The Music Lesson

All afternoon and from inside his parent’s house, as Bill and I sit outside in the comfort of  lawn chairs talking, trumpeters one after another run through their scales, do re mi fa sol la ti do, over and over again.  The notes drop from the open windows like fall leaves from the trees.  It could get annoying, it doesn’t, and after a bit the repetition becomes soothing. 

I reach out and flip open the lid on the large orange ice chest.  Into the ice laden water goes my hand and it quickly goes numb.  I fish out a cold beer, pass it to Bill then promptly repeat the fishing expedition for myself.  It is easy to look forward to the time Bill and I spend with each other,  we have known each other a long time, and besides at the very least it is always nothing short of unforgettable.

Like today, my friend and I often sit in lawn chairs out in the grass just a few feet from the back porch of his parents’ house.  Sunglasses shield our eyes from the bright sun until it finally tucks itself behind the steep hill that rises upward at the back of their yard.  Even then the sun won’t actually set for another hour.  So the landscape becomes a black wall of matchstick trees lit by the yellow glow of evening right up until the sky burns out and the back porch light kicks on.  Mostly, Bill and I sit and talk a lot about nothing but we do it well.  Even so we manage to garner a few epiphanies over the years, some shared, some not, this one wasn’t.

As a high schooler I hated running scales while practicing the trumpet.  I thought they were pointless, boring, and stupid.  I should be practicing the music, memorizing it note for note, if I want to play it well.   But sitting here, two or three beers into my thoughts, remembering what an awful trumpet player I really was, all of the sudden, all these years later,  I understood, I got it.

Bill’s dad was a world class trumpet teacher at the university.  He is retired but he still gives lessons to advanced students.  His biggest lesson, the one he repeats over and over again, the one I heard him tell his last student for today,  “if your mind leaves the sound of the horn, obstacles will appear.”

I have heard Bill Sr. say it so many times before but today it hit me differently, it’s exactly what we don’t do when we teach people how to cook.  We give people a recipe, much like a piece of sheet music, and expect the cook to be able to play.  While we know there are those that have the skill set there are many, many more who don’t.  We try to pretend it doesn’t matter, it’s just a recipe after all but it does because the cook never builds the skill set to play at a level satisfactory to their own liking.  Hence obstacles appear which prevent real enjoyment.   I’ll wager it happens in cooking all the time.

And in this is where the conundrum lies.

I count myself lucky in that I honed my kitchens skills for years in a commercial environment.  I can never fully express how much the experience has added to the happiness I feel when I am in the kitchen.   Simple things like cutting onions for onion soup might take me minutes while others are in tears for hours, or maybe because I sautéed boneless skinless chicken breast by the thousands I know when they are just the right color of brown and that anymore coloring will make them chewy and dry and how with the push of my fingertip I can tell when they are no longer pink in the middle but still juicy and edible without fear of food born illness.

I don’t think of anything I do as special but I know sometimes friends look on with amazement and wonder while I look back at them through my own naivety as if everyone knows how to do these things.

So the question for me becomes how do I translate my joy to others, how do I create a  desire in others to build the skill set needed so they can create the kind of food they like to eat, create it with efficient, quality results and excitement.

It is frustrating for me in moments such as this, not because it makes me mad but rather because I love being in the kitchen and  I want people to share in this same joy while being in theirs.

When I started cooking I copied, to the T, recipes of every famous chef and cookbook author whose food I liked.  I cooked from cookbooks day-in and day-out.  Even when I am cooking full time at a restaurant when I come home I turn around and cook at every opportunity.   At first it is hard to build the confidence to cook even with step by step directions at my side but as I progress my fear of cooking without any guidance diminishes.  I am convinced my abilities improve because I learn solid cooking technique until I know how to sauté, braise, roast, grill, and poach.  My knife skills improve and I work on plating.  I want nothing more than to learn to cook.

