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What it Takes

On Dec. 12, 2019, my stepfather’s father woke up and told his wife he felt like going to the doctor. She said, you have an appointment today, or do you mean go to the emergency room now? And he said you better take me. So my grandma got up to get dressed, and by the time she got back to their bed, he was gone. He had been sick that spring, but recovered. We didn’t know he was dying. 

In late April, 2020, my father’s mother broke her nose, and was rushed to the ER, and on top of the lung problems she was already having, by May 3, she had died. None of us could see her because of the risk we’d bring Covid into the hospital. Hospitals were closed to visitors. I got to watch, for a few hours, from outside on a patio at her hospice, but she never regained consciousness. 

My father’s father went into memory care after his wife passed away. When he went in, he tested negative for Covid-19. In five months, he was exposed three times. He tested positive again last week, was in the hospital Friday, hospice Tuesday and passed away this morning. We never got to see him either. 

I understand it’s a luxury to even have four grandparents at my advanced age of 38. And I had seven total. I lost my first at 7 years old, and there’s nothing that prepares you for that. But really, there’s nothing to prepare you for it any time. You live your whole life knowing, as a rule, that your relatives older than you will probably die before you will, and you just compartmentalize that and tuck it away in some “deal with this another day like Scarlett O’Hara” folder, but then it comes back.

And then three of your grandparents die in nine months and you don’t get to say goodbye to any of them. Humans can’t control viral pandemics, nor can they control time. 

Bill, Robert, Jean, CL, Betty and Stan: you are inseparable parts of me. I have hand-picked bits of your personalities to carry on in your stead:

• Bill: humor, cynicism, sarcasm

• Robert: fun, great food, dangerous cars

• Jean: joy, card games, great clothes

• CL: never taking shit from anybody, smart-ass-edness, will encourage others to do things in the spirit of “well, hell baby, if that’s what you want”

• Betty: acceptance, kindness, ready to stand over our Scrabble games with the dictionary as an objective third party

• Stan Sr.: listening, ice cream, comedy (he’d wake me up if “Who’s On First.” or Red Skelton was on TV, drag me out to the living room in my jammies)

And if that’s what I get, as the amalgam of my forebears, that’s what I get. And I will take it, fairly and openly and evenly. But I will also take what they showed me: acceptance, indulgence, pride in my accomplishments, pride in me being good at things they taught me (you never wanted to play Spades if me and Beba were partners), and love and love and love. I will also take the sadness, the weight, the burden of carrying this on and the challenge that nothing will never be what it could have been. I’m young enough that I can decide later if that will be a huge regret or just one of my many smaller regrets. 

I have one grandmother left now, my stepfather’s mother. We’ve known each other more than twenty years so our opinions of each other are pretty set. But she likes me. I’m OK. And, where’s the fun if she had 15 grandkids who all totally agreed with her? Somebody’s gotta be the outlier. The black sheep. The lost sheep.

Nothing’s easier, you’re just older and maybe stronger, slicker, so all of it just rolls right off your back like a duck.

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Bolognese a la JLC

I love tomatoes, and being locked in my house semi-employed for five months means I worked hard on cooking. This sauce is great on noodles, by itself as an Italian chili or in lasagna. It’s also very forgiving. If I left out your favorite ingredient, just add it in. If I added something you like, you can probably leave it out. If you want it soupier, add more tomatoes, tomato juice and/or wine.

It’s not … diet. It’s fully fatty. I’m sure if you want to mess around with it and make it less fatty, you can, but I’m not into that right now. 

Stuff:

• About a pound of meat. 80/20 ground beef is my favorite. I’ve also done this with chicken thighs (but I didn’t have a grinder so I just cut it up into teeny tiny pieces). My stepdad kills deers for eating, so someday I’m going to do it with deer, but deer is so lean, it’ll have to have beef fat or something added in. 

• An onion. Just one big one cut up is fine. (I like thin half moon pieces.)

