iPancakes

 

 

 Two Sundays ago, I woke to the smell of pancakes cooking. This never happens. The only time I smell pancakes in my house is when I am standing over the stove making them. Jim was just waking up. “Luca is making pancakes?” he asked groggily. In the kitchen Luca was at the stove. No longer in need of a step stool, he hummed as he poured fruit and nut pancake batter into a skillet. He even had the oven on at 200 to warm the plates. The pancakes turned out heavy and burnt, and tasted as though he hadn’t bothered to mix the ingredients. But still, he was cooking for fun, without any prompting or supervision. True inspiration!

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I didn’t take pictures of Luca’s burnt pancakes, so here is a photo from Epicurious of what they were supposed to look like.

 

It turns out that the pancakes were the beginning of what is a continuing burst of culinary zeal, prompted by the Epicurious app on Luca’s iPod touch. In addition to the pancakes, he has made an apple and yogurt “parfait” which is basically breakfast (fruit, yogurt, nuts) in a wine glass; a twist on a Cuban sandwich using turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving instead of pork; and a divine batch of chocolate chunk cookies he brought to a holiday potluck. He showed me his list of “favorites” on the Epicurious app and that he hopes to make soon: apple pie, turkey burritos with salsa and cilantro, bacon and potato frittata, banana, raisin and oatmeal pancakes, and bacon and avocado sandwiches. If he follows through on his plans I will have to go on a lot of steep hikes, but it will be worth it.  

But why this sudden interest in cooking after so long? As the followers of this blog well know (and there are fourteen of you out there), Luca hadn’t so much as stirred a pot of soup or sliced a banana since April of 2011 after his return from Legoland. I have long since passed through all the stages of mourning for our time in the kitchen and the easy conversation that flowed as we measured and chopped and sautéed. Consoled by the idea that something must have stuck and that he wouldn’t go off to college afraid of boiling an egg, I have nevertheless expected nothing more from him lately than sprinkling salt on his food. And then I woke to the smell of pancakes. A miracle? Perhaps. Or, maybe to the problem of Luca losing interest in cooking one could say, “There’s an app for that.”

A few months ago, Luca began talking about saving up for an iPod touch.  He wanted to play games, he said. Really? This was the same kid who declared all video and computer games “boring” and complained that most boys his age were obsessed with them and didn’t seem to enjoy doing anything else. Luca felt left out of playground games that centered on popular video games he knew nothing about. I worried that Luca was making himself an outcast, and worse, that it was my fault. When he was in kindergarten he asked me for a GameBoy and I said no. He could play those things at other kids’ houses, but we were not going to buy a gaming system. I immediately worried that I was setting him up for a grand obsession with the very thing I was denying him. But he never asked again, and to my surprise he never expressed any interest in video games. When other kids around him began playing more of them, Luca’s aversion to them only grew. It became so unwavering that I once found myself asking him if there wasn’t a game he’d like to play on the computer. “I hear Mine Craft is kind of cool,” I said, trying on moderation for size. “You make whole cities out of bricks and stuff.” I had no idea what I was talking about. Also, what was I doing pushing him down the slippery slope I had successfully averted years ago? I thought maybe Luca wasn’t any good at these games due to lack of practice and that was why he was so against them. But he said, “If I want to make something with bricks, I’d rather make it with real bricks, not bricks on a screen.” Inwardly, my heart sang. And yet, I worried that he’d suffer socially. Did I do this to him? Should I have let him play with more screens when he was younger? Now that it was becoming social currency, would it be too late for him to catch up?

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Yes, it’s cool.

 

A few months later, he was set on saving up for an iPod touch. “Why do you want one?” I asked. “Because they’re cool,” came the reply, and I couldn’t very well argue with that. His plan was to wash cars and windows for the neighbors and save up his allowance. But still, the cost of an iPod touch is upwards of $200 and I knew it would be out of Luca’s reach. Jim and I didn’t want him to lose the initiative, so we proposed to Luca that he earn the money to buy Jim’s old iPhone from us for $50. He wouldn’t be able to make calls or text, and internet access would be limited to Wi-Fi hotspots like our house. But games and apps could be downloaded just like on a brand new iPod Touch. Luca did some research and found out that with an easy iOS update the old phone would do just fine. He agreed to the deal (along with a set of ground rules), and a couple of months later our windows were cleaner than they’d ever been, Luca’s savings was depleted and he was the proud new owner of an old iPhone.

He began downloading games and apps with names like “Zombie Survival Handbook,” “Spy Gadgets” and “Zombieville 2.” Because both our devices are linked by way of my Apple account, all our apps are automatically added to both our devices which means that I discover (and promptly delete) apps on my phone that turn it into a light saber or tell me how to survive a Zombie apocalypse, while he has Epicurious and KCRW added to his.

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Luca now spends some time on the weekends playing games on his phone, losing himself in fantasy parallel universes in which he is the head of Stark Industries or is claiming the Idol from the Temple in a deadly maze. He also listens to music, watches videos and takes pictures. He downloads images from Google to use as his wallpaper, checks the weather in various locations around the world (Hanalei, New York, Nuuk and Rio De Janeiro are a few of the regular cities on his weather app) and searches YouTube for videos of classical string players covering rock tunes (we are forced to listen to “Smoke on the Water” several times a day just like in 1972). He has an instrument tuning app, a metronome, a flashlight and one that simulates flight control. He has Hipstamatic and an app that finds the nearest In N’ Out Burger. Just this morning I found him with his headphones on watching Monty Python’s parrot sketch. (“Its’ not dead, it’s just pining.”) Not surprisingly he has become a devotee of all things Apple, and has declared that he wants to go to Reed College because that’s where Steve Jobs went. “Watch this,” he will say as he shows me how to categorize his apps into various files or add a password. Now Luca is the go-to person for all questions Apple in our house. Never mind that Jim works on an Avid all day. Luca knows how to do more cool stuff with our phones and laptops.

