Kevin and I have stumbled onto a way to make cooking fun again.
It all began the first week of January. Kids were still off school, but we wanted to get back to work. So we split our days. I took the morning kid-shift, he took the afternoons; but afternoons meant suppers too. I relinquished my iron hold over kitchen proceedings, and introduced him to The Joy of Cooking, and he liked it. A lot.
We did have Yorkshire puddings two nights in a row because the first recipe didn’t replicate his childhood memory of his mother’s version. Sadly, neither did the second recipe. After which, he moved on to a traditional shepherd’s pie. Getting in touch with his British Isle roots. (What if he attempts blood pudding??) I must add that he also solicited advice from me, which I appreciated. Because I was practically itching to give it.
I found that the brief break inspired me to cook with more enthusiasm, and, I’ll admit it, a faint stirring of competition. Nothing like a little challenge to get me inspired.
I’ve already been creamed by the competition, according to our four-year-old. Kevin prepared leftover noodles with cheese sauce on Saturday evening, and, to repeat a story I already told on Facebook, here’s how that went over:
CJ: Who made this supper?
Kevin: I did.
CJ: This supper is awesome! *holds out arms for hug*
Me: Are you serious? I’m going to cry.
Please note: I have never, not once, received a spontaneous hug for any meal I have set upon the table. A more common response would be:
“Why do you always make food that I hate?”
I have been preparing said meals for eleven-and-a-half years. That’s, like, 4000 meals.
But I digress.
We’ve decided to up the stakes.
Inspired by a friend who is going on sabbatical this summer, and who is chronicling her attempts to “eat down the freezer and cupboards,” Kevin and I have decided to prepare meals using all those edible odds and ends that dwell, untouched and neglected, in our own cupboards and freezers. (I suspect there’s some weird survivalist instinct in me that wants to save the stored food, in case of apocalyptic circumstances; in any case, we have a lot, and we could probably reduce our monthly grocery bill by making better use of it. Worth a try.)
* I started on Monday with a meal of quinoa (cupboard), spelt (cupboard), and brown rice (cupboard) salad with roasted red beets (leftover), and a corn (frozen) and potato (cold cellar) chowder (broth from freezer) with bacon (freezer). For bedtime snack, we opened a jar of pearsauce (cupboard) and served it with yogurt.
* Last night, Kevin made us a spinach (freezer) gorgonzola sauce with bacon (leftover), mushrooms (lingering), and shrimp (freezer), over pasta. He wisely prepared a separate cheese sauce for the children who didn’t want the fancy bits, making him, once again, most popular chef with the four-year-old set. (Pandering! I refuse to stoop to such tactics!)
* For tonight’s meal, I’m planning to prepare corn tortilla (freezer) quesedillas with refried red beans (freezer) and roasted red pepper salsa (freezer, fridge, cupboard), and a raw cabbage (cold cellar) salad.
Halloween planning is in full swing at our house. Last night was pumpkin carving. Costumes are at the ready. And candy is coming … candy is coming … CANDY IS COMING!* [*scary voice]. The eldest has plans for a two-part evening, involving stopping home mid-route to dump off loot, anticipating of course that his bag will get too heavy to haul. Maybe we should make a rule, however. When your bag gets too heavy to haul, you’re done.
I had a small breakdown yesterday evening. I had to go outside and stand on the porch to collect myself, and even then, I wasn’t fully collected. I took note of how many hours of domestic labour I do every day, just to keep our household squeaking along, and it was frightening. By my calculation, I spend five hours every day on chores. Five hours! This work includes: laundry, dishes, cooking, overseeing piano practice and homework and checking backpacks, bedtime, errands, and driving children to and from extra-curriculars. From 4pm until 9pm or later, day in, day out, my energies are consumed by basic household tasks. And Kevin makes the lunches. And only occasionally do I have time, during those hours, to, say, scrub the toilet or vacuum. (I have actually cleaned the shower while showering; do other women do this too? Wash the bathroom sink while brushing one’s teeth? Clean fridge drawers while trying to make supper? This is multitasking at its least pleasurable.)
Far and away the bulk of that 4-9 shift is spent on those first three items: cooking, dishes, and laundry. Cooking from scratch takes time, effort, and advance planning. Cleaning up a day’s worth of dirty dishes and containers from lunch boxes for six people, for three meals plus snacks, is an enormous job. (Sometimes Kevin does the dishes, not me.) It often takes us a full hour, minimum, to clear the kitchen from one end to the other. And I do laundry every day, usually two loads. Sports-related gear does not marinate well, shall we say.