My style at first is a conglomeration of  all those I mimic until one day my style of cooking just “is”.  It is easy for people to tell whose food they are eating and before long I find myself edging up to the stove and cooking from experience.  I don’t even remember the day it happened because it just did.  

I wasn’t born a chef.  I started out life as a photojournalist and I never thought I would be anything but but when I decide I want to learn to cook I dive in head first, I expect to come out with a filthy apron, I am passionate about it, and I know I won’t stop until I am good at it.

 

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Rusty the Rooster, A Cock of Notable Size, Is No Longer

 

(Arcadia, Indiana)  The barn yard is silent tonight. After a day of carefree sex, pecking Blackie the Rabbit on the head for eating chicken feed, and scaring the children when they try to collect the eggs, Rusty the Rooster is dead.

Long considered the venerable dean of a cadre of free range cocks, he ruled the roost with an iron spur and the swagger of an overqualified pimp. In his career, having been responsible for the care and well being of twenty hens, he was known for his short temper and violent outburst against challengers large, small, and of any species. He wrangled snakes, ate rats, and came face to face with coyotes all the while walking away to live another day.

Of intimidating size and broad girth, Rusty could be seen day-in and day-out in his suit of feathers the color of a dark moonless night.  So dark in fact, his feathers shone with the rainbow sheen of a crude oil slick. His muscular chest puffed out in pride for his flock he wandered the barnyard with a sure footed masculinity not seen since his predecessor Red.

He held many positions on the hen house floor before winning the coq au vin coin toss in which Rhode Island Red lost his head and was steeped in red wine. Now top cock, Rusty took his promotion seriously until middle life when he became an egg addict of such voraciousness he was banned from the hen house in desperate need of a spin dry. Eventually gaining control of his addiction he was let back into the hen house but it was widely known and no secret that he had occasional relapses.

His reckless lifestyle took its toll.  Loosing toes to frost bite after a long winters night out and part of his comb in an early morning scuffle with a racoon he eased into old age believing he was still in charge.  He could be heard making light of his nick name, Starting Gun, knowing he was shooting blanks and was smart enough to turn over his duties to a younger rooster without a life threatening scuffle of which he assuredly would loose.  He was at peace with his place in life.

Whether it be at sunrise, or in the middle of the night after an owl sighting, his cock-a-doodle-do carried far and wide and was sure to wake anyone within range when they least wanted to be. It was on these days everyone wished he didn’t do his job so well.

He went as peacefully as any chicken in the throws of a heart attack could. Rusty the Rooster is survived by Boots the Hen, the only hen this side of Cicero Creek to wear feather chaps, and a whole host of other nameless conquests. Services will be held at the ass crack of dawn in a private ceremony where he will be buried out by the old apple tree alongside his friend and long time companion Mr. Blue fin, the beta fish.

Rusty the Rooster is at rest and so shall we.

Aside

Meatball Po' BoyI was given an assignment and just like in high school I have blown it off.  I procrastinated.  In all actuality if this was school, the PR company my teacher, well, I failed with a big fat F.

Because my parents taught me right from wrong, I am going to complete my homework and turn it in.   It is the right thing to do.  I expect no mercy from the teacher.  None.

I crack open a bottle of wine and pour a glass.  What, that is what I would have done in high school,  just kidding mom and dad.  I never would have done that in high school.  I was more a Jack Daniels and Coke kid.  Did I just say that out loud? Continue reading

The Troublemaker Blend 6

Stanley Coats: An Introduction

Stanley Coats: An IntroductionStanley Coats, sprawled out in his overalls and dozing on the porch swing, knows he’s becoming the old dog with the saggy balls. The one beginning to get gray around the snout. At the sound of tires on gravel, he lifts his head a little. The dog dozing on the porch floor below him does the same, and they both crack an eye open to see who’s coming up the drive.

The searing pain behind his other eye has abated. Stanley refuses to believe it could have anything to do with a hangover and instead diagnoses himself with becoming his mother. He hopes it’s not terminal.

