Resolutions: 2009

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? I haven’t always, but for the past few years, I’ve found it helpful to spend time taking stock. Last year I made two resolutions: eat healthier, and have more parties.

Eating Healthier

I have been working my way towards eating healthier ever since I was pregnant seven years ago. Back then, I didn’t really know how to cook, ate too much junk food, and practically lived on Mt. Dew. I taught myself how to cook (though I have a long way to go), have cut down on the junk food, and in 2008, I hit a huge milestone by giving up caffeinated soda. It’s been a little over three months since I’ve had any Mt. Dew (my weapon of choice), and I feel great, but the process started over the summer, and was just as difficult as I had feared. However, now I feel better, I know my teeth and bones are better off for it, and I am so happy that I finally succeeded. Both of my girls have recently talked about it too, and knowing that they see me trying to be healthier is such a great feeling too.

Having Parties

One of the reasons I was so happy to buy this house was the idea of hosting parties here. Our old house was just too tiny to fit many people in comfortably, but this house is well-suited, and we’ve had some lovely parties here. We had a great Halloween party for the girls’ friends, a nice birthday brunch for my friend Karen in the spring, hosted Christmas and had some really fun cookouts over the summer. The girls love it too, and often ask us when we are having people over again. The parties we have hosted here, or the parties we’ve gone to in friends’ houses, are some of the best memories I have of the past year.

Looking Forward

So I feel pretty good about my 2008 goals, which leads me to resolutions for 2009. I believe strongly in making a few specific, achievable goals with clear timelines. I also want to make resolutions, not a to-do list: I know that in 2009, I want to paint our upstairs bathroom and entry hallway, but that is not exactly going to change my life.

So how do I want to change my life? I think the biggest pattern in my life I’d like to change is how I’ve been spending my time, especially over the last half of the year.

On the work front, I’ve taken on some new responsibilities, and need to carve out more time to really address all my tasks and projects. On the personal front, I have several writing projects stalled, and house projects I’ve been putting off. I don’t see enough of my closest friends, and there are some old friends I’ve reconnected with recently and have been trying to make plans with for months. With my husband in law school, time has become a precious commodity, but also, there have been too many nights when I’ve flopped on the couch, turned on the television, or stared at my laptop screen for a few hours because I’m too weary to tackle anything else. Those couch hours don’t make me feel refreshed, and they’re mostly unproductive, and the next day, all my undone projects and obligations are still there. I’ve really been enjoying my new blogging energy, because I think I’ve been much more purposeful about my writing here, so I need to carry that sense of purpose into how I spend all my time.

In short, my new year’s resolution is to Spend more time with people and projects that are pleasant, productive and fulfilling.

How about you?

Julie and Julia (the book)

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously came out a few years ago, along with a lot of other blogs-to-books, and more than a few “spend a year doing XYZ” books. I chose it as one of my Christmas books this year, and am so glad I did– if you’re looking for a foul-mouthed and witty read from an author who knows both how to cook calves’ brains and talk about finding your path without being schmaltzy, then you’ll enjoy it just as much as I did.

When Julie Powell began her quest to cook her way through Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One, she was not a food writer, a chef, or even a waitress/freelancer, but instead a frustrated government secretary in a “crappy outerborough kitchen” who was turning thirty and dissatisfied with her life. On her husband Eric’s suggestion, she started a blog to chronicle her adventure with Julia Child, and by the end of the year, she had succeeded in her quest, accumulated thousands of “bleaders” (blog readers), been interviewed by the print and TV media and become a writer, enabling her to quit her secretary job and spend the day in her pajamas, writing.

How did she do it? Well, first, she’s a great writer, which many bloggers are and even more are not. She’s witty, self-deprecating, and foul-mouthed– in other words, her voice is one you’d like to hang out with, even if it meant eating calves’ hooves in aspic. But actually making those hooves in aspic? Why would anyone attempt that? For Powell, it becomes a mission, a passion, that saves her from the rut she’s found herself in, a journey that parallels the one Child herself began on when she first started cooking, in her mid-thirties in Paris as a new wife who found herself somewhat adrift.

For me, the book was also fascinating because so much of the kind of cooking she does is terribly intimidating for me. There’s a reason I’m a much better baker than cook, and that I am the mistress of the brunch but only recently roasted my first chicken. When faced with mild piles of flour and sugar, I feel confident, but cracking open a cow’s bone to extract the marrow inside? There’s something so primeval about real cooking, literally getting your hands dirty with the guts and muscles and tendons of a slaughtered animal, and Powell does a great job of showing us how attacking all those animal carcasses and rendering them into fantastic meals can be a life-altering experience, even if along the way you find yourself weeping on the kitchen floor as gelee slowly burns on the stovetop behind you.