Anyway. Yesterday. Yesterday, at the start of this 4-9 shift, I made a leek and potato soup, and roasted eggplant and zucchini to make a zippy baba ghanoush. I also served children snacks and fielded an endless stream of complaints from the two youngest, who were, frankly, exhausted after school. The complaints got louder and louder the nearer we came to mealtime, until they were a droning background hateful hum. “Garlic? I hate garlic! You always ruin supper. Onions! I hate onions. You promised supper would be done in three minutes! You lied! I’m starving!” Things improved briefly once I’d convinced the two youngest to set the table. Except this turned into a pitched battle over who would do what. By the time Kevin walked in the door after dropping AppleApple at swimming, supper was on the table, and two children were literally weeping and gnashing their teeth (because of the colour of their plates, if you can believe it, and if you have small children, you will).
I’d had it.
Almost two hours of work, a lovely meal prepared from scratch waiting on the table, most of the family present to eat together, and … a household in tears.
I went outside, leaving behind barking dogs and wailing children, and stood for a few moments in the cool autumn evening. Nearly all the leaves were blown off the trees in Monday’s wind. It’s been raining off and on for days. The world could hardly look more bleak.
But there was no solution for it. I didn’t want to go for an angry stroll in my crocs. I was hungry and tired. I went back inside and sat down in silence at the table, and in silence we ate. Everyone seemed apologetic. One of the after-school complainers was particularly penitent and even tried the garlic-laden baba ghanoush, just to make me feel better. After that we weren’t so silent anymore. Life went on.
We need to find some way to direct that after-school exhaustion and angst elsewhere, because, as I explained last night, I’m a person too, even though I’m Mom, and my feelings get hurt too when people yell at me and say mean things. Sometimes I think I get the yelling and the mean things because I’m the most loved and most trusted person in their lives — know what I mean? If you’re feeling really rotten, you want to get it out, and you direct your unhappiness at the safest target — the one who will understand and love you anyway.
But it’s not ideal.
And it’s not ideal that the daily labour of keeping this house ticking falls largely on one person. My children get a free ride, basically, and that’s been my doing, not theirs. I haven’t trained them to do much in the way of helpful household chores, and have expected little help from them, but good grief. I think it’s time to start. How many chores do your children do? And what chores are they? Do you have tried-and-true methods of assigning chores and splitting up work?
So it’s already Tuesday.
I’m visiting a book club this evening to discuss The Juliet Stories. I’ve got beans soaking for supper. And the sky looks white from where I’m sitting. The dogs are sleeping on top of each other on the couch. I searched the attic for winter hats and gloves this morning. And I ran 6.5km in half an hour, but my watch told me I’d run 7.8km, so I was a little disappointed (even though I realized that it had to be off — I’m not an under 4 minute/km runner).
The turkey was fabulous this weekend, but I took no photos. The last-minute prep got a bit hairy, so I forgot to use my camera altogether. But I spent the better part of Saturday in the kitchen, cooking a feast for family, and I can’t think of any other way I’d rather spend my holiday. On the menu this year: turkey, gravy, traditional bread stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, mashed squash with brown sugar and ginger, brussel sprouts with pecans, and green salad. Pumpkin and apple pie for dessert (not homemade), with freshly whipped cream. I stuck with the basics. What could be better? There were 13 of us around the table, and we ate almost an entire 14 pound turkey; cleaned up the leftovers for lunch the next day: turkey and cranberry sandwiches, with green tomato relish.
Which reminds me, some of you have requested my green tomato relish recipe, which I hesitated to post until ensuring it was good. Well, I’ll be darned, it’s good. We ate almost a pint of the stuff for Sunday’s lunch. Here’s the recipe (and be warned, it involves a lot of weighing — we actually dug out a scale from the basement for the purposes of making this relish; and then we all weighed ourselves too, just for fun.) Also observe: we canned spontaneously and had to make lots of substitutions.
Green Tomato Relish (from Joy of Cooking)
Combine in a large bowl: 8 pounds of green tomatoes, thinly sliced, and 2.5 pounds onions, thinly sliced, sprinkled with 1/2 cup salt. Stir well, cover, refrigerate for 12 hours. (Confession: We were short on time, so ours sat for about 1 hour.) Rinse the tomatoes and onions in cold water, drain.
Now, in a large nonreactive pot, bring to a boil and dissolve 2 pounds of brown sugar in 1 and 1/2 quarts cider vinegar. (Confession: We substituted at least a pound of white sugar, and 1 quart of white vinegar. I added some extra sugar before canning, too, to taste.)
