Happy Irish-Italian-American Day!

irish-Italian
[Picture of red tomatoes and a box of spaghetti above. Picture of shamrock and plaque that read “Home is where your story begins” surrounded by Celtic knots below]

I am half Irish-American and half Italian-American, more or less, give or take. On the Irish side there are a few Scottish and French ancestors, and on the Italian side we are more accurately Sicilian. This is a fairly common background for people who live near Chicago, Boston, or New York, as both of these European immigrant groups settled in these cities in large numbers. I get that it isn’t very common in the rest of the country – when I lived in Tennessee and Texas I was hard-pressed to find anyone who was either Irish-American or Italian-American, much less both.

Chicago, however, is city that dyes its river green every St. Patrick’s Day and has a bag-pipe filled parade. It is also a city that celebrates St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th with groaning tables of Italian food and the color red. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, Joseph the patron saint of Italy. It stands to reason, that in the Chicagoland area March 18th should be Irish-Italian-American Day. You know, split the difference and celebrate the best of both cultures.

My brother and I went back and forth on suggestions. Maybe of viewing of Brooklyn or Return to Me (apparently there is an Irish-Italian restaurant). I can’t remember if it is A Bronx Tale or Goodfellas that features characters who cannot be full mafiasos because they are part Irish-but I’m thinking I’m tired of Italian heritage being reduced to the mob. Maybe I’ll watch the beautifully animated Song of the Sea again.

My general feeling is that I would be best served eating Italian (and Italian-American) food while listening to Irish (and Irish-American) music. Gnocchi, lasagna, caprese salad, tiramisu, cannoli, lemon knot cookies, pizzelle, agli olio, espresso, eggplant parmesean, stuffed artichokes, pasta fagioli. Gaelic Storm, the Cheiftains, Van Morrison, Flogging Molly, U2.

The reverse would be all right too, if perhaps a tad less illustrious. I really do love a good stew, potatoes are always a favorite, and my oldest kid even likes cabbage. I can appreciate opera (Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti is heaven) and Frank Sinatra will always have my heart.

I could binge read, James Joyce and Dante, William Butler Yeats and Petrarch.

Check out the artwork of the Book of Kells, and the Renaissance.

Drink beer or wine.

And both places are beautiful.

You know, it is almost as if there is no wrong way to celebrate.

So for everyone out there who has both Irish and Italian heritage in America, in between Shamrock Shakes and sweets tables, there is one day that could celebrate both. Let’s do it!

Happy March 18th, everybody!

In a Land of Twelve Kinds of Cupcakes…

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For my younger son’s seventh birthday we had an experimental bake-off as one of his presents.  He is always coming up with flavor combinations he wants to try, be it a lemon peanut butter cup (which was actually amazing) to an apple orange soymilk smoothie (a lot less amazing). He has wanted to experiment with cupcake flavors forever, so when he got home from school we had a whole table of ingredients and sprinkles and frosting ready to mess around with. We whipped up basic vanilla and chocolate batter and set out all of our extracts (vanilla, almond, peppermint, orange, lemon, coconut and anise) all of the fruit in the house, nuts and candies and toffee bits and chocolate chips and marshmallows and food coloring and Teddy Grahams.

He was beside himself. The four of us, him, me, my husband and my older son would make three different experimental flavors each, and we started plotting and planning and dicing and mixing. In no particular order we ended up with…

  • Peanut butter-banana-chocolate with chocolate frosting
  • Lemon-banana-vanilla with yellow lemon-vanilla frosting
  • Maple-pecan-vanilla with cream cheese frosting
  • Chocolate-marshmallow with chocolate frosting and Teddy Grahams
  • Peppermint-chocolate-sprinkles with chocolate frosting and holiday sprinkles
  • Vanilla-strawberry with vanilla frosting and red sprinkles
  • Chocolate-Rice Krispies with purple-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Orange-chocolate-chocolate chip with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-almond-cherry jelly bean with pink-tinted vanilla frosting and a red jelly bean
  • Lemon zest-chocolate chip-vanilla with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-orange-pine nut-freeze dried strawberry with orange marmalade vanilla frosting
  • Classic chocolate with teal-tinted peppermint vanilla frosting and pastel sprinkles

The cupcake production was going full tilt…until it came grinding to a halt. In the midst of us all being excited about trying our cupcakes out for dessert that night, my husband casually mentioned that we could have friends and family test them out the next day at the huge family birthday in our little guy’s honor. That stopped him dead in his tracks. He suddenly refused to do any more – even though he had only come up with two of his three designs. Even though he had been so bouncy before. Even though the only reason we had to come up with this idea was that we knew it would make him extravagantly happy. He stopped.