I have certainly not been inspired to imitate Powell’s year-long odyssey, but reading the book has inspired me to try and tackle some of the bloodier, more intimidating sections of the cookbooks I already own (like The Gourmet Cookbook I bought, blogged, looked through and set aside after trying only a few vegetable recipes). I’m not looking for passion, like she was (for now, I’m entirely content with all aspects of my life), but who couldn’t use a boost of confidence, of courage? Who wouldn’t like to tackle a tenderloin or pile of chops, transform it into a wonderful savory feast, and set it in front of her guests, aglow with triumph? I think more complicated non-baking recipes, and more dinner parties, are on my list of resolutions for 2009, for sure.

Julie Powell would find a better and funnier way to say this, but one of the great lessons I took from Julie and Julia is that even though it may seem impossible, and everyone around you might think you’re crazy, many of life’s great moments come from getting your hands dirty, from cracking that lobster’s back wide open and digging through the guts and shit to find the sweet meat inside– that there is no better bite to be had than one you slaved over yourself, in your own crappy kitchen, with courage, lots of butter and heavy cream, and your own two hands.

Hello Again

I hope you all had lovely holidays. Every year, I say we have the best tree ever, and the best Christmas ever, but this year, we truly did have a pretty fantastic day.

I definitely overplanned on the menu though– we never got to the waffles or the Brie! So I’m bringing the Brie to my friend Karen’s house, which is where we spend New Year’s Eve, but otherwise, the menu was a big hit. We decided the breakfast puffs should be rechristened “Doughnut Muffins,” due to their resemblance to a good thick cake donut, and the cheesecake brownies were also very popular.

My girls were overjoyed Christmas morning to see all that Santa had left them, and the parade of grandparents meant another shower of gifts. In return, both yesterday and today, we got to sleep in because they were so absorbed by playing with all their new goodies.

I have a queue of posts lined up to carry me through the New Year, posts I’ve been drafting and revising bit by bit over the past week or so– book reviews, blog reviews, a teaching post and more, plus a New Year resolutions past and future post. So thanks for being here, and thanks for coming back!

Christmas Menu

This will be my last post till after the holidays, so I thought I’d share my Christmas menu with you!

This is the second year we’ve hosted a Christmas Day brunch for all our assorted relatives in the area. I like brunch because it’s easier to make for 15 or so people, and easier to seat that many people in my house. I also like the informality of it, and since almost all our relatives are within driving distance, everyone is on the road in the daytime, no one driving in the dark in possibly bad weather. My mother, an amateur china expert, has started giving me Christmas dishes, so this will be the first year that the brunch will be on Christmas china.

Here’s the list:

French Breakfast Puffs
Brie en Croute, served with sliced apples and pears
Turkey Bacon
Veggie Breakfast Sausage
Pecan Tassies
Blue Cheese Stuffed New Potatoes (Rachael Ray recipe not available online)
Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Coffee Cake (RR recipe, not available online)
Cheesecake Brownies
Belgian Waffles with Berries
Sugar Cookies

My stepmother is talking about either bringing an egg dish or juices, and if she doesn’t bring an egg dish, I’m thinking of adding some deli meat and sandwich fixins, so that the balance isn’t tilted too much towards sweet stuff.

I hope you are enjoying whatever holiday you are celebrating– at school, my girls have been learning about Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, the winter solstive, and even the winter holiday of the Baha’i faith. I hope your family and loved ones are safe, that your home is filled with holiday cheer, and that I’ll see you around in the New Year.

What’s Cooking

In a conversation with a co-worker recently, I mentioned that I have recently been daydreaming about getting an attachment for pasta-making for my stand mixer– I have only made homemade pasta once before, at my aunt’s house in Alabama, but I remember it fondly and it seems like it might be a fun project on a day when you have the time for it. She replied, “If I had that kind of time, I’d much rather be sewing or knitting,” and I realized that cooking has officially become my hobby.

I’ve never been a big hobbyist. I’m not athletic, so I don’t follow or practice sports. I don’t know how to play any instruments, and my hand-eye coordination has never been good enough when I have tried to learn, though I absolutely love music. I tried knitting classes, but dropped out and never went back, even though I admire others’ hand-knitted apparel. I tried embroidery for awhile and really enjoyed it, but never seemed to have the time. I have always believed, when it coems to writing, that if you are truly a writer, and feel the passionate urge to write, then you will find the time. Not every day maybe, but that time is not the obstacle in your way. I was thrilled to read that Stephen King agreed with me in On Writing.