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 So did an app inspire Luca to cook? Or would he have gotten up that same morning burning with the desire to make us breakfast even if he had to search through our cookbooks for the recipe? Does it matter? When information that used to require a trip to the library can be accessed with the click of a mouse do we need to rethink how we define inspiration?

 It’s not new – or even interesting anymore – to question whether we lose more than we gain from technology. There are a thousand ways to ask whether everything has become too easy. I find myself telling Luca variations of the “when-I-was-your-age-I-walked-ten-miles-to-school-barefoot-in-winter” stories in an effort to make him understand the nature of real motivation and drive. I am aware that I sound like an idiot when I’m saying this stuff to a kid who literally holds the world in his hand (his current wallpaper is a photo of Earth). If Luca wanted to go to school badly enough, would he walk there over ten miles in winter with no shoes? Would he walk at all, a couple of blocks even? The reality is that he gets a cushy ride to school every day listening to his favorite music station. So does it matter how he gets there?

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If an app can make a kid want to make pancakes, can an iPod make a person want to compose a symphony? Do computers and apps unlock secret passions by making experimentation of all kinds relatively risk-free? Or are they creating a generation of kids who can flit from one thing to the next without making the minimal commitment? Now we can say “I want to try that,” and in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, we are editing a movie, recording a song or making fruit and nut pancakes. We can collaborate with people across the world without even getting out of our pajamas. Is this good? Should we ever be required to get out of our pajamas?  

As parents we fear the cultural and social pressures to which our kids so easily succumb, only to rediscover again and again the faith that our kids’ most authentic selves can – and mostly do – survive them. Kids are who they are whether they are reading a book or a Kindle. There may be more ways to become distracted today than there were when I was growing up. But what drives a person to seek out knowledge – and cool new stuff – is as ancient as the hills.

 Luca’s device has not dulled his intellectual curiosity any more than my lectures about the obstacles overcome by great people. “Uh-huh” Luca is probably thinking as he nods and pretends to listen. “Beethoven deaf, Mandela prison, Thomas Edison dyslexic. Got it.” He is waiting for me to shut up so he can put his face into his tiny screen and do a Google search for a digital model of Ancient Rome.

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Junk Food

recipe # 30: hash browns

This is how I know I am a catastrophic thinker: when someone offers to take my son to Legoland I worry that he will be lost in the crowd, seek help from the wrong person and, well, you can fill in the rest. Rather than spend my free time basking in the hours of uninterrupted thought punctuated by a nap or two, I live for each text message saying all is well, that Luca is on the Star Wars ride for the 8th time or eating a giant corn dog on the way out of the park.

And this is how I know I have an almost pathological hatred of amusement parks: when Luca’s uncle came to visit with his three kids and planned to take all four of them on an overnight trip to Legoland, I said “Um…sure!” One of Luca’s cousins is fifteen, and another is twelve, so I figured they could be counted as adults. The fifteen-year old could watch out for Luca and his eight-year old cousin.

After Legoland... the Pier

Luca has been to Legoland twice and to Disneyland once, so by now I am used to the idea that children actually make it out of those places alive. They even have fun and want to go back. And Jim’s brother (I’ll call him Uncle X) is a parenting pro with three kids and countless trips to places like this under his belt. I waved goodbye at the door with only a slight pang. Settting aside my usual nagging fears, I wrote for hours. I went for a run. I planned to meet a friend for a movie in the evening. Bliss.

At six o’ clock my friend Lewin picked me up and just as the car was pulling away, my cell phone rang. The incoming call had a strange area code.

“Mommy!?”

“Hi Luca,” I said cheerily. I thought maybe he was calling from their motel, that they had checked in early “How are you?”

“NOT good!” My heart pumped wildly and for some reason I started taking my seat belt off. What was I going to do, run down to Legoland and rescue him?

“What’s wrong? Where are you?”

“I’m with Legoland Security. Uncle X dropped me off and he never came back!” He was breathing heavily as though trying to keep from crying. I was helpless to fix the fact that my kid was surrounded by strangers, that for all I knew this security guard was just a pervert in a stupid shirt.

“Let me talk to the security guy,” I said. He seemed on the up and up so I told Luca I would call Uncle X and tell him to come and get him right away, that everything would be alright.

“OK, sweetie? You’re OK,” I said. “Just stay with the security guy.”

“OK,” he said and I could hear the little man voice inside the scared kid voice, a hint of the man he is becoming even as he was holding back his tears in the middle of Legoland.

Uncle X sounded confused when I reached him on his phone. “He’s just running around the store,” he said, which made it sound like they were all there together and that Luca had gotten turned around and lost sight of his group. A couple of calls back and forth later and Luca was reunited with his uncle. As we drove to the movies Lewin accused me of being overprotective and Luca of being so sheltered that, after one wrong turn in the store, he runs to the nearest security guard (Lewin is a close enough friend that he can say these things without getting punched in the nose). If what he said was true then I was glad that Luca was having a different kind of experience with his uncle. Along with the chocolate pancakes, fast food burgers and sodas he would be consuming, he would also be learning about different thresholds of independence and safety.

Still I don’t remember much about “Jane Eyre” except that there was a lot of rain and that the most of the scenes were too dark for me to discreetly pull out my iPhone to check for messages from Luca (I did anyway).

What a foodie does with Lego

Over the next 24 hours more of the story began to emerge.