• Green pepper. I really like it, but I know other people don’t. Take it or leave it. (Or use another bell pepper, like the red or yellow, if you like those better.) I like to cut it in strips, then cut those in half or thirds (depending on how big the pepper is).

• Traditionally, carrots and celery. Like, a half to 3/4 cup of each. If I use them, I put them in the food processor because I don’t really like the look of big hunks of carrot in the sauce at the end. 

• Olive oil.

• A little can of tomato paste.

• A big can of crushed tomatoes. 

• Salt, pepper and that mixed Italian seasoning. Fresh basil if you’re into basil. 

• Minced fresh garlic or a spoonful of that minced garlic in a jar. 

• Wine. (I’ve done it with red and white, on all meats, and it really doesn’t seem to matter much.)

To do:

You can make this in one big pot if you’re committed to it being a little fatty. Fat is flavor, y’all. 

1. Put the big pot on the stove, turn it up to medium. Put the meat in. If it’s a fatty meat (like an 80/20 ground beef), you don’t need anything else in it. Just keep mushing it around with a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon. The fat will start to melt out and sizzle. If it’s a not-so-fatty meat, you’re gonna need some olive oil (like if you’re using cut up chicken breast or ground lean turkey). Add in some salt, pepper and Italian seasoning. Move it around until there’s no pink left in the meat. (It’s OK if there’s a little pink left because you’re cooking this for three more hours. It’ll get done.) It’s nice if some of the meat gets a crispy little outside, but if it doesn’t, no biggie.

2. While the meat cooks, cut up an onion, a green pepper, and then the carrots and celery if you’re using them. Do the onion first, and throw it in the pot with the meat and meat fat (or if there’s not enough meat fat in there, add some olive oil) while you chop the rest. This is also a good time to add the minced garlic. The onion takes the longest. Keep moving it around until the onions are mostly clear and soaked through with meat fat. Then add the green pepper (and celery and carrot if you’re doing those). Keep moving it around until everything feels cooked. (This is when super-traditionalists add milk, but milk generally makes my stomach hurt, so I don’t. But, if you’re doing that, you add about a cup of milk and then stir and let it kind of boil off. Pretty sure it needs to be whole milk though. The point is the milk fat bonds to the beef for a creamier fat experience, which sounds great, but obviously won’t work with something like skim milk. Some people also add nutmeg, but I can’t get into that cause nutmeg, to me, goes in like, spice cakes for Christmas.) (Also, if you’re using fresh basil, save it until the end.)

2a. If there is a visible pool of fat, this is a good time to ladle out some of it. If the veggies absorbed it, awesome. If they didn’t, you should get some of it out. I just tilt the pot sideways and scoop the fat juice out with a ladle or big spoon. I don’t use a strainer cause that just makes another thing I have to wash and I’m extremely lazy. Don’t get rid of all of it. The meat fat is a lot of the important flavor here, the bottom of the pan should have some melted fat so everything isn’t burning, but it shouldn’t be swimming in a fat goo pool.

2b. Now is wine time. Especially if there are little crusties of meat or veggie cooked onto the bottom of the pan. Add a generous pour of wine, enough that it covers the bottom of the pot and is about a quarter-inch deep (again, I’ve used everything from a bold cabernet to a pinot grigio here with no problems). Let the wine bubble through the meat and then use the spatula or wooden spoon to scrape those delicious crusties off the pan. (When you tell fancy people about this step, it’s called “delgazing,” but whatever.) If you’re anti-wine, you can use a little bit of broth here (corresponding with whatever meat you’re using) or just the top bit of juice from the next step’s crushed tomatoes. The alcohol cooks off, so you’re really just using it for the moisture and acid/vinegar to get the delicious meat crusties into your sauce. (Tomato juice is also pretty acidic, but the wine adds a little depth to the flavor that’s nice and mellow, and takes a bit of the fatty flavor out of the beef so it can really open up to the tomatoes. I think. I’m not a scientist, just a person who loves to eat.)