We should have known. Our seven-year-old is terrified of other people’s reactions to his creative work. He has been known to throw Lego creations when they don’t work out, or to literally not move once he feels he is being watched too closely. He dances joyfully at home and messes around with a guitar, but the thought of taking lessons for either paralyzes his fun.

He sat angry on the couch as first I tried to coax out of him what was wrong, then his father took a turn. Eventually my husband was able to get him to admit that he was worried other people might hate his cupcakes. We first reassured him that people would love them, and if they didn’t it would be okay. When that was met with a skeptic scowl, we then reassured him that only our little family of four would ever taste them if that would make him happiest. My husband got him to design his last cupcake-the classic chocolate one with the elaborate topping.

 

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He is my child, for sure.

I am the one who procrastinated on writing papers until the last moment because if they turned out badly I could blame it on the time crunch. I am the one who was given an opportunity to write the introduction to an online curriculum series in college and turned it down because it made me too nervous. I am the one who decided I would rather be “well-rounded” than put all my energy into ballet. I am the one who got solos, but would then show up to voice lessons and even competitions woefully underprepared. I am the one who refused to let anyone coach me on my monologue audition I would perform just once for over twenty colleges’ theater departments.

Sometimes my fears honed my actual work into a fine point – my almost late papers taught me how to get an “A” even with limited time by using my (not-often-used) laser focus, my monologue got me admission into ten different theater departments. But then I kept shooting myself in the foot. I didn’t go into theater for fear of a lifetime of rejections. I don’t dance or sing anymore except in my own kitchen. I still write though, and I am trying for my youngest to show him that putting your creative work out there in the world is incredibly difficult, especially for him and for me, but that it really is the only way to be happy. It is the only way to be true to yourself, to be honest with who you are and what you bring to the world – putting your work out there for other people to see.

The beauty of living in a land with twelve kinds of cupcake is that you haven’t put all your hopes and dreams into just one cupcake. When you make just one, you are scared of your aunt who doesn’t care for chocolate, worried about the cousin who is allergic to nuts, terrified that another cousin will think it is too boring or that your grandpa with think it too crazy or that your grandma will say she likes it even if she really doesn’t.  When you have twelve different kinds of cupcakes, twelve experiments of flavor and texture and color it is okay that the jelly beans fell out of the bottom of one but left a delicate delicious flavor. It is okay that the peanut butter banana was too dense, it’s a great surprise that lemon and banana together is light and airy. It is more than okay to make a classic chocolate cupcake perfectly simple and beautiful decorated.

I am trying to take my own lesson from this. Right now I am grateful I am letting myself send so many cupcakes into the world, because I am less worried about each one being perfect.

I have, out there in submission-land and in no particular order…

  • A very short piece about school shooting fears
  • A very long piece about a hurricane evacuation while I taught high school
  • A medium piece about being mistreated as a patient with chronic illness
  • A rewrite of a blog piece about speech delays, open heart surgery and one-syllable words
  • A rejected piece about science fairs and art that turned into a blog post

And

  • An accepted piece about baby food, insecurity and watermelon

 

Eventually, in the sixth hour of his family party, our youngest let other people try out his cupcakes, once the big cake had been served, once the numbers of guests dwindled and he felt happy and content and comfortable with sharing his creativity. I think it went well, and I hope both he and I remember that while sharing can be scary, there are tricks to make it less so. And, ultimately, even if you are temporarily paralyzed with fear, moving forward anyways is worth it.

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Essay at Mamanomnom.com

Ripe Watermelon

 

Hi! I have an essay published today at mamanomnom.com called Watermelon Mush.  It is about feeling inadequate as a new mom and how that DOES NOT lead to culinary greatness.  I’m excited to be a part of this new food writing offshoot of Mamalode, to combine culinary and parenting writing in one place. If you know me you know I love my kids and I love my food, so this is a perfect fit!