Uncle X said he left Luca alone in the store to shop for a toy while he walked his kids to one last ride. Luca had apparently told him with confidence that it would take an hour for him to select a toy. The park was getting ready to close. They had agreed on a rendezvous point right outside the store and while Luca was waiting some German tourists approached him and asked if he was all right. Luca said he was fine, that he was waiting for his uncle but the tourists insisted on waiting with him and then on walking him to security. It was the Germans who got Luca nervous with all their overzealous meddling.

But why would the German tourists have noticed Luca in the first place if he didn’t appear to be upset or under the age of, say, five? Is the sight of a child waiting alone so unusual in Germany? Are German children so much more over protected than Americans? That didn’t sound right. American parents are the ones who insist on playing with their kids at the playground while our European counterparts sit on playground benches smoking cigarettes.

Something was missing in this story about the Germans.

While Luca spent that night with his uncle and cousins in a motel and most of the next day touring the Queen Mary, I counted the minutes. I wanted my son home.

Queen Mary

The group arrived in the evening, grimy and sweaty and smelling of junk food. Luca had ketchup all over his shirt and announced that he had had a root beer for breakfast. Over the next couple of hours a clearer picture of what had happened at Legoland began to emerge. The cousins showed me a photo of them on a roller coaster, arms raised, eyes bugging out in terror. This was their last ride, they said, and wasn’t the picture fantastic? Yes, it was, but wait. There are four of them in the photo, including Uncle X. So he hadn’t just walked his kids to their last ride, he had gone on it with them. While nine-year old Luca waited for him. Alone.

At bedtime I rubbed my cheek against Luca’s clean, wet hair and asked him why he thought the German tourists stopped to talk to him.

“Because I was crying,” he said. The missing piece the size of Texas thudded into place.

He had been waiting for a long time although being nine he couldn’t say how long for sure. “I made my purchase,” he said (where does he get this syntax?) “and then I waited for a really, really long time.” Meanwhile Uncle X had gone on not one, but two, rides with his kids. While a nine year old waited for him outside the store at Legoland. Alone. (I could write a country song)

I am not a catastrophic thinker for nothing. When I was a kid, being left at Legoland would have been the least of my problems. Bad, scary things happened to me and my siblings and when they weren’t actually happening, the threat of them happening was real. So I don’t feel exempt from bad stuff the way most people I know do. For people like me, statistics tend to shape-shift so that of the one in a million kids who might have something terrible happen to him, I can only see the number one rather than the other nine-hundred-thousand-nine-hundred and ninety-nine.

How do parents, even normal, non-catastrophic thinking ones, ever let our kids out of our sight? I don’t know. But we do. It must be because we trick ourselves into believing that the world is a mostly benevolent place. After all, the German tourists who stopped for Luca had his best interests at heart. The alternative, that Luca was scared and therefore might have been easily duped into someone’s car (“I just talked to your uncle. I’m taking you to him now…”), that there are people who do this kind of thing is something we have to deny on a daily basis in order to let our kids go to school and visit friends, ride bikes and… go to Legoland with our relatives.

Our new kitchen buddy

The day after the relatives left, Luca was given a birthday present of a potato peeler in the shape of a potato with a face. This has to be one of the best birthday presents ever. We went to the farmer’s market and Luca was inspired to buy some potatoes. “I want to make hash browns!” Could it be that after a cooking drought of months Luca was finally going to strap on his apron and get to work? I held my breath.

Back at work, at last

That night Luca and I toiled away together in the kitchen. I have really missed these times with him because of the easy conversation we have as we cook. Food brings up all kinds of questions such as why are potatoes so full of water? What is hotter, lava or fire?

Snap pea salad

While I made a salad of snap peas with red pepper, red onion, and mint, Luca shredded the potatoes. He actually didn’t use his new peeler at all, but stood him upright on the counter so he could watch.

Someone made some friends

We squeezed the water out of the potatoes with paper towels (not the best method but we don’t have a potato ricer) and then Luca put the potatoes in the skillet and sprinkled salt over them. In the meantime, he noticed that when a potato is half shredded, it looks like a human with moppy hair and made me take a picture.

Hairy

The recipe said to turn the potatoes when they got crispy but you’d have to have a spatula the size of a dinner plate to do that. We did the best we could.

“I like being back in the kitchen,” said Luca. This was of course music to my ears but I played it cool and told him to make sure the potatoes didn’t burn.

Jim and I still aren’t sure what Uncle X was thinking to leave Luca alone the way he did. He has since sincerely apologized and promised that it will never happen again (assuming there will be another opportunity). My outrage has subsided but sadness has taken its place. Because if his uncle cared enough, if the idea of something even a little bit bad happening to Luca were unfathomable to him, he wouldn’t have been able to leave him for any length of time. Alone. At Legoland. While he went for rides with his kids. (OK, maybe I am still mad.)

It might be a stretch to think that Luca’s panic at Legoland made him want to retreat back into what may be the safest place in the world. In any case it produced some pretty tasty hash browns that went nicely with the crispy snap peas. My boy was home.

Golden

Enthrallment Installment

more vanilla ice cream…

I wish I could write more entries on this blog but writing here is dependent on my eight-year old boy doing some actual cooking and thankfully he has many other interests. Which is another way of saying that I have lost him to Harry Potter.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before what has happened to countless parents across the globe happened to me and Jim: one day you are laughing and playing with your child and the next day every question you ask him is an annoying distraction from Hogwarts Castle. He barely looks up from the book all day and even loses interest in movies unless they are of the Harry Potter variety. You notice he is tired and you suspect he has begun the time-honored tradition of sneaking the reading light on after bedtime. When you catch him in the act of illicit reading he looks up from his book blearily and you notice with alarm that he barely recognizes you. Only half of what you say to him registers at all and that is on a good day, so you give up talking altogether. Your house becomes extremely quiet. Every dinner is like date night because your son, his head stuck in a book at breakfast, lunch and dinner, listens to nothing and you find you can talk about anything in his presence without him noticing. The most you can hope for is that he will understand the words: “Get your jacket on,” when it is time to go to school. In order to keep a toe in his world you start reading Harry Potter yourself and find it sort of fun but not brilliant, kind of original and at the same time derivative. But you get it, why a story about kids with wizard powers has captured the person you love most in the world and created his deepest obsession yet. You think that this is what it must be like to live with a teenager, or more accurately, a teenager in love; the parent/child relationship reduced to desperate attempts to penetrate the fog of boundless enthrallment.