I have always been a dedicated and voracious reader and writer, but somehow I don’t think of those pursuits as hobbies– somehow the word seems too trivial for urges that are integral to who I am and always have been. But cooking is a much newer infatuation, one born from necessity when I was pregnant and determined to eat in a more healthy fashion, and continued to grow as I baked cookies with my kids and tried to put dinner on the table every night. My cookbook collection steadily grew, I’ve got a bulging binder of printed and clipped recipes, and my cookware collection is ever-expanding. Some of you reading will realize what an amazing transformation this is for me, and I’m no less shocked than anyone else. I was such a picky, particular eater growing up, and I still am striving towards actual healthy eating habits, so it’s nothing short of a miracle that I’ve come as far as I have.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what is is about cooking that is so appealing to me. I’ve written a few poems already trying to untangle it all, but have not managed to really make it clear, even for myself. I know that it’s one of my favorite ways to see my friends, asking them over and then plying them with goodies. I know I get such a sweet sense of satisfaction on nights like last night, when I make a meal that everyone at my table truly digs into it with gusto. I know that the more I cook, the more different flavors and foods I’m willing to try myself. All of those results are wonderful ones, right? But there’s something untangible and inexpressible and just lovely to me about the act of cooking.

I still wouldn’t call myself a foodie– my palate is too picky to be that adventurous. There’s a lot I still don’t know, and much I still don’t have. But after trying my hand at other ventures, I think for me, cooking is where it’s at.

Radio: An Elegy

It occurred to me recently that I don’t listen to commercial radio much anymore or buy CDs that often (much less mp3 albums). I listen to our fantastic local college station in the car, and at home I have been listening to a few of the cable music channels that come with our fancy cable, but mostly I listen to music I already know and only buy a few CDs a year, and those on recommendations from friends. My younger self would be appalled, wouldn’t understand how I could survive without a fresh infusion of new tunes, why it’s been years since I spent time in a record store browsing through the racks. That girl was so thrilled to score a record store job for a summer in college, and thought she hit the jackpot when she got an internship at her favorite radio station.

In my adolescent years, I was a faithful listener to WHFS 99.1 FM, a legendary alternative rock station in the DC area. All my friends listened, and so did my big sister and all her super-cool friends. It was the first place I heard Nirvana, Pearl Jam, nine inch nails, The Cure, XTC, and so many other bands. When Kurt Cobain died, we all turned on the radio, as WHFS unspooled all the Nirvana tracks they had and we mourned together.

Each year, as the school year wound down, my friends and I thrilled to the list of what bands that would be playing the HFStival that year– was it a 13 bands for $13 dollars year, or 15, or 17? The first year I went was at the end of tenth grade, and my sister and her college roommate drove me to RFK stadium to hear James, the Afghan Whigs, Pavement and others. My friends were all very jealous, and I felt ultra-cool. The next year, my friend’s father picked us up after taking the SAT, and I went for the first time with my own friends (I think Counting Crows was on the bill that year). It became a yearly ritual for me, even though I went with different friends and boyfriends almost every year, and I saw many, many different bands, especially as the festival expanded into multiple stages.

My senior year in college, I achieved a long-standing dream and interned with the morning show, during which time I scored a fair amount of free CDs and t-shirts, met Spike Jonze, and helped put on that year’s Festival, which was especially important because it happened in 1999 (99.1, remember?). I wrote my senior thesis on the shift to FM radio in the 1970s and pirate radio in the UK, including some stations that were literally pirates, sailing in quasi-international waters and boradcasting punk and rock back to shore. Right after I graduated from college, my boyfriend and I took his younger sister to her first HFStival, and I vowed never to go again– too many hard-rock bands, too many college guys yelling, “Show us your tits,” and just too many drunk people overall– but it felt right to close the circle by introducing another young girl to one of my favorite memories.

But even while I was an intern there, I could see the station changing. When I was hired, one of the questions they asked me was what five albums I would bring on a desert island (my answers included Exile in Guyville, OK Computer and Stereo Type A). I remember asking the guy if my answers were okay, and he chuckled and said, “We’re just trying to weed out the Metallica fans.” Less than a year later, I turned on the radio and heard “Enter Sandman,” as the station made a desperate play for the male, aged 18-34 demographic. Years as part of a larger broadcasting conglomerate meant programmed playlists and DJs who could barely stand the bands they played on the air anymore.

