14 June 2014

so pretty today

Sometimes, it's the smallest moments that keep us smiling throughout the day.

Take Friday, for example. It was barely past 6am, and I was on my way to the train, heading to work for one more day. I was prepared for the small talk I knew awaited me at work: discussions of weekend plans, the beautiful weather, and how thankful we all were that it was Friday.

And it was a beautiful day out. This time of year—as we creep ever closer to the longest day of the year—the sun is starting to come up at 4:30 when I get up. By 6 when I leave, the world is glittering and fresh. Leaving home on a day like that, you remember what it was like to be a kid revelling in the beginning of a long summer. So much is possible.

Just outside the door, I ran into my upstairs neighbor, who was coming back from her morning walk. {We are a building of early risers, it seems.}

Jackie smiled at me and said, "So pretty today!"

I quickly said the requisite thank you and smiled back. I did feel pretty and had in fact put together a new outfit just that morning. A blazer was involved, but so was a stripey shirt I got in France 10 years ago and always makes me feel like I should be sailing.

Jackie paused, just ever so slightly before she said, "I meant the weather, but you also look nice today."

I laughed, oh, how I laughed at that, as I continued on my walk to the train. That is the small moment that kept me smiling throughout the rest of the day. Blazer and pretty new outfit aside, that comment alone kept me from taking myself too seriously that day.

09 June 2014

yes, chef: to culinary school I go

Julia Child was famous for encouraging us all to have fun in the kitchen—especially when we make mistakes. Most of the time, you're alone in the kitchen anyway, so who's to know if you dropped the eggplant on the floor or if the cake fell a little when it should've stayed puffy?

The important thing is the recovery: Are you able to laugh at yourself, and is the food salvageable? If yes to both, your meal is already three-fourths of the way to success. {The other fourth, I'm sure Julia would counsel, relies on how much butter you use.}

I often channel Julia in the kitchen; I certainly was the other night when I made wiener schnitzel for the first time. Of course that's not a French dish {that "wiener" is from the word Vienna, lest you think it was a hot dog schnitzel or something}, but if you ask me, cooking it—you're essentially deep frying it in peanut oil—takes much courage, something else Julia encouraged in us. As I stood fearfully next to the spattering oil, doing that thing where your body is poised to take flight, I took a deep breath. Flip the meat boldly, I told myself. Be confident. Own the meat.

I flipped with as much careful confidence as I could muster, but some of the oil still splattered on the floor, and I squealed and ran across the kitchen.

Not exactly owning the meat.

Little Pug, ever eager for anything that falls on the floor {manna from heaven, she must be thinking}, sped over to the hot oil—we're talking 350 degrees hot oil—and tried to lick it up. One tiny touch of the tongue, and she squealed and ran across the kitchen.

It's a wonder, isn't it, that dinner ever got made that night?

I thought, as I re-approached the wiener schnitzel: I hope they teach me how to safely fry meat in culinary school. This is clearly a life skill I'm lacking.

Ah, yes, culinary school! I'm going to culinary school, starting today. I'm sure you have questions about that because everyone I've talked to about this has had questions, so I've put together a handy FAQ. After you read this, let me know if you still have questions, and I'll happily answer them over wiener schnitzel.

Kamiah's Culinary Adventures: Frequently Asked Questions

Wait, don't you have a job?

I do! Thanks for noticing that I go somewhere every day and do stuff. I will still be working at my job and will be taking one class at a time. No need to bring too much stress to my life by trying to be some sort of super woman who can work full-time and take lots of classes and train for long-distance races and maintain deep friendships and be someone Little Pug loves. That'd be ridiculous and would make me into a very cranky person.

At this rate, I should finish this degree in...2019.

2019? That sounds like a science fiction year: so far from now.

2019 is a long time from now, but slow and steady wins the race, right? Unless you're running a real race, then that adage doesn't always apply. But in this culinary school thing we're talking about, it does apply: I'll take three classes a year and not be stressed out, something you should never be while cooking.

Let's return to how you're getting a degree. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to quit your job and open up a little cafe that will play French gypsy jazz all the time and be a cliche?

With this degree, I'm going to be a better cook. I don't plan on leaving my job, nor do I ever want to become a cliche. I love cooking, I love cooking for friends, and I love the richness of conversation and connection that opens up around good food. Going to culinary school is an opportunity to get better at what I love and at what excites me.

Are you still going to have me over for dinner? Or will cooking become like homework for you?

Please see the part of the answer above where I talk about how I love gathering people around my table. Yes, I will still have you over for dinner.

But will I have to pay for my dinner, now that you'll be a fancy chef?