Luca at the California Academy of Science aquarium

 

A few weeks ago I drove Luca up to the Bay Area with the main (if not the sole) purpose of eating at Chez Panisse. After more than a year of making recipes from Fanny at Chez Panisse, Luca would finally get to peruse the menu and order whatever tickled his fancy. Lucky for me he hadn’t yet got his hands on a Harry Potter book because I think even a trip to food paradise would have taken a back seat. This was our life B.H.P. (Before You-Know-Who) and so we spent an entire day at the mind-blowing California Academy of Science and rode the F Market to the Ferry Building, a high-end mall for foodies. They also have a bookstore, but more about that later.

one of many food stalls at the Ferry Building

The next night Jim flew up to meet us and we ate at Zuni Café where we shared the extraordinary roast chicken with bread salad and the lightest and tastiest gnocchi I have ever tasted: ricotta with Brussels sprouts and sage. On Saturday we had a late lunch reservation at Chez Panisse and so we met some friends for a drink next door at Cesar. One of our friends, Lynn Eve, had recently eaten at El Bulli in Spain, the famous, insanely innovative restaurant which has been called the greatest in the world. As we listened to Lynn Eve describe her El Bulli experience (“more performance art than dinner”) that included a mid-meal anxiety attack in the ladies’ room, Luca, dressed in his nicest button-down shirt, sat holding his copy of Fanny at Chez Panisse for Alice Waters to sign in case we were lucky enough to run into her (we weren’t). At one point he sighed and said, “All I want to do is cook.” Though this comment impressed our friends, it was unfortunately totally untrue as is evidenced by my infrequent blogging.

 

When it was time to head next door to Chez Panisse I was worried that, after all the buildup, it was bound to be a little disappointing. However, one taste of the spicy zucchini soup with mint yogurt told me what I already knew, that a master is a master and no one has mastered the art of creating exciting food from fresh, seasonal ingredients quite the way Alice Waters has.

"Here I am!"

Luca ordered well: the famous goat cheese with garden lettuces; ricotta and greens ravioli with chanterelles and Parmesan.

Ravioli with chanterelles

Jim ordered the spicy broccoli, marinated beets, anchovy and egg to start and the quail with kabocha squash puree, rapini and black olives. Jim is one of those people who has turned the act of ordering off a menu into an art (or perhaps a science). He always orders the perfect, most off-beat things on the menu, each course in brilliant counterpoint to the next. It is annoying. Even when I remember to let him order first I still end up coveting his food and asking for too many bites. This time however, we were equals. After the mind-alteringly delicious soup, I had the halibut with butter beans, artichokes and salsa verde.

Divine halibut

Is your mouth watering yet? Every single thing, every single bite of every single thing was out of this world. Things that were supposed to be tender (the halibut) melted in my mouth. Combinations were a thrilling mix of zesty and subtle (artichokes and salsa verde; squash puree, rapini and olives), and the old stand by of baked goat cheese with lettuce seemed to say, “this is why I am still here.”

 

 

 

 

We did not order dessert because we were headed to Humphrey Slocombe where they not only have ice cream with flavors like Pink Grapefruit Tarragon and Strawberry Black Olive, they patiently let you taste every one.

Jim's perfect quail

Luca was so happy with the wonderful meal that he laughed all the way out of Chez Panisse and down the street. We had graciously been invited to watch a rehearsal of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s thoroughly entertaining Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead in which the orchestra is portrayed by fantastic puppets with heads that are half human face, half instrument. By the time we walked out onto the streets of downtown Berkeley, I realized we hadn’t stopped giggling for two straight hours.

 

Now we come to the moment at which Luca’s most powerful obsession to date took hold. We noticed a discount bookstore and stopped in to browse, and just as I was seized by dread of the day when there will be no more bookstores to drop in on, Luca spied the first book in the Harry Potter series on a shelf. We bought it for him and I haven’t had a conversation with him since.

 

Before heading home to LA the following day, we stopped at the Ferry Building where Luca looked up from his book long enough to notice the bookstore and to beg us to buy the second Harry Potter book for him. We did and then made our way onto the freeway and back home to LA. Luca read for six and a half straight hours and by the middle of the next day he was half way into the second book. Now it is three weeks later and he is close to finishing book six, which at 652 pages is shorter than books four and five, a hefty 734 and 870 pages respectively.

 

Luca has always enjoyed reading, and I am aware that millions of kids the world over have been similarly struck by Harry Potter. Nevertheless, Jim and I have wondered whether a certain amount of parental alarm is in order. Watching Luca lose himself so intensely is a window onto an aspect of his nature that is surely genetic (Jim is a film editor: ‘nuff said). But what does it mean, this extreme focus that can seem like a kind of oblivion? While it will serve him well in some areas of his life, it can also make him a pain to live with. I imagine his future romantic partners going bonkers as they try to get his attention from the – fill in the blanks – book he is writing/food he is inventing/symphony he is composing. This is of course the positive outcome. Fill in those blanks with other things (crazy girlfriend/crystal meth/facebook) and it is another matter. What if (oh, horror!) he decides to become an actor? For better or worse, once Luca is possessed there is no turning his head.