Hope you can check it out!

Love,

Kristin

Tiny Bites

big bowl pomegranate

The bowl of little red jewels caught the light, the reward for nearly a half an hour of preparation. Pomegranates require patience. Once scored you can peel back the tough outer layer and begin to use your hands as claws pulling sections apart. Submerging the whole fruit under water, you can delicately loosen the gems from their white pith moorings and let them sink gently to the bottom of the bowl. Some will fall easily without bursting. Some will require finesse, like wiggling a baby tooth loose from pink-red gums. Some arils will split under too much pressure or when they catch the edge of your nail, but there are thousands upon thousands left to pick from. Like fish eggs, we assume so many are created because inevitably so many will be lost along the way. The whole lot is drained though a fine mesh, and the work continues picking out the blemished and the burst, rescuing the ones that need the last bits of white scraped off their bottoms. Then they are ready to eat.

I worried about this Thanksgiving. My body is dysfunctional in that way that means specialist doctors with extensive waitlists, daily confusion as to what healthy can look like for me, the possibility that something is very wrong or that no one will really know what the problem is. Until the cause of that dysfunction is uncovered, most of the canon of holiday food is actively dangerous to me if I lose my inhibitions and eat too much. Candied sweet potatoes and stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, cocktails and pecan pie are only safe for me in .01 parts per million, like arsenic. Turkey and green beans are acceptable. I worried about how empty and sparse my plate would look. That that emptiness might feel so much like sadness, or grief.

I worried that all the time it takes to make all these things, the hours and hours of peeling and mashing and sautéing would feel like masochism. Like deprivation. Like resentment of the people I love for being able to enjoy these things when I couldn’t. I worried that my love of cooking was purely selfish and greedy, that I was able to indulge my gluttony by it, but didn’t enjoy serving other people no matter how much I care for them.

Worse yet, I worried that my family would be able to see the sadness and selfishness flash across my face. The twin commandments I placed on myself, to be truthful and to be loving, were going to be compromised either one way or another. I didn’t want to lie, nor did I want to pout in envy, and I was quite convinced that at least one would be unavoidable.

As I worked through the process of freeing the pomegranate arils with my oldest son, as I shopped and cooked and cooked and cooked, I was happily surprised that I didn’t feel unhappy at all. The work was as satisfying as it had always been. I felt happy to make, and make, and make without hope of more than a mouthful of each treat. Without the expectation of tangible reward. And I was absolutely relieved to find out that I could be content that my loved ones could have something I couldn’t. The frustration I anticipated in myself dissolved before it materialized.

I had a beautifully happy Thanksgiving, where I got to find out that I still love cooking, I still love my friends and family more than my gluttony, I still can enjoy life with just a taste of this or that, I can be more than my self-pity.

Persephone, the goddess of springtime, spends part of each year as the Queen of the Underworld. We have one month of winter for each pomegranate seed she ate while in the keep of Hades, her kidnapper. As I allowed myself just a few arils out of the thousands we harvested for Thanksgiving, I let the juice burst into my mouth one by one. I was happy with my few, and thought ruefully that four months of winter was more than enough. Too many pomegranate seeds and spring might never come again. But the temptation to have at least a few is too much to pass up altogether, especially when winter, in all its coziness and closeness, is pretty wonderful.

4 pomegranates

Standing Still-A Free-Write Response

Literary Mama had a free-writing prompt today asking, “Consider how you make space and time for stillness.  How do you slow down?” I decided to free write today, to answer that question for myself.

pizza

Home-made pizza is what makes me slow down. It is a ridiculously slow process for something I can get other people to bring to me, hot and ready, for a really nominal fee. I live in such a busy suburb of Chicago I can even get deep dish pizza delivered within the half hour. But scheduling in homemade pizza as a dinner is my way of saying to myself, “We are not bound by deadlines today, we are not going to try to make, eat and clean up from dinner in thirty minutes so we can rush off to do God knows what else that seems more important than just relaxing.” It takes time to knead the dough, to let it rise, to roll it out, to get everyone’s apron on and off, to let everyone put their own toppings on, to take pictures of the pizzas before they cook (always) to clean up the four cookie sheets and one glass bowl we need to use, to wipe down the flour-covered counter and floor and to let the piping hot pizzas cool off enough to eat. We eat on a blanket in front of the TV. It is a signal. We do not need to rush every moment of our lives. We have a luxury of time we either don’t admit we have over fears of looking too privileged, or don’t use because we fear we’ll be the only ones. This is a signal that the world doesn’t need to swirl around us, that pausing and taking unnecessary time together is necessary.