3. Turn down the heat to low. Open both cans/jars (tomato paste and tomatoes). Scrape in the tomato paste and stir it in until everything is nice and tomato-coated. Keep this quick and don’t let the tomato paste burn. Then add the crushed tomatoes and stir it all up really thoroughly. This should be somewhere between chili and soup (and it will get more chili-like as you cook it). If you want to add more salt and pepper and seasoning here (especially if you used unseasoned tomatoes) do it. Let it start bubbling and then turn the heat the lowest you can. If you’re feeling like it’s not juicy enough, you can add wine, more crushed tomatoes or broth, a little bit at a time over the next few hours, but I usually like it nice and thick.)

4. Cover it. I don’t have the right lid for the pot I use, so I put a piece of foil on top and then a big wok lid that is way too big. Stir every 20-30 minutes. (Also, if you’re impatient and/or hungry, after about 30 minutes you can eat some, just like, a little tasting bowl of it. It’s not going to have the full meshed flavor profile but it’s going to be pretty great. And you can add more pepper or salt or seasoning or garlic if you want based on how it tastes. If you want more garlic, try to add it in the first hour or so or else it won’t cook all the way through.)

5. Keep it cooking on the lowest possible heat (like, one bubble should lazily blup to the surface every other second or so) for about two-and-a-half more hours. (Waiting is the absolute most difficult part. Your kitchen will smell delicious.) Taste it a little when you stir. If it needs more salt, pepper or Italian seasoning, add it. It should be thick and saucy here.

5a. (If you’re using fresh basil, still don’t add it now, wait until the end, and tear it up pretty fine. Nobody wants to eat a big ole wet soggy leaf.)

6. After about three hours, boil up some noodles. I like the little cavatelli shells, casarecce or strozzapreti. Just pick something that will hold up. No flimsy noodles here. This is no time for angel hair. Do it al dente. Again, this sauce is meaty and thick, like chili, so you need a noodle that will stand up to it. (Traditional bolognese goes with papardelle but I think it’s a bit hard to eat. It’s like big and floppy, almost lasagna-sized noodles. If you’re going that far, just make the lasagna.) 

7. If you like cheese, it’s cheese time. I usually do 1 cup noodles (measured when uncooked) topped with 1 cup sauce, and then the torn up fresh basil and some parmesan on top. Don’t go crazy on the parmesan because there’s a ton of flavor in the meat sauce and the cheese will just make it all taste like cheese. (It’s fine if you want it to taste like cheese but then, kind of, the 3+ hours you spent on this sauce were for naught.) 

8. Eat that and then take a break. This meal took hours! (If someone else can, make them do the dishes, even though there won’t be a lot.)

9. If you have leftover sauce, keep it covered and turn the stove off. Let it cool a bit. Then I usually put it in a big Pyrex bowl, cover it in plastic wrap and then put a lid on it. (Yes, another non-fitting lid. One day I will have a kitchen big enough to own all the stuff I want but this isn’t that day.) Then let it cool on the counter covered until it’s at least room temp (or just a little warmer). Then into the fridge. (If you just put a boiling hot mass of sauce right into the fridge, it heats up everything else in the fridge, and ew.) If you want to freeze some sauce, let it get cold first. It’s easier if you let it cool then scoop it into bags. It’s more cohesive than adhesive if it’s cool.

You can use plastic bags for freezing, but I do not recommend refrigerating it in plastic storage tubs. Tomatoes are super acidic, and they leave permanent stains on the plastic. It freezes great. You can freeze bags of one meal’s worth and thaw them in the fridge (or a plugged sink of lukewarm water if I forgot to put it out in the fridge and get super impatient). Then I heat it up in the microwave while I boil fresh noodles. 

The sauce is very forgiving. I’ve even messed up and cooked the veggies first, then added the meat, and it was still great. I’ve gotten super lazy while chopping and added huge chunks of veggies, and it turned out just fine. I even once left it mostly boiling, unattended while I took an angry nap on the sofa because I couldn’t stand to watch the news or be on the internet or even read a novel. Woke up, stirred, put it back to simmering. Everything was fine.