It’s not that he doesn’t love his mother. It’s the naps. For as long as Stanley can remember, sometime between two or three in the afternoon, his mother always took what he has come to call a twenty-minute sink-down. Continue reading

Breton Butter Cake

Breton Butter Cake

This morning little Lynnie keeps yelling and pointing in excitement at the cake I made for last night’s Sunday dinner. She is telling me she wants it for her birthday. The heels on the last three slices of the cake have been nibbled. Last night she kept slipping her little hand in and under the wrap so she could pinch and sneak little pieces off. The edges now look like we have a mouse in the house, and I finally had to move the cake to higher ground.

We had guest last night for dinner and while making dessert yesterday I recalled making a promise this year to make more desserts. I haven’t been. So I started thinking about this commitment while making this cake. I figured I need to sort out my likes and dislikes. Set some parameters and set myself up for success.

Most of the time I don’t want anything sweet. I am not a big sweets person. When I do a simple, small piece of dark chocolate usually suffices. I don’t want anything overly sweet.

Not only that, but as with many chefs I have a certain disdain for making desserts. It’s not that I don’t like to make them but that these grumblings occur because I usually wait till everything else is done before I think to make something. It is like opening the dishwasher to to put in dirties only to find you haven’t yet put up the clean ones. I have no explanation for this other than I think it comes with the toque. It’s why the gods made pastry chefs.

The idea of a dessert that holds the potential of a coffee or tea break snack but can double as an after-dinner treat always appeals to me. I am always out to kill two birds with one stone.

I have made this cake multiple times but I haven’t made it since I became gluten-free, so I figured now would be as good a time as any. Knowing the kind of cake it is — a very buttery shortbread — I figured it would make the conversion without suffering. It did. In all honesty I think I like it better gluten-free. The rice flour really gives it a quintessential butter cake texture in a shortbread way.

There are technical things I like about it too, or maybe I should say, the lack of technical things. It is a put-all-the-ingredients-into-a-bowl, mix, dump and bake affair. Not a lot of extras to clean up.

It holds well too. It is on day three, still on the sheet tray, covered with plastic wrap and pieces keep disappearing.

It is a cake of no regrets and, if this afternoon I do have any, they are gone by the time I have finished my last delicious bite and sip the last sip of coffee from the cup. Again, two birds with one stone.

Breton Butter Cake (Makes 12 pieces)

  • 600grams King Arthur all-purpose gluten-free flour
  • 30grams corn starch (1/4 cup)
  • 395grams sugar (2 cups)
  • 448grams salted butter, yes salted, soft (4 sticks)
  • 140grams egg yolk (7 yolks)
  • 22grams rum (2 tablespoons)
  • 1egg yolk mixed with one tablespoon of milk
  1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Sift the flour and cornstarch into the bowl of a mixer. Add the sugar and butter. Use a rubber spatula and scrape every bit of butter off the butter wrappers and put it into the bowl too. Then, using the paddle attachment, mix until combined. Add the yolks and rum. Mix till smooth.
  3. Using one of the butter wrappers grease the inside of a 9 inch ring mold that is 2 inches deep or spring form pan. If you use a spring form pan, dust it with flour after greasing and tilt and shift the pan so you get the sides dusted too. Shake out the excess.
  4. Using a spatula, scoop the batter into the mold then spread the batter out evenly. You may need to moisten the spatula with a little water to keep the dough from sticking to it.
  5. Using the tines of a fork make a cross hatch pattern on the surface of the cake. Using a pastry brush gently paint the top of the cake with the yolk and milk wash.
  6. Bake the cake for 45 minutes. Keep an eye on it and if it starts to brown to quickly reduce the heat. The top should brown and it should be firm to the touch. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool completely before removing the ring.

Teddy Roosevelt Fished Here

My nephew and I amble slowly up to the creek bank. It’s early enough that the cold morning air causes a light fog to rise off the warm, black water, but does nothing to lift the low-lying cover fogging my brain. I yawn. I wish I’d had that second cup of coffee.

