One of the things I miss most about Stellar is Last Bite. Those last tough bites of a burrito that are mostly tortilla? The last few bites of a too-full plate? The gristle and fat off a piece of meat? What do I do with them now? Nevertheless, I’m grateful that I’ve learned the skill and the pleasure of cooking for one.
I used to think (many years ago) that cooking and eating were a waste of time unless it was for a dinner party. Food was simply a necessity, and I’d eat whatever was quick, handy, and sometimes tasty. I survived sophomore year of college on peanut butter and honey sandwiches. I shudder to think how many meals on my travels consisted of Oreos and beer, how many lunches were a bowl of sugary cereal. I’m grateful that my evolution over the years has brought me a healthier diet and more joy in the simple act of preparing healthy food for myself. A silver lining of the pandemic has been time and space to get into better eating habits, finally giving my body the respect it deserves. For lunch today I made the NYT creamy baked macaroni and cheese recipe, adding some extra Penzey’s “Forward!” spice mix, paprika, and a pinch of nutmeg, and topping it with panko breadcrumbs before baking. I’ll get three or four more delicious meals out of that. Tonight I sliced up leftover BBQ tofu that I made the other day, and laid it on top of homemade coleslaw in some romaine leaves. So simple, so delicious!
I’m grateful for most surprises these days, as I can experience them as neutral at worst most of the time, and good, fascinating, or delightful at best in almost every case. I can imagine some surprises that would be distressing, but why? Why would I want to make myself suffer even more than everyday life itself demands?
I’m grateful for my Garden Buddy, who went on an adventure with me today. The word ebullient came to mind as I observed my sensations driving to pick her up. She was the first passenger in my car in well over a year, and that inspired me to clean it up a bit, which I was too lazy to do for myself, so I’m grateful for that. I was motivated to explore some local farms in search of strawberry starts, some culinary herbs, and a few flowers for my patio pots to feed the bees. We stopped by Zephros Farm, which had a good selection, as well as some unexpected succulents for the new drought rock garden I’m finally realizing into existence after a decade of dreaming. Then we tried a couple of stores that were closed on Sundays, an interestingly retro thing to be, hearkening back to the Blue Laws days of my childhood. But we struck gold at Oasis, a new nursery on the highway next to Big B’s.
After our delightful walk, Stellar didn’t want breakfast, which is unusual but not unheard of this time of year. It was all I could do to get some pills into him disguised in a turkey slice and some cream cheese. He’s been turning up his nose at his multiple daily cheese balls, which has caused me to get creative about pill delivery, trying out some pill pockets, pill paste, peanut butter, and sandwich meats. This finicky turn, and his refusal to eat again this evening, have set some distant alarm bells ringing in my head: But there’s not much I can do about it at this point, at his age and with his back end, and there’s no point in clinging. Either he’ll eat tomorrow when I offer rice and broth, or he won’t, and I’ll decide the next step then. Living with a beloved old dog, there’s less suffering for me in letting him do what he prefers than insisting on diagnosis and mitigation, and I think less suffering for him than in stuffing him with supplements he’s not eager to ingest. We’ll know more later. These unsettling ups and downs, which could be nerve-wracking if I let them.
I did want breakfast, however, and was grateful for yesterday’s cinnamon buns (I only ate two) and my weekly latté, which gave me strength and courage to leave home for the first pleasure outing since Covid. It felt mighty strange to drive somewhere I didn’t have to go, with someone else in the car, windows down despite the chill; it felt even stranger to meet and mingle with unmasked people everywhere we went, and encounter a downright crowd at Big B’s and Oasis. We may have been the only people wearing masks, but one thing I appreciate about my Garden Buddy is that we’re on the exact same page regarding risk and precautions. We were our own little travel bubble, and were both a little giddy in it. At the same time that it appeared as though many people have gone back to the usual-before, there seemed to be an aura of extra gentleness in the people we spoke with, some of whom mentioned the suffering of the past year. I’m grateful for at least one thing about suffering, and that is it’s potential to deepen even the slightest connection among people. It’s brought me and my Garden Buddy closer, and I also felt like hugging everyone I interacted with today. Maybe next outing.
This won’t be the last time I express gratitude for drag queens. But this particular time I’ll mention only this one special episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 13: Corona Can’t Keep a Good Queen Down. In the thirteenth year of this warm-hearted, Emmy-winning show, the Drag Race team was one of the first TV series to film live during the pandemic. They thought ahead and took exceptional precautions to produce a stellar series, and the conditions of Covid have only given every joyful episode even more emotional charge and creative energy.
