Friday, January 27, 2012

Crazy Stupid Standards

Pierre Bonnard  Nude Bending Down

I wore a skort to school on the first day of third grade. My mother had coaxed, threatened, and bargained before I agreed to wear this hybrid half shorts, half skirt that she had sewn from a beautiful piece of cotton madras for her obstinate daughter. I hoped to remain unnoticed, the loner kid in the schoolyard, but at recess I caught the eye of a precocious classmate with advanced knowledge of girl-boy stuff. “You got great legs!” she hollered loud enough for her entourage to turn and gape at my bare legs. I froze, horrified as if I were standing in my Wednesday underwear, while her friends wondered if their queen had extended an invitation to their circle. That she had said this with genuine surprise revealed her early lessons in female commodities. She may have overheard her father making a similar remark about another woman’s legs—children see and hear everything, after all, and she had adopted the phrase to hurl at me during recess on the first day of school.

So, to my mother’s chagrin, I never again wore the madras shorts with the pretty flap on the front and back, and I avoided the gaggle of girls at recess. But they had made me aware of my legs and I intended on keeping them in corduroys. Forever.

Today, my skort would be the equivalent of a burka—so chaste compared to the ubiquitous tank tops and teeny shorts. Children develop at their own pace, and it took me a while to catch up with these girls who had leapfrogged to adolescence, already sneaking blush and eye shadow to school, passing notes to clueless boys with rocks and dead lizards in their pockets. It is the oldest story. But so is the story of women being subject to standards and codes established by men. How can we shield our daughters from the onslaught of subliminal messages that make them anxious and insecure? Glossy magazines that run articles on what men find hot, and seventy five moves to lure men, elicit a yawn, at best, but not from vulnerable tweens and teens who regard them as textbooks. The magazine racks build shrines to Kim Kardashian while nourishing our girls on a steady diet of bedside astrology and sex tips. Our boys are equally subject to the media’s appalling portrayal of women, blindly following gender stereotypes. An entire generation is raised on American Idol where it has become the norm for aspiring fifteen year olds to be evaluated by lascivious old men and a femme fatale, then shepherded to Hollywood to be groomed and garnished, their ambition compromised.

Recently I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love because my husband’s paintings are in the movie and I love Ryan Gosling (even in his little brother’s clothes). When I told friends that the film left me shaking with rage, they looked at me like I was crazy, maybe a little simple: “Prudence! What’s the big deal?” “It’s just a movie!” It’s Hollywood for Christ’s sake!” Exactly! Hollywood thinks it’s okay for a young girl to seek advice from the school tramp on how to seduce the father of the kids she babysits. How about the parade of young women in bars who follow Ryan Gosling’s character home like zombies? Shall we just sit back and eat our popcorn? Do we really think twelve-year-olds won’t see this film because it’s rated PG-13? If they’re not, the Twilight series will supplement what they missed. This soft-porn soap opera inserts its fangs so cunningly, bewitching even parents who buy the books and accompany their ten, eleven, twelve-year olds to see the movie, where the distorted message seeps like an intravenous needle into their consciousness.

Women of my mother’s generation who fought to elevate our status in society from objects to people are taunted for their mommy jeans, not lauded for their efforts. A woman’s achievements, no matter how great, still pale in comparison to her looks. I realized this is all not just in my head when I saw Miss Representation, written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. It’s a startling look at the absurd standards the media has created for girls, where beauty and sexuality are valued above intellect and competence. How do we create new leaders who reflect real women, not the bare, hypersexualized images on a screen? How do we surpass the term “girly girl” that diminishes us to creatures dependant on pedicures and glitter? The only way to rise above this is to push back, to take a stand against this degradation of women. Maybe skorts will make a comeback.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Potato Waffles with Crème Fraiche