It’s hard to believe Teddy Roosevelt ever came here to fish, here at this nothing stream that runs along the backside of my property. As the story has it, an Indiana politician brought him here for no more than an hour or two. They got off the campaign train, took a break, and fished. But, of all places, why here?

Soon enough the morning sun awakens and colors the tips of the trees on the south bank a glowing yellow, as if someone turned on the kitchen lights. I sit down on a rock, one of those big ones, gray and smooth, jutting out from the edge of the bank. I look across a pool of still water, not studying or thinking, just staring, then I slip one leg into my waders, making sure to get my leg inside the suspenders. In goes the other leg and up and over my shoulders come the suspenders.

My nephew, bare-legged and anxious, has already broken the water and the ripples disrupt the deep blue reflection of the cloudless sky. He strips fly line off the reel and the sound of the drag gears zipping backwards hangs in the air like a fiddle solo in a gospel song on Sunday. A few small mayflies lift off the surface of the water, fluttering haphazardly to freedom.

I’ve long heard that Cicero Creek is a world-class smallmouth bass river, but it’s never been enough to motivate me. I’ve lived on the creek for eight years now and not once fished. I gave up my obsession with fly fishing when I left New York. I always fly fished for trout. Trout seem noble. I have two young daughters who take up my time now, and happily so. Besides, when you ask anyone if they eat the fish, they always say no, the river is polluted.

I watch my nephew back cast and hear the delayed whistle of the fly line as it whips forward. The tippet rolls out and drops the fly perfectly into the water on the upriver side of a sunken log with a forked branch sticking out.

It’s obvious by the force and violence with which the smallmouth bass breaks the surface that it is hungry. The sound grabs my attention, the fish grabs the fly, and Will’s rod doubles down.

It’s a beautiful smallmouth, a glistening seaweed-green on its back with a pearl-white belly. I feel a little of the old adrenaline coursing. It’s way more invigorating than that second cup of coffee would have been.

It suddenly dawns on me that something very similar probably happened, nearly a hundred years ago, maybe right in this spot, at this hole that’s holding some really big fish. I nod my head, understanding, and the vision is clear.

The train, an old wood-fired locomotive, leaving a campaign stop in Indianapolis and now headed to Chicago, stops in the small town nearby. Roosevelt and a few other men get off the train at the small station, and a young kid who knows the stream like the back of his hand, like my nephew does, is waiting to take them by carriage the short distance to this unremarkable little creek.

When they arrive creekside, the elder statesmen look at each other, shrug, and wonder what, if anything, they will catch. Maybe they even wonder why they got off the train, smiling at each other, knowing this kid has no idea of the amazing fishing they’ve done and the beautiful, rushing rivers they’ve seen.

The farmboy, kindly urged on by Roosevelt, goes first, casting under the branch line that hangs out over the water and up close to the embankment. The same thing that happened this morning happens then: BAM! A big smallmouth bass takes the hook and runs the line upstream. Now the two statesmen are really smiling, grateful for this moment of relief from their busy schedule, and they begin to fish.

It’s a banner day; they’re hooking them left and right, talking and fishing without a thought of politics or business. Their guide, the kid, can’t get the fish off the hooks quickly enough. He releases most of them, but some are the right size, perfect for eating, and he puts these on a stringer that is quickly getting full.

The flurry of activity only lasts an hour or two, the same length of time that all good fishing lasts. Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of these United States, and company pack up and head back to the Arcadia station.

My nephew and I are doing the same, heading to the car.

I ask, “You ever eat any of the fish you catch out of here?”

He replies, “No, the river’s polluted.”