On January 12, 2005, one of the old DJs snuck into the station and changed the playlist to play Last Goodbye, by Jeff Buckley, which became the station’s last song– immediately afterwards, the station switched to an all-Spanish language format, with no public announcement, and as it turned out, very few announcements to longtime staff. By random chance, I was listening– I was home for the winter break, and was driving through my mom’s neighborhood on my way to meet up with high school friends. I remember hearing Jeff Buckley, and being surprised to hear that kind of music on the station I used to love, and then hearing a jolt of sunny Spanish music, which sounded so strange to me after Buckley’s beautiful elegy.

WHFS was such a big part of my teenage years, in forming my tastes, my interests, and who I wanted to become. Those songs literally changed my life, were the soundtrack for so many of the best times I remember from those years, as we all hurtled towards adulthood. I registered to vote at an HFStival, smelled marijuana for the first time there, and walked into the public bathrooms once to see a man and woman leaning up against the wall having sex (all different years, by the way). If you had asked me then, I don’t think I could have articulated what the station meant for me, and I would never have believed that it could disappear so quickly and leave so few traces behind.

I know now that the station and its listeners were my first experience with a community that extended past my street or my school, my first time feeling part of a group of people larger than myself, feeling like we shared ideals or beliefs, all because we were playing the same songs on our radios.

Almost Like Eavesdropping

For two semesters in a row now, I’ve required my college students to keep ongoing blogs connected to the topics we cover over the course of a semester. I tinkered a lot with how/whether to assign topics, whether to host them on Blackboard or send them to outside sources, how to assess them and how/whether to require commenting on each other’s blogs (in case you’re curious, I ended up with a mix of assigned/unassigned, outside blogging sites, required comments, and am still trying to find the perfect assessment solution).

Because I’m teaching in media and communications, I think it’s imperative to ask students to try their hand at new technologies, which they will almost certainly encounter when they enter the job market. I love that it asks them to expand on the material we’re reading in a new way, and I always, always love assignments that ask students to write more. Not only does it sharpen their communication skills, which are essential in every field, but it encourages students at every level to reflect on the course in a new way when they are asked to write about it. I think requiring them to blog also helps them think about the medium of blogging in a way you really can’t until you’ve tried it for yourself, and as blogs become more and more prevalent, this is also an essential skill.

While reading over my students’ blogs at the end of this semester, however, I discovered a new benefit– eavesdropping! In both the posts and the comments, my students debated the merits of the required texts, suggested new books we could read, made connections to popular culture, brought up relevant anecdotes, and proposed new activities and assignments for the subject matter. I think it’s fair to say that much of what they said would not have come out in class, and while they might have said it individually to me, then they wouldn’t have been debating amongst themselves.

Milk (the movie)

Like many East Coast liberals, my husband and I recently went to see Milk, starring Sean Penn and depicting the life and times of Harvey Milk, the first gay elected official who was tragically assassinated early in his political career.

Of course, it’s a very timely film these days in the aftermath of the Proposition 8 reversal in California– in fact, one of the strange coincidences is that part of the movie’s timeline involves an anti-gay referendum called Proposition 6– but it is worth seeing for more than its political relevance. Just as the reviews are saying, Sean Penn slips easily into Harvey Milk’s skin in a powerful and touching performance, while James Franco shows much more acting talent than I, for one, had previously suspected (though of course, his role in Freaks and Geeks will always earn him a place in my affections).

I had read Randy Shilts’s book The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk after reading his great And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which I found especially illuminating for someone like me who grew up post-AIDS. By the time I was born in 1978, the epidemic was raging across more than one continent, so I don’t remember a time before it, sadly enough.

I haven’t read Shilts’ last book, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military, but as a journalist, he is a great role model not only for comprehensive research skills, but for exploring issues that mainstream media did not often want to hear about in thoroughly researched volumes that somehow managed to be emphatic without overstated, powerful and persuasive and angry books that pioneered new areas of activism and journalism. While some of his theories on the disease and its origins are no longer as true, it’s still a pretty stunning work of journalism.

All in all, I’d be very surprised if Milk doesn’t get some Oscar nominations come awards time, and I would definitely recommend going to see it, and reading some of the books that inspired it. It certainly seems like popular opinion and political relevance are coinciding– we can only hope the new presidential administration feels the same way.

Cards or Cookies?

When I was growing up, my stepmother and her three sisters had a big cookie swap every year, and one Sunday each winter was spent making dozens upon dozens of cookies. I remember those days so fondly, as I helped scoop the cookies off the sheets, sprinkled chocolate chips into the batter, and even got to use the cookie press as I got older. The cozy warm kitchen, the sense of being so helpful and essential in such a great and delicious project, and the impending glory that was Christmas just around the corner.