Potato Waffles with Crème Fraiche
The first time I ate waffles was on a trip to Disneyland. Until then I had only been in love with the word “waffle” and the warmth it implied. When my mother took me to the amusement park, we stayed at a Travel Lodge and ate breakfast at a nearby diner. Perched side by side on red vinyl stools, we both ordered waffles. Two plates arrived with whipped cream and strawberries piled on top of the hot, golden cakes. We looked at each other and gasped. I just know she was thinking the same thing: “I can’t wait to come back tomorrow!” The next morning, the waitress poured coffee in a brown mug, and remembered how my mother liked her coffee. This small gesture made us feel so welcome and somehow connected to this place – an unsung diner in the maze of Los Angeles, that for years we brought it up: “Remember the waffles…” yet we hardly remembered the rides in the park.
I made these savory waffles for brunch at the hotel’s coffeeshop, where we jumpstarted a tired menu in spite of dubious guests who didn’t want us messing with their breakfast. They demanded we dish out our sad stack of pancakes from the box mix that just calls for water and garnish it with orange slices and curly parsley. There was an early morning showdown between the kitchen and the wait staff – they didn’t want to face cranky businessmen who hadn’t had their coffee yet. At the time, change meant everything to me, I lived for it, and threatened to quit if they stood in my way. It’s beautiful when you’re young and have convictions, even if it’s just about breakfast.
Serve these waffles warm, drizzled with crème fraiche, smoked salmon, chives, and a squeeze of lemon. And if  caviar is available, what a New Year’s Day treat.
Yields about a dozen 3 inch waffles
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes
3 large eggs
1½ cups buttermilk
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ to ½ cup of milk to thin the batter if needed
-Peel and chop the potatoes into 1-inch cubes. Use a steamer to cook them over boiling salted water until very tender, about 5-7 minutes. Steaming the potatoes prevents them from becoming water logged. Drain and transfer to a bowl to mash into a puree.
-Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and melted butter.
-Add the potato puree to the buttermilk mixture and mix well.
-Combine the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the buttermilk mixture, stirring just until smooth. If the batter is too thick, you can thin it with milk, added ¼ cup at a time.
-Let the batter rest at room temperature up to 30 minutes or overnight in the refrigerator; the batter improves the longer it rests.
-Pour about ½ cup of batter into a very hot waffle iron and bake until golden and crisp.
Serve hot.
Crème Fraiche
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk
-Warm the cream by bringing it to a small boil and removing from heat. Stir in the buttermilk and pour the mixture into a clean glass bowl. Cover and leave in a warm place to culture for 24 hours. Refrigerate when you are pleased with the taste and texture. It will keep refrigerated for about 10 days. If it becomes too thick, you can thin it with more heavy cream.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Any Noodle Will Do

My mother used to love going for a walk after rainfall.  "Let's go!" she would call.  "Mother nature has washed the streets!"  I accompanied her on these neighborhood strolls jogging to keep up with her pace.  She would stop to comment on early buds or bend down to examine white mushroom caps that lit our path.  My husband would lament, "I wish I knew if we could eat those."  What better way to celebrate our recent rainfall than to shop for mushrooms at the farmers market and translate the longing for those walks by melting butter in my skillet and sautéing them with garlic and shallots.

Recipe for Mushroom Stroganoff with Fresh Pappardelle

1/2 lb each of your favorite wild mushrooms such as oyster, baby shiitake, chanterelles, wood ear to total 2 pounds

3 shallots finely diced

2 cloves of garlic finely diced

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup red wine

3 cups beef or vegetable broth

1 cup creme fraiche

salt & pepper

Wash mushrooms thoroughly and lay flat to dry on a dish towel.

In a large skillet, heat 3 tbsp of olive oil and 2 tbsp of butter.  Sauté mushrooms in batches (without crowding your skillet) beginning with firmest - shiitake - and slowly adding remaining mushrooms with the shallots and garlic.

Stir frequently to avoid sticking for 10-15 minutes.  When mushrooms have softened and are glistening, it is time to deglaze your pan by adding the red wine, all the while scraping the bottom of your skillet with your wooden spoon.  Allow the red wine to simmer 2-3 minutes before adding the broth. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer 10-15 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Just before serving, stir in the creme fraiche and simmer 3-4 minutes.  Toss with fresh cooked pappardelle or your favorite fresh pasta.

Oyster Mushrooms added to Sautéing Baby Shiitakes

Close up of the Oyster & Shiitake Mushrooms

Wood Ears added to the Oysters & Shiitakes

Adding the wine to deglaze the pan

Adding the broth

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How About Tuesday Night

Fairfield Porter, Girl in Woods, 1971, Courtesy Parrish Art Museum

The Blakes rented a house off campus on Water street with a swing set in the backyard. Mr. Blake had lengthened the rusty chains for Sam and Rory, their three-year-old twins. I was their babysitter my freshman year in college where they were visiting professors from Oxford. Mrs. Blake had posted a handwritten note with a phone number on the bulletin board outside the cafeteria. I saw it on my way in—I worked the sandwich bar at lunch and thought I’d call if the note was still there at the end of my shift.

You needed a dime then to use the pay phone down the corridor in my dorm. We need someone to watch the children Tuesday nights—we’re in a drama club, you see. Is $4.50 all right? And so it was that every Tuesday night, I rode the bus into town with my homework in my backpack to watch the twins for $4.75—so much for my bargaining skills.

The hand over was always at the swings. Mrs. Blake in her black wraparound skirt and a turtleneck, silver hoops on her ears, her blond hair tied in a loose bun, lacquered chopsticks holding it in place. She pushed Sam, then Rory, who sat on the wooden planks in matching big-buttoned cable knit cardigans, swinging to and fro, Higher Mummy, higher! they shrieked. I’d arrive in the early evening when the days were long and the remains of a meal, the last sips of red wine, a heel of bread, covered the rose metal table in the yard. I liked taking her place, that she seemed happy to see me, and that I didn’t have to go inside just yet. But Sam and Rory’s lips trembled when she bent to kiss them goodbye. Don’t go Mummy. Why must you go? as if it was something they said that made her leave. They’ve had poached eggs on toast but they’ll need a bath before bed, and she was gone, taking her wine glass with her. Always poached eggs and toast, never a word about what I could eat. So I learned to save half my sandwich from lunch to eat after I had tucked in the kids.