Click here for the recipe:  Pan Fried Red Snapper with Tarragon Tartar Sauce

Advent at Dusk

country captain soul gravy for noodlesby Lynda Balslev @tastefoodblog.com 

It’s the weekend of advent, and I am sitting in my California living room, sipping gløgg and watching the flames dance in the fireplace. It’s raining outside. As I listen to the drops furiously pellet the windows and tap dance over the wooden deck, I take another sip of the steaming spiced wine and sink further into the sofa. I don’t mind the weather one bit. It reminds me of Denmark.

I lived near Copenhagen for 6 years with my Danish husband and our 2 children before we moved to California in 2007. Each first advent weekend before Christmas we would load up our car with kids, dogs and provisions and drive 1 ½ hours to my sister and brother-in-law’s farm, a thatch roofed cottage nestled in a pine and beech forest in the center of Zealand, the largest island of Denmark. The capitol, Copenhagen, was a mere 60 kilometers away, but once we turned off the main highway and snaked our way over the gently rolling hills deep into the wooded countryside, we might as well have been a light year from the bustle of the city.

The winter sun is finicky in Denmark. If it shows its face at all, it’s austere and reserved, never shining too high or bright, shimmering white like an icy Nordic beauty. More often than not, it rains. Mindful of the elusive daylight, we would immediately get to the task at hand upon our arrival. The youngest kids would be swathed in fleece and goose down suits, and the adults would pull on their hardiest outerwear, while stuffing their pockets with bottled libations capable of fortifying a grown man in near freezing temperatures. Strong, dark Danish beer is the best portable antidote to the winter climate.

Three generations of family would pile into the flatbed of the battered old Land Rover, where we bumped and swayed as my brother-in-law navigated the rugged pitted paths and trails as only he could do, the hired game keeper for this compact and tidy forest kingdom. Finally the truck would grind to a halt in a clearing, who knows where, and we would tumble out of the truck with wicker baskets and burlap bags in hand. Every man, woman and child would scatter in 4 directions, scurrying about gathering twigs, pinecones and moss from fallen logs, low hanging boughs and the forest floor. We had to work fast. The silvery sun, if visible, would begin its descent at 3 pm, and the cold would eagerly creep in, numbing our fingers, toes and tips of our nose, despite the paddings of wool and fleece. Long shadows would grow between the trees, challenging our footing and teasing our imaginations. If you believe, then this is the time you would keep watch for the forest spirits and elves who would make their presence known, and if you didn’t believe, then you would take another long pull of the hoppy Christmas brew, and be very careful with your step. As the darkness marched in, we would climb back into the truck with our collected loot and head home to the warmth of the farmhouse, glowing like an ochre beacon in the dusky valley.

The pillowy warmth of the kitchen would envelop us like a plump grandmother as we walked indoors and shed our cold and soggy clothes. Muddy boots would be replaced with felt and shearling slippers, fires would be stoked in the ovens and the stove would be lit under a cauldron of gløgg, a heady purple concoction of wine, spirits, fruit and spice. The convergence of our chilled bodies with the warmth of the crackling fires would fog up the leaded window panes with steamy silhouettes reminiscent of shadowy mountainscapes. It might have been cold and wintry outside, but inside everything was warm and toasty. We then laid claim to a space at the long farmhouse table where our forest harvest was dumped and heaped in the center. Candles would be lit for hygge, the special Danish brand of cosiness. Adults and children would sit shoulder to shoulder on the long benches and get to work, weaving branches into wreathes, candle holders, and tree ornaments bejeweled with holly and moss. While we did this, the scent of orange, cinnamon and cloves would waft through the room from the simmering gløgg. My sisters-in-law would take turns making batches of æbleskivers in worn well-seasoned cast iron skillets with golf ball sized indentations in which the cakes nestled. A continuous cycle of platters of golden pancakes would be passed up and down the table. We would pluck a few and dip them in bowls of homemade strawberry preserves – a whisper of summer past – and sprinkle with powdered sugar before greedily devouring them, washed down with mugs of hot spiced wine.