Once sugar is dissolved, stir in the following: 2 pounds green bell peppers, sliced; 1 pound red bell peppers, sliced; 6 cloves garlic, sliced; 1 tablespoon dry mustard; 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt. (Confession: We didn’t have enough peppers, so I added chopped zucchini and eggplant to make up the difference in weight.)
Add tomatoes and onions and stir together well.
In a moist square of cloth, tie together the following ingredients, and add the cloth to the pot: 1 tablespoon whole cloves; 1 tablespoon ground ginger; 1 and 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds; 1 cinnamon stick broken into pieces. (Confession: We had no celery seeds. We made no substition for that lack.)
Simmer, stirring often, for about an hour, or until tomatoes become translucent. Can while hot in a boiling water canner: 15 minutes per pint or half-pint, 1/2-inch headspace.
I’m putting up a link to the Wild Writers Festival, which is a brand-new literary festival here in Waterloo, coming on November 2 and 3, and bringing to town a really fabulous line-up of writers, including Diane Schoemperlen, Russell Smith, Alexander MacLeod, Helen Humphreys, Alison Pick, Merilyn Simonds, Miranda Hill, Elizabeth Hay … see, I don’t want to stop listing names, they’re all so terrific. Personally, I’m hoping to pop in to Kerry Clare‘s blogging session, which is right before my panel discussion. Spread the word! And come if you can!
(And if you’re in Toronto, please know that Waterloo is closer than you think, and that you’re coming to one of the prettiest parts of the city, which just happens to be my neighbourhood — the festival is being held at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.)
These photos were taken on Tuesday, just after the kids arrived home from school.
I think a person can sustain a high of excitement for about 24 hours, tops. So, yes, I’m right here on the good old ground today, and it’s a fine place to be. I sense that Tuesday’s news has genuinely begun to sink in. That’s almost a little bit sad. I never want it to feel commonplace; when I think about The Juliet Stories, I always want to feel as shocked and astonished and flooded with joy as I did on Tuesday morning.
But then again, those emotions are unsettling and burn a lot of energy. I’ve gotten up early the past two mornings to exercise, and my energy level is feeling on the wane. Wax and wane.
There are stickers. Did you know that? My publisher is going to send me some “GG Finalist” stickers that I can take around to bookshops and stick onto my book. I promise not to let my children stick them onto our sticker table, or their clothing, or their faces, even though that would make for a funny photo.
This morning, I did an interview with a local paper. We met at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo, which gave me the opportunity to buy the other four GG finalist’s books. Don’t they all look lovely?
|The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam, The Purchase by Linda Spalding, Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy, and Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough|
But ’tis time to return to regularly scheduled activities. I have deadlines to meet, and this weekend I’ve also got a turkey to bake and family to host. (I’ll be sure to host the family and bake the turkey, not the other way round.)
And now, a few links, if you’re not saturated already.
* Please go on and listen to a few songs from Danny Michel’s new album, Black Birds are Dancing Over Me, which is so very joyful. “Go on and let someone love you,” has been the line running through my head these past few days.
* CBC Hamilton’s piece on me (I was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and I’m happy to be claimed by any place I’ve lived that would like to claim me!).
* Me and the kids on local TV (Kevin walks into the background of the opening shot, too).
still lots of time for play
The house smells wonderful right now, and the cause is not my cooking — it’s AppleApple’s! She is making Italian-style tomato sauce to serve over pasta for supper tonight. Why? I think there are a few factors at play here.
1. I’m giving the kids more room to experiment, and more responsibility with chores around the house. I have a controlling type-A personality. I like my laundry hung just so. I like my cooking done just so. And my kitchen has been my kitchen up til now. You know what I mean. But the kids are getting plenty old enough to learn how to cook for themselves, and care for themselves. I need to let them do that.
2. The kids are at home for the summer. They are on hand. They are looking for things to do. And when they’re asking can I make lunch? I’m saying, yes, please go ahead. Yesterday, Fooey made mini-pizzas for everyone. She looked up a recipe, she grated cheese, sliced tomatoes and green peppers, she worked super-hard, and the only part I had to do was supervise the oven. AppleApple is a few years older and knows how to use the gas stove. She’s being supervised, at some distance, by today’s babysitter. And by my nose.