Becoming a Hobbit This Summer

I haven’t posted much for June, and I apologize. Things have shifted and changed around here with the seasons.

Our peonies came and went, huge fluffy pom poms of pink that were delicately soft for being so big.

I swore like a sailor when I found standardized testing “practice” workbooks in the usual end of the year backpack debris field. They were brand new, and I suspect the school wants us to use them. I growled, “I taught, if I believe that you sitting down to do these workbooks is more educational than the other things we plan to do this summer, we will do them. If I don’t, we won’t.” And so far we haven’t.

The boys and I have been very busy sitting in the grass, plucking little maple seedlings out of the lawn to see if the helicopter seeds are still attached.

maple

There are thousands of them, confirming my belief that if we all abandoned our houses, this whole neighborhood would be a forest in just a few short years.

We planted a garden and rabbits managed to eat our parsley. However the basil, cucumbers, and a variety of heirloom tomato the boys picked out only for its name “Mr. Stripey” are doing just fine. Oh, and so are the yellow tomatoes we planted named, like a character out of West Side Story, “Lemon Boy”.

Other changes have happened with my health, negative at first, then positive. Near Memorial Day I realized that while I always feel tired, I was falling asleep more and more often right after eating. It would be a swoon, almost a faint, where my body felt like lead and I couldn’t hold myself upright a second longer. It looked more and more like reactive hypoglycemia, a problem my doctor had casually mentioned years ago in passing, and one that fit my patterns of fatigue and anxiety almost exactly. In this condition, if you eat too many sugars or carbs at one sitting without enough protein or fiber, your blood sugar spikes dramatically and too much insulin is sent in to deal with it. Consequently, your blood sugar then drops too low causing jitters, anxiety, extreme fatigue and sometimes a confusion that seemed suspiciously like when I would experience “fibro fog”. I’ve done crazier things for my health, so I didn’t hesitate long to try a hypoglycemic diet designed to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day. You eat every two to three hours with low carb, high protein, high fruit and vegetable but small meals. No sweets, no caffeine, no alcohol.

paleo casserole

I feel a lot better. When eating perfectly balanced meals seven times a day is less of a hassle than the symptoms you were dealing with before, you know you may have really been sick. When spending a day of the week making a paleo egg breakfast casserole and roasting chicken and assembling salads and taking a short break to snack on hummus and carrots actually seems like it is a bargain for all the energy you’ve gotten back, maybe you really did have a blood sugar problem.

With this change, something else has happened since the seasons have changed that I never thought would. I have been able to take the boys to the pool, and parks, and to tennis courts, and for hikes around our ponds without the fear that it would be too much. That I would get so scared for them that I would limit what they were allowed to do. That I would become an emotional wreck and start yelling at them unnecessarily in public. That I would feel so sick that I would throw up, or need to collapse, or need to rush home. We’ve spent years, and years, doing not a lot because I just couldn’t.

While I tried to focus on all that I could do, that we could do, it wasn’t nearly as much as other families could. If we went to the zoo with you, or a splash park or a playground and I seemed breezy and happy-go-lucky and fine, some part of that was always a benign lie. Getting through that outing was usually a day or so of planning to make sure it went smoothly and weighing whether the time and energy it would require was worth it. The day after was spent in recuperation, getting either my anxiety back in check or my body, all the while having to tell the boys “no” over and over until I felt well enough to handle the process again. If we did make it, know that I had weighed that it was worth it, that the pain I might have gone through to have that experience was one I said “yes” to, and I absolutely meant it. That part was sincere, if it looked like it was a light and casual thing, that part was not.

Suddenly I have the summer as a stay-at-home mom I had always wanted to have with my boys.