This is the 6th winter we won’t be in Denmark for Christmas. The rain has stopped outside, and from the sofa I can see spots of blue sky peeking through the towering redwoods on our steep hill. Friends will be arriving shortly. It’s time to get up and prepare the batter, since it must rest for at least an hour. If the rain holds off, we will take an afternoon walk by the lake near our house. Then we will return home, and while my family and our friends sit by the fire and sip gløgg, I will make aebleskivers.

Two beautiful recipes, one for gløgg (mulled spiced wine) and one for æbleskivers.

The Hayseed

The sleek, shiny, deep-red locomotive, its coupling rods churning and drivers slipping, trying to get traction, billows out black smoke from its stack as if getting up the nerve to leave the station.

It’s a beautiful train with a long line of passenger cars trailing behind. Each car is bursting with people who, dressed in their best, are buzzing in quiet anticipation, waiting for their adventure to begin. A collective sigh goes up at the first jolt of forward motion, and a surge of no-turning-back-now adrenaline triggers manic conversations about new destinations.

Somehow, old things always look new when you see them from a different angle, and traveling by rail, rather than the usual streets and highways, is definitely different. The passengers move from one side of the car to the other, looking out the windows at their familiar city, chattering excitedly about things they’ve seen a thousand times.

The train moves beyond the edge of town as the late afternoon sun turns the sprawling farm fields golden. Not too far from the track, a farmer stops his work and looks up at the train. He leans an elbow on his pitchfork, puts his other hand on his hip, and casually crosses his ankles, as if he wants to drink it all in. Many of the passengers wave as they pass by, marveling at the farmer as if they’ve never seen a man in a field. The farmer smiles and waves back a few times. He knows most of these folks are looking at him like he’s missing out, or just some hayseed.

Truth be told, he used to travel, a lot. He’s also plenty smart, but, anymore, he couldn’t care less what anyone thinks. Not that he’s bitter–no, he’s content, happy just to stand in his field and watch a train full of people looking for the next big thing pass him by and not remotely feel like he’s missing out. Some people might wonder if he’s made a deal with the devil, but he knows different.

Before the train’s even out of sight, he turns and starts walking up the fence row to the house. His wife will have dinner about ready. The long shadows from the fence posts stretch across the ground. He carries the pitchfork over his shoulder and, this time, instead of counting the posts (since he knows there are twenty-five from here to the house), he counts the steps in between them. He likes this comfortable, predictable game.

When he gets to the barn, he goes inside, hangs the pitchfork in its place, takes a look at the veal calves, then heads for the house, passing the garden full of late-fall greens.

He smells it as soon as he opens the mud-room door–the unmistakable goodness of one of his favorite dishes: deviled veal tongue with braised mustard greens and potatoes. The smell alone is nourishing. It’s a dish that not only tastes God-damn good, but you can feel it healing your soul with every bite. He looks at his beautiful wife, hears the kids giggling in the other room, and smiles, glad that he has no other destination.

click here for the deviled veal tongue recipe

Heart and Soul

The tiny bright green stars of okra and the fresh lima beans, so tender the veins show through their thin skins, are nestled into a bed of bi-color sweet corn just shaved off the cob. Together they simmer in a liquid that is mostly melted butter, seasoned quietly with salt and black pepper.

Succotash is a poor man’s dish, made popular during the Great Depression. Somehow I never feel poor when eating it — but then, I feel that way about all soul food.

While succotash is comfort food, not all comfort food is soul food. I can find comfort in foie gras, but foie gras is not soul food. Succotash is.

At the back of the stove, the chicken thighs simmer away. Their crispy brown skin breaks the bubbling surface of pan gravy made with peppers, onions, and celery. There is a reason they call this mix of vegetables the trinity. It goes beyond the Southern flavor they bring to the dish — something distinct, even ethereal.

I am feeling sad. Sylvia Woods, of Sylvia’s Soul Food fame, has passed away. Over the years, her collard greens recipe became my recipe, her Northern-style cornbread a family favorite at Thanksgiving. It was with her recipe in hand one sultry Friday afternoon some years ago that I lost my red velvet cake virginity.