Jellyfish at the Cal Acad

Harry Potter notwithstanding, Luca is still occasionally keen on making something in the kitchen, even if it is invariably something he knows he won’t get at home unless he makes it himself; like ice cream and anything breaded and fried such as Alice Waters’ lemon sole fried with breadcrumbs. He’ll decide to make vanilla ice cream and mix heavy cream, milk, sugar and vanilla extract together and then dump it in the machine and let it churn away. Afterwards he has the satisfaction of eating something delicious that never would have been on the table if he hadn’t made it himself. I also think it speaks to a wily resourcefulness to have found a way of ensuring that dessert will not be denied him.

Darth Vader, Big Daddy of the Dark Side

Luca’s combination of obsessiveness and resourcefulness turns out to pack a wallop. I know because I face it every day. Hopefully it will remain pointed toward the Light and he won’t “go over,” to the Dark Arts or the Dark Side of the Force the way so many promising characters in the stories he loves seem to do. Who will Luca turn out to be? This is a question I ask myself often, even as I try to relish the moments of sweetness that everyone tells me are fleeting.

For now, Luca is eight years old and in love with reading and eating and roughhousing after dinner in bed. And maybe he is teaching his mother a little something about trust and faith.

 

 

Hard Math, Easy Friends

Recipes # 28 and 29; ginger snaps and plum ice cream

The rigors of 3rd grade have kept Luca too busy to do much cooking lately. Wait, did I just say the rigors of 3rd grade? What kind of altered reality are we living in when eight year olds are being asked to do twenty math problems in one night? Hard ones. In Spanish. No wonder that Luca, who once after a play date gone bad consoled himself by doing a week’s worth of homework in one sitting, is now suddenly stressed about homework.

As a mother who decided I was terrible at math at an early age, I try to be encouraging without letting Luca get too strong a whiff of my own fear and loathing. I am desperate for him not to label himself “bad at math” just because he is one of those kids who walk around with his head in a book bumping into the furniture.

Because of Luca’s new homework load, he’s been less tolerant of demands placed on his time and I’ve been trying to let him be. I haven’t wanted cooking to seem like a chore so I haven’t pressed it when he says he’d rather dress up like Indiana Jones than make a roasted chicken. So I was thrilled on Saturday when Luca decided he wanted to make gingersnaps for our good friends who were coming to dinner; Rachel and Jeff and their two children, Arielle who is Luca’s age and eight month old baby Moriah.

gingersnaps

Rachel and I have been good friends for sixteen years. She was introduced to me by a mutual friend who described her this way: “She is gorgeous, smart, funny, she dresses great, she’s about to start a job with one of the biggest producers in Hollywood and she knows everyone who is anyone. Basically she is perfect.”  Naturally, I despise people like that and was sure I’d feel the same about Rachel.  But when we met we hit if off instantly and, though we have seen each other through some excruciatingly hard times, Rachel and I have never stopped laughing. Or rather, during the times when the laughs did stop, there was little doubt that they’d start up again. Generous and loyal, Rachel is one of those people you want on your side for life. Due to LA geography, we don’t get our two families together very often. But Luca and Arielle have always had good chemistry, an easy silliness that seems immune to time apart. I had no idea if this would still be the case. But I was encouraged when Luca said, “I want to make dessert for Arielle.”

Luca and I read over the recipe for gingersnaps and both of us jumped in delight at the note at the end of the recipe: “For Plum Ice Cream Sandwiches: Place a scoop of plum ice cream (page 121) onto a gingersnap, top it with another, and press together. Wrap in plastic and store in freezer.”

“Let’s do that!” Luca cried and so we decided to make gingersnaps and plum ice cream. A little while later I began laying everything out on the counter.

“Luca, can you get the vanilla?” I asked.

“I don’t know where that is,” he replied. How did this happen? All this time we have been cooking together I had been playing the part of the dutiful assistant, getting out all the ingredients and the equipment and laying it out for him. But you can’t cook if you can’t find your ingredients and he needed to learn his way around his own kitchen.

Luca at work

He found the vanilla, the cinnamon and the egg. Then he got out the measuring cups and spoons and went to work creaming the butter and sugar in the food processor. We stopped the machine every so often to loosen the butter from the blade.

“It’s not fully incorporated,” I said whereupon Luca erupted in a big giggle.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Monsters, Incorporated,” he answered. Cooking – mixing and blending and smelling – seems to stimulate a kind of free-flowing, free-association train of thought. Luca laughs a lot when he cooks. Because of this and the fact that he loves food so much makes him great fun to be with in the kitchen.

He cracked the egg on the side of the bowl and dumped it in, miraculously with none of the shell attached. His hands were covered in egg goo so he washed them and then he added the molasses and vanilla and mixed them all together. He then measured out the flour. This is always a messy task because he overfills the cup with flour and then has to level it off by tossing half of it onto the counter. The bottle of dried ginger was dusted with white flour and this made him laugh again. I waited while he enjoyed himself by sprinkling more flour on the top of the ginger bottle.

is this funny?

Luca read out the measurements of salt, cinnamon and ginger. But sensing a looming math problem, he balked.

“I don’t know what that means!” he insisted even though he has read and understood 1 1/2 and 1 1/4 many times before. To make matters worse our teaspoons were dirty so I gave Luca the 1/2 teaspoon and asked him to figure out how many of those made one and a half.

“I hate math!” he said and begged me to do the measuring. But I didn’t think that any self-respecting parent could let a moment like this go – a moment in which he could learn the practical value of all that math homework. I figured that Luca loves his food enough that he was willing to go the distance with whatever math was involved. After a moment he came up with a reluctant “Three.”