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I haven’t had to tell them “no” nearly as often. I have been able to say “yes” with just a moment’s notice, or “yes” to multiple outing in the same day. They are going to become spoiled rotten soon. I still have fibromyalgia, and still have unexplained pain. One evening I did have to tell them that I thought the water at the pool would be too cold for me, and that my muscles might cramp. They did, making it very painful to walk back to the car. But, the overwhelming fatigue is mostly gone and in a pain and fatigue disease, that is literally half the battle.

So, I haven’t written in a while because I have been finally busy just enjoying summer. And because I have suddenly become a hobbit, preparing and eating breakfast and second breakfast and elevensies and luncheon and afternoon tea and dinner and supper. I do find myself walking barefoot through the long soft summer grass more than ever before, and I have always been fairly short.

Poultry

poultry

My youngest child has always had a fondness for birds, though as I try to trace it back I can’t quite describe when it began.

When I was pregnant with his older brother, I dreamt that my little baby was a songbird. I don’t know that I ever shared that story with the boys.

His older brother’s favorite stuffed animal since birth was a large penguin named Narnie.

I sing the song “Little Bird” from The Man of La Mancha every night as I tuck them in. It begins, “Little bird, little bird, in the cinnamon tree…little bird, little bird, please take pity on me…”

When my youngest turned four I began calling him my duckling. His soft light hair reminded me so much of a baby bird’s pin feathers.

We have a bird feeder, though quite often we forget to fill it. Near our house we have seen red-winged blackbirds and Canadian geese, robins and cardinals, finches and seagulls, herons and red-tailed hawks.

My youngest has a collection, now, of stuffed animals that are birds. There are a mama and baby owl set named Snowy and Syrup. There are huge ducklings, smallish penguins, a chick and even a wild turkey. The birds nearly always keep the coveted stuffed animal spot on the bed, and rarely see the inside of the toy chest.

I suppose it was just a natural progression of his fondness that two weeks before Thanksgiving he suddenly found it unbearable to think of chickens and turkeys being eaten. I admit that all the billboards and television cooking shows made his sadness thicker. Everywhere there were raw birds, golden birds, chefs advising ways to tuck back wings and tie up legs. The carcass of a bird was identifiable as the body of something missing a head and stripped nude. He cried, quite often.

For those two weeks, and a few weeks after, he would not touch chicken or turkey, though both had made up half of his dinners before. We shielded him from seeing our Thanksgiving turkey as much as we could, and at the long dinner table that night he got to sit next to his uncle who is vegan, and revel in being with a like-minded soul.

In the midst of it all I wondered aloud with him if one thing that troubled him was the language we use. When we eat beef we don’t say were having “cow”. When we eat pork or bacon or ham we don’t automatically call it “pig”. I asked him if it would help him at least feel less sad if we called chicken and turkey “poultry”. He agreed that it would, that he would not have pictures in his head of a live chicken and a dead chicken at the same time.

As a whole family we’ve had more vegetarian meals lately, and also more beef and pork overall when we do eat meat. When we go to fast food restaurants I ask the boys if they want “Poultry Fingers” or hamburgers or mac and cheese. At home for dinner we still sometimes have “Poultry Vesuvio” or “Poultry Cacciatore” or “Barbeque Poultry Baked Potatoes.”

The word “poultry” seems to soften his stance on not eating “poultry” – since we started using that word he will sometimes choose the fingers or have a bit shredded in a soup. And while it buys me some time to get him acclimated to healthy vegetarian food and makes life a little easier from meal to meal, I feel dirty. I have marketed chicken differently, and so hidden the parts that are so objectionable to my five-year-old, and made it okay for him again. I am wondering how much longer I will hold out using the word “poultry” before I decide to say “chicken” or “turkey” again. When I switch back I have to be prepared that might be the end of my child eating meat and some radical changes are going to be happening around here.

He is developing empathy for other living creatures, and I cannot be mad at that.

The day before Thanksgiving he and his brother made posters about saving endangered species, protecting the food chain, discouraging hunters.

One says, at the top, “Do not hurt animals”.

Another of the posters asked, “Do you promise?”

I promise to try, my duckling.

I promise to remember that birds are your friends.

I promise to be respectful on that day when you finally do tell me you won’t be eating poultry ever again.