We are who we are

I grew up a tough little tomboy perpetually riding in my older brother’s wake, and often wished I had been born a boy as well so that I could do all the things that he could do. Well into my teens, strangers would ask me, “are you a boy or a girl?” and my answer often surprised them. Even so, I have always known and accepted (at some stages more gracefully than others) that I am a female person in a female body. The longer I live, the more I appreciate the gifts of my gender, even while chafing against the restrictions it also imposes. When I entertain the idea of being male now, I find it distasteful. I won’t get into the details of why.

I will confess, I don’t really understand transgenderism and I know I’m not alone in that. Gender is an enormous component of one’s identity, and having any confusion around that is a ticket to all kinds of struggles: personally, interpersonally and socially. The first distinction we make about any person is “he” or “she.” With few exceptions, human beings are not able to conceptualize or tolerate anything outside of or in between those two poles.

But I do understand and give mad props to unconditional love and clear-eyed acceptance of people as they are even when they are not what we want them to be or wish they were. That’s why I so appreciate the story of Jeff and Hillary Whittington and their son Ryland as told in the CNN Films video “Raising Ryland.” (Sorry, video preview is not available.)

http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/03/17/digital-shorts-parenting-transgender-child-orig.cnn

As soon as he could speak, 3-year-old Ryland began telling his parents that he was a boy and that he wanted to cut his long hair and wear boy’s clothing. They were understandably shocked and incredulous, and they could have shouted him down, mocked him, or isolated and punished him into complying with their understanding of which gender their child was biologically assigned at birth. But they didn’t. They listened to him. They supported him. They defended him. They loved him. And no matter what or who he chooses to be later in his life, he is always going to know that his family has his back, and that he is a person of value. There is no greater gift that parents can give their children.

The Whittington family.

The Whittington family.

In an open letter, Hillary Whittington warned all their friends and family that should they choose not to support her and her husband’s decision to accept their child as he is, they can expect that their relationship with the entire Whittingon family will no longer progress because “Our child’s happiness is most important to us.” Amen! Really, what else is there? Maintaining the appearance of “normality” for the sake of keeping society’s approval? Rigidly demanding adherence to a single definition of reality that their child is unable to accept? Living in isolation, shame and fear until somebody breaks down, or dies? All because of a simple quirk of biology? No.

We are who we are, and I hope that someday human beings will learn how to see one another as souls and spirits with infinite potential rather than as mere bodies born to play ancient, predestined roles.

I wish this little boy and his family all the best.

Mirepoix Soup

Winter seems to have passed us by altogether this year. After a couple of weeks of snow and ice in early November, it’s been pretty much spring ever since. Everything is budding and blooming and greening up earlier than I’ve ever seen it. But today, after several sunny days in a row, was overcast, which put me in a mood for soup.

Inspired by a recipe from Food 52 for Jane Grigson’s Celery Soup, I decided to clean out the last of the hardy veggies from my fridge and counter tops. I had all I needed for mirepoix, plus a few potatoes and some garlic, and that right there is a fine soup base. Add an outrageous amount of butter and soon all will be right with the world.

chopped-veggies

Mirepoix Soup

Ingredients
1 stick butter
3-4 c each onion, carrots, celery and potatoes, cut in 1/2″ dice
6-8 garlic cloves (or to taste), thinly sliced
4 c mushroom or chicken stock (I use Better Than Bouillon)
1 Tbs dried thyme
2 Tbs Tarragon Pepper Blend
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt (or to taste)

Preparation
  1. Melt the butter in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion, carrots, celery, potatoes and garlic and stir well to coat.
  3. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook about 10 minutes.
  4. Add stock, herbs, salt and bay leaves and bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove bay leaves and blend to desired level of smoothness with a stick blender.
  6. Just before serving, stir in 1 tsp of any kind of flavored vinegar you like, such as tarragon, golden balsamic, sherry, or apple cider. It only takes a little to add a tremendous depth of flavor.

A bowl or two of that warmed me up nicely, and I shared the rest with my neighbors who are in various stages of a winter cold.

The sun is expected to come out again tomorrow, so I can go back to thinking about washing the car and mowing the lawn.

Hustlers and their schemes

I got a text message this afternoon while I was out and about asking if I could photograph an event. My spidey sense immediately started to tingle because 1) who hires anybody by text message? and 2) the text originated from an area code on the other side of the country from me. My first impulse was to reply that I do products and real estate but not event photography, but okay, alright, I have a few minutes free right now, so let’s see what they have in mind. I text back, “If the event is local, possibly.”

The guy says he is hearing impaired, hence the texting (okay). He has a family reunion coming up in two weeks in my town, and he provides an apparently legit local address (okay). He wants a whole package of different sizes of prints (I am not a photo studio) and six hours of my time to photograph 30 to 40 people in attendance (sounds like a long day, but okay, doable). What is my firm price, he wants to know, and then tells me his budget is $1,000 (whoa, big money!). And oh by the way, will I take a credit card? (ding! warning bell!).