“Right,” I said pretending not to notice the glint of pride in his eye.

measuring with silly bandz

He went about measuring out the 1/2 teaspoons with the same messy method as he measures the flour and pretty soon the kitchen counter was covered in flour, ginger and cinnamon. He mixed the dry ingredients together and then mixed them with the butter and sugar and the room filled with the smell of ginger, butter and vanilla.

aftermath

“This is outrageous!” he exclaimed.

The batter went into the refrigerator and when it was cool we rolled it into three logs, wrapped it up again and put it in the freezer.

rolling logs

Now onto the ice cream. Luca pitted the plums and tossed them into the food processor to puree. He declared that one of them looked like a butt crack. This is becoming a little predictable. Many fruits, as it turns out, have two halves that, looked at from an eight-year-old boy’s point of view, resemble a human bum. Besides an absurd amount of homework 3rd grade seems be marked by a blooming interest in all things bodily with a preference for the scatological and anything to do with “weenies.” A group of boys were recently sent to the Principals’ office for shouting “Weenie Power!” to the girls in their daily Boys Against Girls Recess War. I don’t know how the Principal kept a straight face.

plum booty

Luca pureed the plums, mixed them together with the cream, vanilla and sugar and poured it into the ice cream maker. He turned it on and while the machine churned, we took the gingersnap logs out of the freezer, cut them into little rounds and placed them on a cookie sheet. They went into the oven and when the ice cream was done I asked Luca to get a Tupperware container to put it in.

cutting the logs

“I don’t know where those are,” he said. This again? I showed him where they were and we had a big discussion about which container was the right size to fit all the ice cream (geometry!) and right then the doorbell rang.

While we ate homemade pizza with anchovies, capers and jalapenos Luca said to Arielle, “Wanna go play?” They went into Luca’s room and in under a minute we heard squeals and laughs and knew they were right back into it again. By the time they came out for dinner, they were whispering secrets and giggling. Moriah who was learning to crawl chewed on a piece of pizza dough for the rest of the night.

Jim made a grilled chicken with peppers and eggplant and, as we were finishing dinner, Rachel’s brother Adam came over with his pregnant wife Jessica. They were on their way to a dance concert and couldn’t stay long. But Jessica couldn’t say no to Luca’s ice cream sandwich. As Arielle stood by licking fingers and bowls, Luca placed two gingersnaps and a dollop of soft plum ice cream onto each plate and handed it around. Not quite ice cream sandwiches the spicy ginger combined perfectly with the cold plum ice cream to make a delicious mess. Someone asked for a spoon. The kids ate close to twenty gingersnaps before anyone got wind and then it was time to say goodbye to Adam and Jessica, and soon after it was time for everyone to go.

Before he walked out the door, Jeff pointed at Luca and Arielle and said: “They have such an easy friendship.”

plums

What Summer Is For

recipes # 26 and 27; tomato salad and peach crisp

For the first time in his life Luca is dreading the end of summer. For a kid who loves school his summers have been fun enough but nothing like the one that is now sadly and rapidly waning. And for the first time in my life I am not dreading the end of summer so much as I am plunged into a deep anticipated mourning.

When I was a child, I hated summer; the endless stretch of days, the blistering heat of Brooklyn thick with the inevitable boredom. Aside from the occasional week or two at sleep away camp, my siblings and I would spend summers at home doing pretty much nothing unless you count driving our mother crazy as an activity. Using the heat as an excuse, we sat around the house all day – napping, killing roaches, complaining and fighting with each other – until she threw us out without much caring where in the inner bowels of Brooklyn we ended up as long as it wasn’t within earshot of her.

what summer should be

Sometimes we’d actually manage to trudge over to the public pool. There we’d fight for space in which to feel any semblance of coolness and bump into giant floating cockroaches that looked dead but were just cooling off in the water. By August we stopped going out altogether. Impervious to our mother’s irritation, we’d sit inside watching through the window as the Puerto Rican kids in their bathing suits and sneakers played in the spray of freezing water from the fire hydrant.

Nowadays for better or for worse, parents plan their kids’ summers week by week. We approach summer with lowgrade panic, looking by mid-May like deer in the headlights of the oncoming eleven weeks of free time. How will we give our kids a healthy, fun summer full of activities plus give them some down time while somehow managing to get any of our own work done? And how much money is it all going to cost?

This summer I didn’t get much work done but it was worth it. Jim was off for three months starting in May, and our mid-June trip to Italy and Spain seems now to have been just the beginning, not necessarily the apex, of a summer rich with experience. Later we went to Cape Cod to see Luca’s beloved cousins on Jim’s side and then drove up to the farm in Vermont where my sister Lexi lives with her partner Art. In between Luca and Jim went camping in the Sequoias and Luca went to various day camps, did gymnastics and spent hours in the pool and in the sun.

sunset on the cape

I suppose it is a hallmark of a good summer that a parent (or a mother anyway) should be brought to the edge of her comfort level watching her children do things she didn’t know they could do. Among the things I watched, calmly or otherwise, Luca do for the first time were diving into deep water, kayaking in the sea far from shore, ziplining and doing flip turns in the pool. He bottle-fed a lamb, ran sheep from one paddock to another and collected fresh eggs from a hen. On the beach at night he made s’mores over an open a fire and then did somersaults in the sand while his more practiced cousin did cartwheels and back flips. He hand picked blueberries and then with Lexi made the most delicious cobbler I have ever tasted. He paddled a canoe, not just to paddle around but to arrive at our campsite on an island in the middle of Lake George, NY in the aftermath of a thunderstorm.