I pick up the paring knife used to peel the potatoes. It is dirty with powdery white potato starch. Fishing for one of the larger chunks of potato, I stick it into the boiling water, find one, and poke it with the knife, which slips to the center of the potato like it is room temperature butter.

Carrying the potato pot to the sink, I pour it into the strainer. Hot starchy steam rushes up and around my face before disappearing upward toward the ceiling. I let the potatoes sit in the strainer to steam out excess moisture and turn to the stove to stir the succotash.

The oven timer goes off.

I grab a kitchen towel to use as a hot pad and remove the black skillet cornbread from the oven. I can smell the thin, crispy bacon fat-and-cornmeal crust that forms when the batter hits the hot skillet, hiding now under the tender yellow interior. I set the skillet on top of the stove and cover it with the dish towel.

I like this point in the meal preparation.  The point where everything is coming together and there is a final rush to get everything done at the same time so all the food comes to the table hot.

I rice the potatoes.

It isn’t a coincidence the corn, okra, and lima beans are all at their peak out in the garden today.  At least that is what I am telling myself.

I always add the butter first to the riced potatoes so the fat gets absorbed by the starch.  Then I add the heavy cream, salt and pepper.
I like that soul food is about coming together not just as a family but as a community, even more so then it is about eating.  Not that the food isn’t important– it is about the value of sharing, too — but even the food shouldn’t trump the socialization that happens around it.

I taste the potatoes.  They are just the right texture and need no further seasoning, cream or butter.  I scoop them into a serving bowl, and do the same with the succotash, and put the smothered chicken on a platter with its gravy ladled over the top.

It is always lively at our table.  This evening, it might even be more so.

Get the Bona Fide smothered chicken recipe here.

The Chess Game

There is never a good time for bad news, but there it is, right in front of me, plain as a shadow on a sunny day.

She breaks the news the minute she is in the car.  I’m trying to get her in her car seat and the buckle hasn’t even clicked when she blurts it out:

“Dad, I think I want to leave home.”

I move back, still leaning over her.  I try to get her freckled little face, her blue eyes, in focus.  I don’t have my glasses on.  The back of the front seat keeps me from moving back far enough, so I have to squint to see just how serious this statement, this bomb, is.

No hint of a smile;  if she isn’t serious, she should win an Oscar.

“Ohhh-kay,” I say.

I walk around the car and wave to Mrs. Davis, Vivian’s kindergarten teacher.  I drop my chin, looking down at the pavement and smile.  She cast the hook and I’m going to run with it.  It’s a good opportunity to connect.  Lynnie is at preschool for a couple more hours, I’ve made Vivian’s favorite, chicken noodle, for lunch, and this plan to leave home will make for good conversation over soup and crackers.

It started out as an ordinary day.  We all woke up at the usual time; no crying, no wrong-side-of-the-bed.  They ate their pancakes, had their juice, and were dressed and ready to go to the bus stop without any of my deep-voiced “matching socks, girls” or you need your gym shoes today”–not even the requisite “if we miss the bus…” threat. I don’t need any of those stern words, meant to teach them that a sense of urgency is sometimes necessary, because for once they got ready before they started playing.  Actually, I guess it started as an extraordinary day.

Now, on the way home from school, Vivian and I ride in silence.  I’m trying to figure out where this “leaving home” thing is coming from, and she, I am sure, is using the silence as a negotiating tool, to bring her opponent to the table first.  It is a short drive home, and I decide not to bring it up again.  It’s up to Vivian.

As I open the screen door to the house, I get a good whiff of the chicken stock on the stove.  I mention that I made chicken-noodle soup for lunch and ask if she would like a bowl.

“Oh, not now, Daddy–I need to pack,”  she says.

“It’s hot and yummy, and you’re going to need your strength,” I reply.  Besides, you have plenty of time.”