People sometimes ask me, “Why?” when I confess that my guilty pleasure is Drag Race. I’ve watched twelve years of episodes in two years, and become utterly immersed in this astonishing cultural phenomenon. I’m grateful that this wonderful, kind person, RuPaul Charles, walks the earth, and celebrates, elevates, the art of drag and the gentle souls who live it, bringing everyone else in the world both entertainment and perspective. More about that later. Meanwhile, this particular hourlong documentary gives those with an open heart and an open mind a lot of insight, not only into drag culture but into the ingenuity and mettle of RuPaul himself.
I’m grateful for everything in this title, separately and together. Zoom. Cooking. Amy. And zoom cooking with Amy. It’s a silver lining of the Covid cloud. Back in May, I sent her a recipe for homemade gnocchi and asked if she wanted to make it with me and share zoom dinner. Thus began a joy we have shared ever since.
Amy and I have been friends for almost fifty years. And her parents have been parents to me, as well, whenever I have needed them to be, and friends the rest of the time. My gratitude for Amy knows no bounds. Cooking, drinking, and eating is our favorite thing to do when we get together. She lives in northern Virginia, not far from where we grew up. We met on the first day of seventh grade, and that friendly little red-haired girl saved my life that year. Through the decades, I’ve always visited when I traveled back there. And then she saved my life again during the months I spent there when my mother was dying sixteen years ago.
Amy’s been coming to visit for the past few years, including during apricot season two summers ago (when she saved my life again, by helping harvest and put up pounds of fruit), but not this summer, and so we started zoom cooking instead. She’s also been watching cooking shows for years so has lots of tricks up her sleeve. We used vanilla bean seeds for something that apricot summer, and she poured some sugar in a jar and tossed in the scraped pods. “In a couple of weeks this’ll be great in your coffee or something else,” she said, and it was.
In August we made Fish Cheesos, with the trout, and garden produce, in cheddar cheese taco shells. This recipe came from a Keto cookbook: you pile a quarter cup of grated cheddar for each shell, about 4″ apart, onto parchment paper and cook at 400°F for 6-8 minutes, until they’re melted flat and the edges start to brown. Let them cool about 3 minutes, then drape them over wooden handle spoons or something until they harden, about ten minutes. Then…
I couldn’t be zoom cooking with Amy like this without the help of the Bad Dogs, who kindly shop for me these days because of some underlying conditions that make me super cautious about Covid. I’m especially grateful to Philip, who shops most often, and earnestly tries to fill my list of often obscure ingredients. I try to compensate them for their trouble with fresh baked bread, rolls, or cake to hand over upon grocery delivery.
After the collard sandwiches, we made Marcella’s pasta bolognese. I laughed the whole time I was making noodles because it was just so much fun. We more or less take turns suggesting the menu. After bolognese, we made squash and peanut stew. Since our neighborhood dinners have been more or less on hold all year, it’s been great to be cooking with Amy and have the chance to use so much garden produce.
The next menu item was Bombay Rolls, which included a chutney with lots of fresh coriander. Amy made them according to the recipe so her stuffing was green, but with no access to fresh coriander here in December, I used a jar of Kasundi I had canned earlier in the summer. It wasn’t nearly as spicy as it seemed when I cooked it, but the Bombay rolls were fun to make and delicious anyway. We cheated and used store-bought puff pastry for this meal. Our ambitions had started to slacken.
But, egged on by the Great British Baking Show, I threw down the éclair challenge, and that brings us up to last Friday night. The recipe calls for a total of 11 eggs, and I was late getting started since I had to wait for groceries. I’m so grateful for local, freerange ranch eggs for much of the year that it’s hard to shell out the dough for storebought, but in deep winter nobody’s hens are laying around here. As soon as Philip brought the eggs, I started catchup with Amy, who had already made her creme patisserie and was starting on her choux pastry. I was grateful for a snowbank right outside the door, since there was no room in the fridge to cool the filling.
While we baked, we talked about the Capitol, where Amy used to lead kids in summer camp. We compared Manhattan recipes. We talked about work and friends and everything else. We carried on two separate conversations at the same time: I said something about our technical challenge, “I kept stirring and it formed a ball which kept breaking up as I stirred…,” and Amy said, “She has several professional photographers she hires to take portraits of the family….”
I’m grateful this weekend for zoom cooking with my old friend Amy, and grateful for all the years of ease and lessons and love that life has given us to share. One day, we’ll cook together again in person, but until that time, and onward after our next visit, I hope we’ll be zoom cooking for the rest of our years. We’re already batting about ideas for our next challenge.