After asking him a few questions, I offered 40 to 50 finished digital files, no prints, and 6 hours of my time for $750, and I didn’t mention payment terms. His reply, in all its scrambled message order and garbled syntax, was almost instant.

scammer1

I have learned the hard way that when a client asks for any kind of favor involving money, granting it will not be to my advantage. My internal warning bell rang louder, but I played along.

scammer2

Now I could see exactly what was going on, and he was kind enough to explain it precisely for me.

scammer3

Well, there it is. I could have been out more than $2,000 in no time flat. Does anyone actually fall for this?

I wasn’t even offended that he tried to con me. I get that crap every day by phone and email; only the texting part is new this time.

scammer4

I immediately blocked his number, then Googled it. Both the number and the name he gave me have been reported for scamming. What a surprise. Next time I get a fishy text like this, I’ll go to Google first!

Food overload

The trash gets picked up on Wednesdays in my neighborhood, so this morning I wheeled my big tote to the curb loaded down with heavy, dripping bags of rotting food from my own refrigerator. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and may Demeter have mercy on my soul. It was a very bad week for wasting food in my house.

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

I let my Bountiful Baskets get away from me, faithfully picking one up every week for three weeks in a row even though I still had produce piled all over my counters from the weeks before. I gave some of it to my neighbors and I did prep a lot of it into usable ingredients so I would have them available for cooking … but somehow the cooking part just didn’t come together before things started turning slimy and spotty. Which reminds me why I’ve always been leery of fresh food: It just doesn’t last that long. Not long enough, anyway, for me to 1) figure out how to use it and 2) get motivated to do so.

When I told a friend once that I like to cook, her first question was, “don’t you end up wasting a lot of food because you live alone?” I thought it was an odd query because why would my living alone make any difference? No, I told her, I am pretty good about using what I buy. And I always have been, for the most part. But every so often, my ambitions get ahead of my appetite, and much waste results.

I recently learned that food waste decomposing in landfills is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is a likely contributor to climate change. I don’t want to participate in that slow-motion catastrophe any more than I absolutely have to (and unfortunately, we all have to), so I’m thinking about getting a composter for my kitchen scraps. Maybe one like this, which is off the ground to keep the dogs from scrounging through it.

compost-bin

Tumbling Composter from Home Depot.

For all the peels, pits, rinds, seeds, soft spots, and other food scraps that I put in the garbage every week, this just might make a difference.

My fridge is now cleared of all but a few hardy veggies with long shelf lives, and my counters are mostly visible again—although I do still have a big jicama bulb and several pounds of blue potatoes from my basket that I am not sure yet what to do with. I didn’t get a basket this week, and won’t get one next week. I’m waiting to go grocery shopping until the last egg, the last carrot, the last drop of milk, and the last piece of bread are all gone. And then I’m going to be more careful about how I stock my kitchen.

food-dont-waste-it

This World War II-era propaganda poster is still good advice today.

 

La cucina dell’amore

Finally, I have found a recipe that I would, without hesitation, employ to seduce someone with a home-cooked meal. Didn’t get the chance to use it this Valentine’s Day, but maybe next year!

Amid all the online clamor about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie premiere this weekend, I came across a cookbook called “Fifty Shades of Chicken.” Truly, it redefines the “food porn” genre with both its language and its photography. It is intended to be a parody of the best-selling book, so the overwrought writing style is similar (or so I understand; I haven’t read any of the books in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy and don’t plan to see any of the movies made from same).

50-shades-chicken

Its Amazon listing includes a sample recipe for Dripping Thighs (if this and other highly suggestive language offends you, don’t click any of the links in this post and definitely do not watch the video on the book’s website), which I made tonight.

The chicken thighs are baked after being bathed in a sticky, sweet, savory sauce of onions in reduced white wine seasoned with cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, enriched with butter, and sweetened with honey. This unusual flavor combination is an over-the-fence home run. I regret that I had but a single stomach to devote to the meal, it was so very good. My reaction while eating it was not unlike Julia Child’s when she first tasted Sole Meunière.

If you’re nervous about clicking through to Amazon or the book’s website, here is the recipe. We can call it “Seduction Chicken,” if you prefer.

Ingredients
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry with paper towels
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tsp plus pinch coarse kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 c white wine
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs honey

Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the chicken, garlic, 1 tsp salt, and pepper together.
  3. In a small saucepan, simmer together onion, wine, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Add honey and butter and stir until butter is melted.
  4. Spoon the mixture over the chicken and toss well. Spread thighs, onion mixture, and any juices onto a baking sheet. Bake until chicken is no longer pink and onions are meltingly tender and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

I had a 2-pound package of chicken thighs, so I doubled the recipe, but otherwise made it as written. I found that “simmering” the sauce on low heat won’t get the job done in 15 or 20 minutes; you’ll need to either raise the temp to medium-high or wait a whole lot longer for the wine to reduce. Also, I was a little worried about the onions burning at 450 degrees, so I turned the oven down to 400 halfway through and they were not really caramelized but were definitely “meltingly tender.”

I’ve made some mighty tasty dishes in my day, but this one is miles ahead of all the rest. I can hardly wait to start working my way through the entire cookbook.