Here I am now, with my own girls, and this is the first year I’ve managed to get it together in time to do any big Christmas cookie baking! We hosted a Christmas brunch last year, so I baked for that, and are doing the same again this year, but today, I got up early (for a Sunday) and spent the last nine or ten hours baking cookies.

Seven dozen snickerdoodles, three dozen oatmeal-raisin-white-chocolate chip, three and a half dozen peanut butter cookies, and one dozen chocolate-pecan cookies later, I’m pretty tired. I also made five pounds of chocolate fudge from my grandmother’s recipe, otherwise known as the recipe on the back of the Marshmallow Fluff jar. I’ve still got a log of raspberry swirl dough in the freezer, which I’m hoping to slice and bake later tonight, and I promised my girls we could make stained-glass sugar cookies tomorrow, so that’s our after-school project. I was also hoping to make Ina Garten’s thumbprint cookies, with no coconut, and blackberry jam in the center. We’ll see if I get to those, or if they become cookies for the holiday brunch.

Of course, like any tradition, attempting to replicate the memories I had as a child did not exactly turn out as planned. My girls took a last-minute overnight visit to their Grandma’s last night, so I spent most of the day baking by myself. I didn’t play Christmas carols all day like I thought I would either– I played the same (underrated) Britney Spears album a few times to get me motivated and then just let the CD player roll on through some old favorites I hadn’t listened to in a long time. And when my girls did get home, they bickered so much I banned them from the kitchen. Sigh. One of the recipes went somewhat awry (which is why there’s only one dozen of the chocolate-pecan ones) and I’m not looking forward to cleaning up the kitchen at. all.

Still, I’m glad I spent the day this way, and I’m excited to start doling out cookies to my friends and family. It was also a pleasant way to spend a weekend day, considering I have an avalanche of grading coming my way this week and my husband has been studying all day for his next exam in law school. I also did some holiday shopping yesterday and am doing some Amazon ordering later tonight, so I consider my holiday quota well filled for the weekend.

I think one of the reasons I felt so committed to baking cookies this year was to compensate for my endless shame– we never send Christmas cards! Every year we get piles of them, from those cranked out by employers and charities to the lovely photo cards most of my friends with kids create for themselves each year. I am the Czarina of Christmas round these parts, and I’m just never organized enough to keep track of addresses, buy stamps (even Nutcracker ones), and mail them out, much less get a photo taken and make it into a card. So instead, I host for my family, and this year, we’re doing cookies, and hopefully, none of our dear friends will think less of us about the lack of a card if they’re munching on a yummy cookie.

How about you all? Cookies, cards, all or none of the above?

Blogrolling

Over the years I have been blogging, I have seen a lot of controversy over blogrolls. What is their purpose? How do they function in pushing some blogs to the top, while others never get discovered? Who is excluded, and how is power at work? Many blogs that I think of as “professional” do not feature them at all, which makes sense in that it keeps the focus entirely on their own writing. As feed readers have come into heavy usage, many people don’t even see blogrolls anymore, which makes it even more probable that they will dwindle even futher.

I’m kind of an old-fashioned blogger, as oxymoronic as that sounds, and I like blogrolls. I found most of the blogs I still read through blogrolls, and blogrolls can be great tools for community-building, which has always been one of the great functions of blogging for me. When I needed an online playgroup, blogging provided that. As an adjunct, finding an online community of professors was invaluable to me, and now that I’m thinking so much about how to teach literature at the secondary ed level, I’m reading more and more blogs written by English teachers. I wouldn’t be nearly the cook I am without food blogs.

So I intend to keep having a blogroll, as much for me as you, my dear readers. If you read this blog through a feed reader, I would encourage you to click through sometime and take a look at my blogroll. The categories are as follows:

Bookworming: blogs/sites about books, teaching and writing
Cook’s Choice: blogs about cooking, eating and dining
Circle of Friends: blogs written by my friends, who are all fantastic and wonderful people
Learning By Going Where I Need to Go: a catch-all category for blogs that teach me something new most every time I visit them, about money, farm life, happiness, or universities, to give a few examples

When you mouse over the titles, you’ll see I’ve written short descriptions of why I like that blog so much. If you’re a blogging friend or reader of mine, please remind me of your address– I’m still building the blogroll here and I know I’m missing some. If you have a link you think I’d like, send that along as well.

Many of the blogs on my roll are written by professional journalists, but even more are not. Many feature photos, and many do not. But all of them have been a reliable source for me of wit and wisdom, and I hope they can be for you too.