Oh my gosh, that would be terrible and I'd lose all my friends. But remind me sometime to tell you about when I opened up a cafe at home. I was maybe 9, and I called it The Kid's Cafe. My cooking skills were limited, so the menu offered peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and carrot sticks. I charged my family for their dinner, and the kicker was that of course, my parents were paying for the groceries. They paid for their dinner twice over, and it wasn't even that good. I'm sorry, family. I won't charge you ever again.

{I guess you don't have to remind me now to tell you that story because I just did.}

You bring up a good point about your cooking skills: I know you from back in the day {in this case, any time before I was 23}, and in my memory, you were a terrible cook. As in you had trouble with ramen noodles. You must've progressed since I saw you last.

Hi, long lost friend. I have progressed, and I owe it all to a cookbook called Cooking without Mom. No, that's the actual title, sad as it sounds. My mom got it for me when I moved to Wheaton, and it teaches you basics like:
  • how to make pancakes
  • how to cook vegetables so that they don't look like gray masses of sliminess
  • how to make several kinds of hearty casserole {I'm from Iowa, after all}
  • basic substitutions when you don't have what you need for a recipe
That cookbook is my foundation of cooking, and two years later, I was using The Art of French Cooking. This is such a ringing endorsement for Cooking without Mom that it should be on the back cover—if it's even still published.

And dear, dear long lost friend, please come over for dinner. I'll make up for those years when I served you poorly cooked ramen.

What sorts of classes will you take?

I'm going to the Culinary and Hospitality Center at the College of DuPage {aka, the community college that is larger than my hometown}, and it's a very hands-on program. That sounds obvious; how else would you learn to cook if you didn't use your hands?

I mean that after one class of cooking and kitchen basics, I will be cooking for the student-run cafe at COD—paying customers! So soon in my culinary career! The program has a stepping stone approach as you build your knowledge and responsibilities in the kitchen until you're doing your capstone class: cooking French food for the fancy-schmancy restaurant at COD.

I get to take classes on things like:
  • baking and pastries: I will be able to make my own pain au chocolat. Finally.
  • international cuisine: That's everything that's not French, fyi.
  • culinary measurements and conversions: Math that applies to my real life! {Sorry, accountant parents who do math in your real lives every day, that I'm just now discovering math that I would consider "practical."}
  • how to shop for a restaurant: If I learn any tips for home kitchen shopping, I'll pass them along.

Who are your cooking heroes?

Isn't it obvious?

And yes, I did purposely choose a picture of Meryl Streep playing Julia Child.

Bon appetit!

07 June 2014

please come linger

This is my summer of creating a welcoming, lush, please-stay-awhile space on my balcony. You can read about that here, where I talk about slowing down and not putting so many high demands on myself, even in what kinds of plants I have too take care of. There's a bonus rant about the state of language now, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

With that goal in mind, I spent last Sunday afternoon potting Creeping Jenny vine. Spending even just an hour with your hands in dirt is good for your soul, especially if you come from somewhere like Iowa.

I put the vines in little terra cotta pots, and then I made hangers for them out of twine—a stroke of genius worthy of Pinterest, if you ask me {even though I don't have Pinterest}. This was genius brought on by cheapness, by the way: Why pay $6 for a ready-made hanging pot when you can pay $.78 and tie some twine around it? As a bonus, it looks very homey and natural, which is just the look I'm going for.

I hung the little pots off an old baker's rack I've been storing in my garage for six years, just sure that at some point in the future, I'd find a use for it again. That may be how hoarding begins, I know, but I really couldn't bear to part with such a practical piece of furniture, and look! The hoarding paid off.

And think of this: It can also be used as a sideboard during meals on the balcony. Practicality and frugality are two traits that blend so beautifully, aren't they?

{Also, please keep me from becoming a real hoarder and do an intervention if necessary.}

My balcony now is just the kind of place you'd like to linger in. You'll want to drink lemonade and eat Caprese salad here. Even when the mosquitoes come out in full force later this summer, you'll still want to be here; that's how inviting it is.

So please come linger. I promise to have lemonade and to not talk about hoarding, unless you want to.

06 June 2014

D-Day with Dave

I first met Dave in an oil painting class I took not long after I moved to Wheaton. I had no friends, the obvious downside to moving somewhere new, and I'd always heard that if you want to make new friends, you should join clubs and groups to get to know people. I think I read this in Dear Abby, who rarely steers you wrong; the idea is that even if you don't make new friends, you will have done something worthwhile or learned something new, as opposed to just sitting at home feeling lonely.

I joined an oil painting class because I'd always wanted to learn how to do that. My artistic skills were rather stymied once we got into drawing anything that wasn't a tree in my middle school art class, so I wasn't sure how good I could be at this oil painting thing.

The year before, when I'd been living in Rouen, France, there was an oil painting studio I passed on the rue Eau de Robec every day on my walk through town, almost always slowing down to study the advertisement for oil painting lessons. I'd see other people in there, painting still lives of pears or loaves of bread, and a panic would rise up in me about doing something I wasn't very good at and trying to do it in French.

