If you are in the city, they have them at Essex Street Market; if they aren’t at a store near you, get them off the internet. Get a few; they will last and you can give them as gifts.
Soak overnight.
For chickpeas or white beans:
After soaking, refresh in cold water and bring to a simmer. Add a few bay leaves, a half an onion, half a seeded tomato and a long green chile. Give it a pour of best olive oil (flavor) and a good shot of salt. Keep the water short over the top, giving the pot a spill of cold water every once in a while. Don’t worry about that no salt til the end thing; I don’t know who started that rumor, but it is false news. Just be sure your dried beans are relatively young. Dried beans have a life span.

Towards the end, start tasting the pot. The liquid should have condensed to more of a sauce and you should be able to taste a bit of the olive oil and salt. Give it a grind of black pepper. A shot of vinegar can be good if you want to sharpen them, but start with just a capful.
Serve with rice, a zesty tomatillo sauce, chopped green onions and cilantro.
Or go Italian and make a salsa verde to stir in and serve with a wedge of pecorino on the table and the best bread you can find.