3. I’m in my office not having to see what’s going on, and therefore not getting fussed about the potential mess. I’m prioritizing career work over domestic work. I’m seeing that the kids can genuinely help out — and they’re seeing that too. I’m starting to believe that a household shouldn’t be one person’s responsibility, but the entire family’s. Yes, someone needs to be organizing everyone to make sure everything’s getting done that needs doing. But everyone is capable of pitching in and keeping the enterprise going. It’s not always my job. In fact, we’re all going to learn from letting each other help out.
4. I’m prioritizing working together. I’ve started to see our family differently since I added earning money to my priority list. Before, it was nice to earn a bit extra; now, as we’ve started budgeting more consciously, we realize that to do everything we want to do, our family actually needs that extra. That is a relatively recent development — really just a few months old. It’s shifting the way I see our household working, and the way I view domestic labour. Domestic labour is every bit as important and valuable as paid employment, but that doesn’t mean only one of us has to do it. We’re not boxed into either/or categories.
5. Further to that thought: I’m coming around to the (perhaps painfully obvious) belief that parents aren’t supposed to be slaves or servants. It’s not good for the parents, and it’s not good for the kids either. Obviously, very young children can’t be expected to do major chores, but children the ages of mine are capable of being genuinely helpful. They need to know that too! They need to know they can contribute to the family’s welfare and sustainability. Their work and effort and ideas are valued too. We’re in this together. Chores aren’t really fun. But when we’re all working together, there are excellent and immediate rewards — more time to spend doing something fun together (for us, this summer, that’s watching a few episodes of Modern Family before bed). It also teaches the kids the value of time — their time, and ours. And they’re gaining a more sophisticated understanding of household economics.
There’s a p.s. to this post.
That wonderful smell in the house? About mid-way through writing this, I realized it had gone from wonderful to slightly burnt. Sure enough, when I checked, some of the sauce had started sticking to the bottom of the pot. She was following the recipe to the word, but was using a timer rather than checking to see how things were progressing. Live and learn, we agreed, and were happy to see that the rest of the sauce was still salvageable. And next time, she’ll know to peek and stir more frequently! I’d put this experiment in the win column. (I’d probably have put it in the win column even if the sauce had been inedible, frankly. Because it’s only by experience that we learn how to do things independently.)
photo shoot out-take
I’ve been writing non-stop, for pay, for the past week and a half. This week’s assignments have focused on Canada Day. Several stories involved interviewing new and relatively new Canadians, which was a wonderful experience. Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story has some kernal that is poignant or humbling or moving; and I love listening.
A new and exciting development is that I’ve also been assigned to take some of the photographs to accompany the stories.
Let me tell you about yesterday, which was particularly manic and fun.
I started the morning with spin/weight class. Took a quick nap after seeing kids off to school. Biked to an interview. Raced home in order to prepare and test a variety of recipes — food for an imaginary Canada Day party. “I love my job,” I thought, dashing around my kitchen in the middle of the afternoon, delicious smells wafting. With help from Zoe, party-planning friend extraordinaire, we decorated and styled a small area of the back porch as if for a “party,” arranged the food, and I took photos. We worked at a crazy pace. I was trying to get everything done before children arrived home from school. And food is tricky to photograph, as anyone who follows my blog knows. I was thankful for great natural lighting, borrowed glassware and linens, and for the daughter who arrived home early and agreed to be photographed eating a cupcake while smiling non-stop (as directed!).
“Even fake smiles look real in photos,” I assured her. And, as you can see from the evidence above, they do.
It was a crazy fun afternoon.
I’ve made a discovery: all those shameful wasted years of reading cheesy women’s magazines has finally paid off. “Service-oriented copy,” as it’s known, simply flows from my fingertips.
Meanwhile, pleasurable discoveries and cupcakes aside, yesterday rolled on at its manic pace. For supper, we ate the food I’d photographed (bonus!). I processed and sent photos to my editor. I biked with soccer girl to the park. I ran 12km in just over an hour (I can’t do my long run this weekend — too busy with soccer tournament and dance recital — which is why I added mileage). We biked home. Put children to bed. Folded laundry. Worked on stories some more. Briefly spent time talking to husband on couch. Dropped plan to meet up with sibs to celebrate birthdays (something had to give).
Slept like a rock. I love sleeping like a rock.
On another note, let me share with you a pang. Sometimes I look at my children and wonder whether I’m keeping close enough track of their individual needs. In my busyness, in this great whirl, am I overlooking something important? Will each feel cherished and treasured by their mother? When problems arise, and heartache, as inevitably happens, do I spare enough time and attention to help them?
As my working life expands, as I prioritize earning a greater share of our family’s income, what falls through the cracks? What gets minimized or ignored or even lost?