blueberries

If I hadn’t been brought forcibly to the edge of my equanimity at least once it would mean Luca wasn’t playing hard enough. On Lake George I watched Luca swim from one island to another island two football fields away in deep and choppy water. There were currents and wind and Luca, following Jim and Art, was nowhere near land. What happened to my cautious boy, the one who is more adventurous intellectually than physically? “Isn’t that a little far?” I croaked to the air. I took deep breaths and remembered Art saying: “If I can see him I can get to him.”  Still, I couldn’t help muttering to myself “Am I supposed to be OK with this?” Luca reached the far shore and waved to me from across the distance. I could tell even from his tiny head that kept disappearing behind the waves that he was smiling and I pretended to be more proud than scared. When he came back Luca told me he had been fine out there. “Whenever I got tired I just rested on my back,” he said breathlessly. I had had no idea he knew how to do that.

getting water

This was a whole new world for Luca, and I have spent my summer as a bystander to his new, more physical and courageous self. While traipsing through major European cities had kept him in the familiar terrain of his mind where he compared the Italian words with their Spanish counterparts and asked questions about medieval history, getting cooking water from a lake required a different kind of resourcefulness. Using one’s body rather than one’s reason to solve a problem turns out in the end to do much more than make the body strong.

At a rocky gorge in Vermont Luca stood for long minutes on end up to his knees in icy water. I wondered what he was thinking about out there, whether he was observing tadpoles or the pattern of submerged rocks or whatever little boys look at while standing in freezing cold water. It soon became clear that his mind had wandered from the physical world around him because he broke his reverie with: “Daddy, what’s a soliloquy?”

He had somehow been reminded of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which he had been reading at the time and perhaps this place had reminded him of Huck’s outdoor world of camping and fishing. Perhaps arriving at his question was only possible by first observing the tadpoles and the rocks and standing in this very spot with his legs getting numb on the slippery rocks. It is a beautiful aspect of the meandering mind that it’s movements are totally private, so I’ll never know how he came to ask this question at this moment in this place. In any case, Huck meets up with some actors and that is where Luca read the word that popped into his mind here where the natural world was opening up vistas both external and internal and where there was enough peace, quiet and time for a lazy, wandering mind to do its work.

sitting in the water at our campsite

All this traveling and ziplining and swimming and making time for our wandering thoughts have meant that cooking has been distilled to its simplest form. We have become masters of the five-minute taco. We toss a corn tortilla in a pan to heat, throw some grated cheese on top along with some chopped peppers (hopefully spicy ones), some black beans maybe, add some avocadoes and fresh lime juice and call it dinner. Still, Luca eyes Fanny at Chez Panisse from time to time and picks out a recipe he wants to make, one of the summer recipes that he has been waiting for.

Luca wanted to make peach crisp in the dead of February and apricot jam in March and I’ve had to tell him that he’ll have to wait. So now we are racing to get to the summer recipes before it’s too late and we have to wait until next year. We missed the window during apricot season for me to overcome my fear of making jam (all that sterilizing and boiling is too intimidating). But just when we had a nice crop of fresh tomatoes in our garden, ones that had not yet been bitten it two and left to rot by the squirrels, Luca announced that he wanted to make Alice Waters’ Tomato Salad. So I picked the tomatoes, supplemented them with some nice ones from the farmer’s market, and when I had them laid them all out on the counter Luca said he didn’t feel like making the salad after all. This is how it goes these days: he says he wants to make something and then once all the ingredients are laid out on the counter he says he’d rather go play. Then I say that I’m not going to make whatever it is he’s picked out because the plan was for me to be making something else, so if he wants it he has to make it himself. And then he wrestles with himself, goes back and forth a few times and spends a good long while agonizing over how to manage his time before sighing deeply and saying “Ooooo-Kaaaay.” Once he is engaged in the act of cooking, he starts enjoying himself again.

tomato salad

He made the salad, a twist on a Caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella and a Basalmic dressing. He ate it along with some pasta aglio e olio and declared that he didn’t like the salad much. This was a first. He is usually very impressed with his own results. But I think I understood what he meant. There is something about tomatoes, when eaten raw, that is just… mushy. I can only eat a few bites, even of the best heirloom tomatoes, before the texture becomes unappealing.  I have come to realize that Luca’s food dislikes are all about texture and nothing to do with taste. He doesn’t like mealy or mushy things, no matter what they taste like.

After dinner we watched “Sounder,” part of the ongoing Friday movie night series at our house. Luca loves it because watching movies (all head, no body) is pretty much his favorite thing to do. He will sit through anything with rapt attention and is only now learning to distinguish between movies he likes (anything with Buster Keaton, “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones”) from ones he doesn’t like (“Toy Story 3″). I like it because I get to pick out movies I want him to see and that aren’t the usual Pixar fare. Recent selections have included “The Bicycle Thief” (pronounced “sad” by Luca) and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” which had him laughing so hard we kept having to pause the movie so he could catch his breath.

peaches and apricots ready for mixing

The other day, Luca said he wanted to make Alice Waters’ Peach Crisp, another summer dish, and we happened to have all the ingredients on hand including a big plate full of fresh peaches mixed with a few apricots. I washed them and laid them on the cutting board whereupon we went through the familiar, tormented dance of Luca wanting to do something else instead and me saying OK fine and then him saying that no, in fact he really did want to make the crisp but wanted to finish playing his airport game and couldn’t decide what to do because he wanted to do both things at the same time and me saying he would have to make a choice. He left the room and I thought that was the end of the crisp. But then came stomping into the kitchen with a scowl on his face. He grabbed a knife but I grabbed it out of his hand and looked him in the eye. “Uh-uh,” I said. “We don’t cook like that. If you’re not in the mood, fine. We don’t have to have the crisp. But if you’re going to do it then you have to change your attitude.” He calmed down but I could tell he was still mad at leaving behind the airport he had laid out so carefully on the living room floor.