Serve with aforementioned heavy noodles, maybe a salad if you want to, and garlic bread so you can wipe up every bit of sauce out of the bowl. This probably serves 3-4 people. When I make it (staying home alone and social distancing), I usually eat it twice (dinner the day I make it and lunch the next) and then freeze the other half. I used a chicken version to make lasagna and it turned into a behemoth that served three people non-stop for three days (lunches and dinners).

This has been my experiment: I have made bolognese once or twice a week since March (so, about 30 times in five months). You can start here and then find out what you like best.

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new york i love you but you’re bringing me down

For a while, for work, I went to New York City once a year to run a one-on-one student publication critique program. For $15, you got an hour to talk with an expert stranger about your newspaper or magazine or website or yearbook or your staff issues or your problematic faculty adviser. It was fun, and people got a LOT out of it.  

Here are a few things that happened to me:

•  Found a deli I liked directly across the hotel that would make you a sandwich, which was just a pound of freshly sliced roast beef (all pink and paper thin) on sourdough bread. It was $9. As sandwiches go in NYC, this was a steal. 

• Running this program meant I usually was trapped at my volunteer table from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. for 3-4 days. We closed for lunch, and I usually had 30 minutes to either grab something from the lobby bar or run over to the deli.

• This was always in March. Maybe April sometimes. Spring break-y time. In Georgia, March and April are already “pre-summer.” It’s 80 in the days, but it might still be 45 overnight. But in NYC, it’s still chilly.

• If I had 30 minutes for a break, I didn’t want to waste that time waiting on elevators, so I’d just jet across the street in whatever I was wearing. Usually: Jeans, t-shirt, cardigan or hoodie. 

• One day, on my way across a chilly but tolerable 7th avenue around 53rd. A dude leans out and yells, right at me, “Girl you got that COLD blood.” I nodded. Hell yes I do. (I don’t consider this catcalling. Dude was just identifying and stating a fact.)

• Years later, here in Atlanta, about two blocks from where I live, I went into a convenience store to get a drink after I pumped gas. I was about 35 (a white lady). The blacktop was being resurfaced. A guy, about 19, ran up to me to walk me in to the store. “You missed the show! I just put my shirt back on,” and I said maybe I’d catch tomorrow’s. We both laughed. (I also don’t really consider this catcalling. Dude was also stating facts.) 

• And only one time, it wasn’t snowing when I got in the subway, but when I got out, it had just started, and the glittery little crystals were blowing around me as I came out of the subway stairs. Absolutely gorgeous. I watched it until I thought I’d just drop dead from coldness or overstimulation, then retreated back to the hotel and put three pairs of socks on to go to bed.

• In a cab from Manhattan to LGA one time the driver was like, “You have a trustworthy face,” and then told me his life story about growing up in Bangladesh and as as a young teen beginning an affair with his neighbor. He told me he’d never told anybody but that I seemed OK to accept this information.

Part of me is like, OK, cool, people see me or check my vibe and are like, I’m gonna unburden my soul a little. It doesn’t take much from me, just some nods and smiles, and then another life story is mine. But then it steeps. It sits and strengthens in my head. Then, is that My Thing? No. Not wholly. But somehow, partially.

New York, I love you, but sometimes you’re just not for me. 

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godspeed, bob and doug

I would also like to leave earth for a while. It’s gotten kind of crappy recently.

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Top ten nightmares I have about high school even though I am a 35-year-old adult with two college degrees:

1. I missed something and didn’t graduate after all. Goon squad picks me up from work to take me back to high school.
2. I can’t find my class schedule or my locker combination.
3. Dress code violation.
4. A teacher confiscated my car keys and I can’t leave.
5. My parents forgot to pick me up for 18 years.
6. I did my homework but I can’t find it to turn it in.
7. I didn’t know we had homework (because I was at work, doing my adult job).
8. Missed the bus and locked out of my house. Knocking on neighbors’ doors to use their phone to call my mom.
9. Can’t find a door to leave the school, but other people can and leave without me.
10. Can’t find my place in line at graduation. Don’t graduate. Doomed to repeat twelfth grade forever.