Often we stayed outside for an hour or more after they were gone, in no hurry to go inside, pretending we were being defiant staying out so late. I stood behind them listening to a sweet banter, their British accents still fresh, not ironic, little fingers curled tightly around makeshift chains, the half-moons of their fingernails glowing in the waning light.
I carried them inside in the crook of my arms and they giggled when I called them sacks of russet potatoes. We’re not rusty potatoes! they protested. 

In the kitchen they climbed the stools knees first while I stirred Ovaltine into their milk and peeled and sectioned green apples. They watched intently as I ran the knife in a perfect spiral, paring the fruit the way my grandfather had taught me, crying: 
Mummy never peels apples!
Then what does your rabbit eat?
We don’t have a rabbit, silly!
Are you sure? I thought I saw a bunny under your bed!
A game of hide and seek would follow—all three of us squealing, giving chase to the invisible bunny, ending at last in the bathroom. While I ran the bath, I urged them to undress and get in with bunny because he was very dirty from playing in the yard and they needed to scrub his ears, handing them each a soapy sponge. And while they washed the rabbit, tugging on its ears and letting it slip away causing a great deal of splashing, I shampooed their soft curls and sang the same silly rhymes my mother used to sing to me in the bath, and neither of us cared about water pooling on the bathroom floor. I lifted them out one by one. Rory first because he was the Maharajah and I had to wrap his turban just so, and then came Sam, grinning into the folds of the towel I draped around her shoulders. We curtsied and called her: Your highness.

They padded to their bedrooms where I insisted on making their rumpled beds, smoothing the sheets and tucking the corners. What’s the use of that? they asked. What’s the use? Oh, what’s the use? I’d chant, fishing out a sock, a small airplane, a barrette, throwing them over my shoulder, and they’d run to catch them, giggling like crazy. At last in their pajamas, they yawned in synchrony under comforters I pulled to their chins. I told them the story of the old woman who lived in the woods, each time adding a small detail to a well worn tale of that snowy evening, when there was a knock on the door just when the little old lady was about to make a cup of elderberry tea. One by one, all the animals in the forest came to her cabin seeking shelter from the cold. Soon, a bear, her cub, a mouse and his wife, a donkey, a parrot, a wolf, and so on, curl up by her fire until there is no more room, and she latches her door, calls goodnight to each of them, and I whispered goodnight to Sam and Rory.

It was always just after eight when I checked the clock on the stovetop. Ravenous, I would eat my sandwich standing up in the kitchen. On the third or fourth Tuesday night, I opened and closed every cabinet until I found a box of After-Eights and ate two, only to go back again and again, because who eats only two mint chocolate wafers? And bolder still the next Tuesday, when I scooped coffee ice cream into a cereal bowl and held a spoonful in my mouth, letting it melt slowly on my tongue, for I had never tasted coffee ice cream before. Standing in the kitchen doorway, I observed the quiet domestic still-life of the Blake’s living room, the random composition of their objects suddenly filling me with longing, a yearning to be an adult, with a record collection and wine glasses—all still too distant to ever belong to me. 

I looked through their albums and chose Bob Dylan, lifting the cover off their turntable to remove Sarah Vaughn. I drew the curtains in the front window and turned off the lights to dance alone in the dark with a bowl of ice cream. What was it about being in someone’s living room, eating their chocolates, coveting silver hoop earrings, hearing these lyrics: Why wait any longer for the one you love, when he’s standing in front of you?, that at eighteen, I was suddenly so tired of being a girl? Tired of homework and final exams and clay bottles of Blue Nun for candelabras. Tired of scented lip gloss and wireless bras and flannel nightgowns. Slamming car doors interrupted my reverie and I ran to hide the bowl and yank Dylan from the turntable. I looked every bit the interloper, blinking wildly when they opened the front door and stopped mid-sentence to watch me sprint outside, not waiting for my money, and poor Mr. Blake shouting: I can give you a lift if you like!

All week I expected Mrs. Blake to call our dorm number and cancel next Tuesday night, but the call never came and the pattern of our evenings remained unchanged. No sooner had I tucked in the children, that I played house with myself, once even brewing a pot of coffee to pour over the ice cream, and another time, a splash of cognac. I even tried on Mrs. Blake’s silk robe that hung from a hook on the bathroom door and tied the sash, then quickly took it off—a line I couldn’t cross. I relied on these unaltered rituals, the dancing in the dark, the After-Eights, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, the coffee ice cream they kept replenishing, though we never spoke of it, to measure the hours, the days, the weeks before my next birthday when I imagined I would be transformed.

When summer came, there were teary goodbyes to Sam and Rory with promises to write. The Blakes returned to England and I went to Macy’s. I had spent little of my earnings and I bought myself an ivory silk robe.

Thirty years later, in a living room with vases and candles and photographs in silver frames, I keep the freezer stocked with ice cream and make our babysitter a nice dinner before leaving for a night out. I hope she, too, will tell a good bedtime story, that she will keep herself awake with chocolate and sugar. I doubt she will find the cognac, and whatever she listens to on her Ipod, I’ll never know.