Beyond the fact that I didn't know the vocabulary needed for oil painting—why didn't Madame Warner teach me brush-related nouns back in high school French class?—I just knew that I would panic about verb conjugations and end up with a painting that the teacher would politely pretend was supposed to be some homage to abstract expressionism.

My first night in my Wheaton oil painting class, I found myself explaining this French story to Dave, who looked to be older than my grandpa and who was making a drawing of a covered bridge in pastels. I watched him work, colors flying across the page, but I was slightly perplexed as to what he was doing in an oil painting class if he was using pastels. And he was good—this man needed no lessons. His covered bridge made me think of Iowa and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County {not bad things to be thinking about}, even as I told him my Rouen and Eau de Robec studio story.

As usually happens when we tell stories about things that happened to us in Europe, I was giving everything this Monet glow: the cafe I walked to, the woman I bought flower from every Sunday morning at the market, what the cathedral looked like in the late afternoon winter sun.

"Rouen, huh?" Dave interrupted. He said Rouen as many Americans do: Rue-anne.

I smiled at him, "Yes, it's a town in the north part of France, which is called Normandy. Where Joan of Arc was killed." I offered this as if it were the most important fact about Rouen, the one thing that would make people say, "Oh, that Rouen! Of course!"

"Oh, I've been there," Dave said quietly as he chose a bold, deep red for the bridge.

I get excited when anyone has been to Rouen; it's an instant bond, one that makes me think this new friend and I can now speak in code of shared memories of what it was like to walk on those cobblestone streets. I started to pump Dave for information. "Really? What did you do there? When did you visit? Isn't it so wonderful to sit at a cafe and look up at the cathedral?"

"Didn't sit in too many cafes then...I was just passing through, actually. It was in June 1944."

June. 1944. In Normandy.

He never looked up from his drawing this whole time, and I never stopped looking at him: This almost 90-year-old man who'd been coming to the oil painting group at the Wheaton Park District for 25 years just because he liked the people, even if he didn't want to oil paint anymore—this man with the watery blue eyes and who, I would learn, wore a University of Illinois sweatshirt every week to class—this man was in the D-Day invasion.

"Wow, so you...stormed the beach at Normandy?" The words sounded overly dramatic, as if I'd only picked them up by watching movies made about that time.

Up until that moment, I'd never met anyone who'd been at D-Day. My grandpa had been in World War II; he was in the Army Air Corps and was stationed in North Africa, where he worked as a cryptographer. When I'd ask him about the war, he'd tell me funny stories of camel races in the desert and how he met a British officer with his same name, Ronald Walker. My grandpa would hoot with laughter as he told us that he'd go over to the British camp with the British Ronald Walker—just to have their better beer. {And the British Ronald Walker would come to the American camp to eat our better food.}

My grandpa left behind an album with grainy pictures of Tunisia, palm trees, and men in uniform we'll never know. I wondered, that first night in oil painting, if Dave had an album at home with grainy pictures of Rouen. I wondered briefly if he even would've been allowed a camera in the invasion.

"Yep, I was there." He said this casually, as you might mention being at a football game or at the Dairy Queen. "My men and I, we were in the second wave, and then we marched on in across that beautiful French countryside."

Well, "marched on in," except for the bloodshed and except for the constant gunfire and except for the landmines on the beaches. And yes, the French countryside is beautiful—it's hard to look at it now and imagine armies and tanks in the place of the cows.

Dave downplayed his role in D-Day, and like the good Midwesterner I am, I didn't want to press for details he didn't seem willing to offer up. Instead, I focused on sketching a bird—my teacher had told me to start with that—and waited patiently to see if he'd tell any stories, encouraged, perhaps, by my quiet attentiveness.

He was and he did.

Over the next several years I was in that oil painting class, Dave told stories of the French people he met.

He talked about the time he'd accidentally shaved with some of the famous Normandy apple cider; he'd thought he was pouring water in to mix with his shaving soap, but oh no, it was the cider. Those watery blue eyes of his would crinkle in delight as he laughed, "I smelled so good after that, the men poked fun at me for wearing perfume!"

He and I talked about the green, lush, rolling hills of the Normandy pastures, and he said at one point that he did remember that cathedral in Rouen. But Dave never really talked about what it was like on the beach that day, beyond a gruff, "We did what we had to do" one night when I asked if he had been scared.

Today, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, makes me think of Dave, who I haven't seen much in several years. I no longer go to oil painting, but sometimes I run into him at the gym, lifting weights and riding the stationary bike while wearing an age-worn shirt from the Grand Canyon.

I look at him, hunched over the bike as his spindly legs peddle as fast as they can, and I think: You helped make history by doing "what had to be done."

And we're all so thankful you did.


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