She consents to lunch.

I grab a ladle from the utensil drawer and a couple of bowls from the cabinet.  The soup is simmering.  I ladle up bowls of the golden broth loaded with carrots, noodles and chicken, walk to the table, and set them down.  I go to the pantry and smile to myself again as I grab a sleeve of crackers.

Vivian grabs two spoons from the drawer and we both sit down.  I hand her a napkin.

Again, silence, except for the sound of us blowing on our spoons full of hot soup.  Mine is cool enough and I sip the soup.  Vivian does the same.

“Good soup, Dad,” she says.

“Thanks,” I say, and then, with a note of concern: “Are you mad at me or Mommy?”

“Oh, no, Dad”.

“I just wanted to make sure that isn’t why you want to leave,” I say, feigning concern.

“Oh no, I’m not mad, it’s just time,” she says happily.  “I think I want to see the world and, now that I’m bigger, I think it’s time.”

I takes all the muscle control I can muster not to break a smile.  The look on her face is stone-cold sober.  I know she has made up her mind.

“So can you tell me about your plan?” I ask.

And she does.  In fact, Vivian talks all afternoon:  in the preschool pick-up line for Lynnie, through Lynnie’s nap, over dinner, and on into the evening.  She discusses every detail and wants my response.  She is fleshing out her plan, using me as a sounding board.  She is wearing me down like a constant drip of a water torture session.  I know her, and I know what she’s doing.  She’s building confidence to carry out her plan, watching me to see if I think her plan is workable–and if I’ll give it my consent.

She is going full tilt now, a hundred yard dash of manic talk over dirty dishes, and all I can do is throw up hurdles in front of her.  I ask all the pertinent questions:  where are you going to sleep, what are you going to eat, what will you do for money”  And she has answers–well-thought-out answers: in a tent, in restaurants, and her birthday money will suffice.  Only when she asks me, “Do people in our country all speak the same language?’ do I realize how deeply she is thinking about her trip.

Yes, but in other countries they speak different languages,” I say.

“Well,” she pauses, “maybe I won’t go to Paris.  Maybe I’ll just walk around our country.”

“How long do you plan to be gone,” I query, “Because if you aren’t coming back, I need to let the school know.”

“Five years,” she says with no understanding of time.

Until this point, she had me worried.  I thought she might actually leave;  just walk out the door and down the drive, leaving me to wonder what I can say.  After all, I’ve been encouraging her, talking to her like leaving is a reality, and I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll retract my words.

“Oh.  That’s a long time,” I say with a hint of sadness.  “I don’t know if I’ll recognize you when you come back.  What if we move?  Will you be able to find us?”  The notion of phone calls, letters, or emails isn’t part of her reality yet–neither is the notion of we might not be here when she comes home.

It’s time to press my bluff.  “Well–then why don’t you get your backpack and I’ll at least drive you you up to the mail box.  Get you on your way.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Dad,” she replies.  “I think I’ll at least go to school tomorrow and tell all my friends goodbye.  I’ll leave after school.”

“Well then, get up to bed,” I answer.  “You have a long day tomorrow.  I’ll come up in a minute and tuck you in.”

I’ve listened to Vivian all day and that takes time.  I want to get things straightened up.  I turn on some music and turn to finish the dishes.  When they’re done I start wiping counter tops.

“Dad!” I hear from the top of the steps.  “You gonna come tuck me in?”

I forgot.  By the time I climb the stairs, she’s back in bed.

I sit down on the edge of the bed and tell her, “You can’t leave.  You can’t ever leave.  I need you here.  I need you to help me, Lynnie needs you, and so does Mommy.  You can’t go!”

“Wellll….,” she says, drawing out the pronunciation.  Then she giggles and finishes, “I was beginning to think it wasn’t my best idea, ’cause who’s gong to make me pancakes?”

 

get your soup recipe here ; Chicken and Rice Soup with Saffron