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

I got several plump zucchini in my CSA basket this week and, as some of you know, I cannot abide squash of any kind. I considered whether to give them away or throw them away before deciding to get some use out of them, so I used them for knife practice. I julienned them, then brunoised them. I focused on keeping my fingers away from the blade (100% success), making uniform pieces (eh, not so much, but I’m getting better), and increasing my working speed (really no success at all there; I’m a plodder, but at least I never cut myself).

Once the zucchini were all so nicely (if not perfectly uniformly) diced, I thought that I ought to do something with them. If that something involved butter and garlic, I was pretty sure I would be able to eat it and like it. So I made this, which is the first recipe I have ever created and written, all by myself, from scratch, start to finish.

Rotini Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Ingredients
2 Tbs olive or avocado oil
1 Tbs butter
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 medium zucchini, diced (about 4-5 cups)
1 large sweet onion, diced (about 2-3 cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
16 oz rotini pasta, cooked according to package directions
1/2 c basil pesto
1 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c fresh basil chiffonade
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high for 5 minutes. Add oil and butter and heat until butter foams.
  2. Add minced garlic and cook for 30-60 seconds until fragrant but not browned.
  3. Add diced zucchini and onion, stirring well to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every several minutes and lowering heat as needed to prevent scorching, until all the water evaporates and the mixture begins to brown. You can keep cooking it until it’s dark brown and fully caramelized, or stop when it’s just partially browned. Up to you.
  4. Boil the pasta to your preferred softness. Scoop out a cup or so of the pasta water before draining. Drain the pasta and place in a large warmed serving dish.
  5. Add the zucchini-onion mixture, pesto, Parmesan and basil to the pasta and stir to combine. Add reserved pasta water as needed to loosen the mixture.

I topped this with some small shrimp, which I sautéed in butter for a few minutes and sprinkled with garlic salt while cooking. I poured the leftover butter in the pan into the bowl of pasta before serving, which gave it a nice, glossy finish.

I thought it tasted absolutely amazing—if you cook zucchini long enough, it essentially disappears, and that is fine by me!

The story of us

We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us. ~ Will Kearney, “On Losing a Dog”

This quote is from a story about a man and his dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer named Dutch. The man is the author’s brother, James. I was moved by this account of love and loss, both for how it mirrors my own and how it doesn’t.

Like Dutch, my big dog Ruby lived with me for the best 10 years of my life before I lost her to hemangiosarcoma in 2007. I’ve said many times, on this blog and elsewhere, that she was the best dog in the world, as is every well-loved dog. Raising her well, giving her a good life, and caring for her to the end are among the best things I have ever done, and I will always be grateful that she was my dog.

Ruby_kiss_2003

Me and my big dog.

Kearney says of his brother, “When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.” On this point, we differ. Ruby changed me profoundly for the better as she, too, gave me all the best parts of herself. And the best parts of me that she drew forth are still vibrantly alive, buoying me up through tough times. She gave me all she had, and I honor her gifts every day. I share them with my little dogs now, as well as with my friends and family and the world in other ways.

The little dogs, too, give me their best, and loving them keeps my heart open and warm and pliable even when it has every reason to shrivel up into a cold, bitter lump of nothing. Hey, I’ve been single for a long damn time, and while that has its advantages, to be sure, it does not foster open-heartedness as a general rule. I know that I cannot survive without an open heart, so in this respect my dogs are my lifeline.

little-dogs

Me and my little dogs.

People have always said that the greatest thing about dogs is that they love us unconditionally. I don’t think that’s true, actually, because I don’t know that animals actually feel what we call love. But I know that people do. And I think the greatest thing about dogs, and all pets, is that they allow us to love them unconditionally. The best human-animal bonds allow us to be who we were born to be: open-hearted, loving, understanding, trusting, patient, kind, and most of all, fully present. Most of us are too afraid to love other people that way, but we can love our animals that way because they place no barriers between themselves and our affections for them. Imagine how the world might change if everyone allowed themselves to love and be loved this way, sharing with one another “the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name.”

“My dog does this amazing thing where he just exists and makes my whole life better because of it.” ~ Found on various internet sites without attribution

I’ve had separate conversations recently with a very dear friend and with my mother, both lovely women, to the effect that their greatest contribution to the world is simply to show up and be themselves because that, in and of itself, is a gift that the world needs. My mother, in particular, feels on some days that because she has such limited mobility since her stroke that she doesn’t have much to offer the world anymore. But in fact, her mere presence is a tangible thing, strongly felt by family, friends and strangers alike—in exactly the same way that her Golden Retriever’s presence is felt by and influences everyone with whom the dog comes in contact.

My mom and her dog, Sunny.

Mom and her dog, Sunny, who makes her laugh.

Sunny has no agenda in her interactions with the world; she takes people just as she finds them and loves them all the same. All she has to offer in any interaction is only herself, and nearly everyone she meets finds that to be not only sufficient, but actually quite delightful. My mother, too, is finding that all she has to offer now is herself, and well into her seventh decade of life she is learning, I hope, that this is and has always been enough.

Whether your pet of choice is a dog, a cat, a hamster, a rabbit, a horse, a python, or any other sentient creature, this is the simplest and yet the most profound lesson that our animals can teach us: Be present. Be yourself. Be.