We got out the flour and butter and sugars and once Luca’s hands were in the sticky mess of it all his spirits lifted. He ground the mixture together in his fingers and then licked them all. Once he had washed his hands again, he got to work chopping the peaches and the apricots. The knife went through them like butter and once Luca chopped right through the pit. “Look! I cut the pit in half!” He showed it to me and started asking questions about what pits are made of and why they are woody and is it because they come from trees and are made of wood. As anyone who knows me can attest, I am completely ill equipped to answer questions of this nature. Once when we were dating I asked Jim if all plants came from seeds and I have never in fifteen years been able to live that one down.

the flour mixture

The crisp went into the oven, Luca went back to landing his 747 at London Heathrow and a little while later we had tacos with poblano peppers and some grilled baby zucchini. When the crisp was ready we waited for it to cool and then dug in. Even without cream or ice cream (the one missing ingredient), it was delicious, a perfect combination of tangy and sweet.

easy peasy lemon squeezy

As I ate I admired Luca’s taller, tanner, stronger body and the utter gorgeousness of this late summer boyhood. Watching him get happy in ways I never imagined has been better than anything. He has a little swagger now and goes around lifting things, including me, to show how strong he is. One more week, I thought, and he will be back at school doing math problems and catching colds.

peach crisp

Yesterday Jim, Luca and I had the last of the peach crisp for breakfast, heated with a dollop of yogurt. We ate in near silence, relishing the taste of the tart and creamy yogurt mixing perfectly with the sweet tang of the peaches and apricots, and savoring our dessert for breakfast as a sublime celebration of the last tastes of summer.

Food, Art and Coming Home

recipes 24 & 25; quesadillas (again) and Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf

That the measure of a great trip is how happy you are to return home was never more clear to me than two weeks ago when Jim, Luca and I returned from Italy and Spain. After a grueling trip home, that because we were using our frequent flier miles, involved a twelve hour flight from Madrid to Mexico City on a flight packed with Mexican football fans returning from Mexico’s elimination in the World Cup, and an overnight in a shabby airport hotel, we landed at LAX at 9:30 in the morning. Weirdly energized by jetlag and the luck of it being Wednesday I was at the Farmer’s Market by 11AM loading up on summer’s bounty: apricots, peaches, green beans and zucchini. When I got home, Luca was at the stove making his beloved quesadilla. I made a salad of fresh greens and we all dug in. After two weeks of a diet that consisted mostly of cheese, wine, pasta and just about every possible kind of pig meat, we were too excited about eating our own food to think about the sleep we so desperately needed.

Normal people plan their trips around museums and famous basilicas. We scour Chowhound.com and other foodie sites for places to eat like locals. In much of Italy this advance research isn’t necessary as you can eat well just about anywhere, including as Jim and I found out once, in the Autostrada rest stops where we had great coffee and sandwiches. But we knew from previous experience that you can eat very badly in Venice and spend a lot of money while you’re at it. So armed with a trusty list of off-the-beaten-track restaurants, and no plans to enter a basilica of any kind, the three of us set out to walk the world’s most beautiful city.

A quiet corner of Venice

Because Luca is Luca, he had no trouble planning the day around the best pizza in Venice (Il Refolo) or a nice plate of fritti misti (Il Vecchio Fritolin).

This seafood fritti misti with polenta was so delicious I forgot to snap a photo until it was all gone.

When Luca was a toddler we traveled all over Europe and found that, though he happily sat still for a three hour lunch, he howled in agony upon crossing the threshold of a museum, no matter what kind. We planned museum visits around his naptime and then had to keep him moving in the stroller, doing absurd figure eights through the galleries lest he should wake up and find himself in front of the Mona Lisa and start screaming.

This time around he’d have to suck it up. As an eight year old, he’d have to walk on his own two feet and keep his irritation to himself. The truth is that I don’t have much more tolerance for museums than he does, and this is especially true of big important museums stuffed with religious paintings. I think we learn as much from food as from art, and whatever it says about me, treating museums as stopovers on the way to great food works for me as much as for my eight-year old kid. We got off to a good start in Milan at the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology where they have constructed wooden models of Leonardo’s technological drawings; bridges, flying machines, weaving looms. But at the Galleria Accademia in Venice Luca’s shoulders slumped almost immediately and he began to moan that he was bored and hungry after only a few minutes. I couldn’t blame him. Nor could I explain the significance in wall after wall of the Madonna and Child or the gruesome depictions of saints being tortured. Luca stopped in front of a particularly grisly portrait of a saint having the thigh muscle cut off by several knife-wielding unbelievers intent on their business. Momentarily absorbed, he wanted answers. “I don’t get it. Why is there so much torture?”

“I don’t know,” I answered lamely and pulled out the list of restaurants and a map. The painting may have been a Tintoretto but it was oppressive enough that three minutes later we were bounding across bridges on our way to the Venice fish market.

Having no place to cook, we bought no fish but, while Luca watched the garbage boat loading, we bought some lovely apricots at the next-door fruit market. For some reason the sight of the garbage boat with its little crane lifting and placing garbage made Luca laugh, so we stood there a while eating apricots while Luca giggled at the garbage boat.

Venice fruit market

Luca did better at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where, with a steady, lashing rain beginning to pour, we had fun looking at the photos of Peggy in these very rooms with these very works of art surrounding her. It was a relief after the heaviness of the Galleria Accademia, imagining what it must have been like to live here on the Grand Canal with your very own gondola at the front door and with playful works by Picasso and Brancusi hanging in your dining room and, in the bedroom, a silver headboard made by Calder (I have read that this last caused some uncomfortable moments during Peggy’s many romantic encounters).  Luca was especially enchanted by the blue glass sculptures made from Picasso’s drawings that sit in a window through which you can watch the traffic of the vaporettos and delivery boats on the Grand Canal.

We squeezed in visits to the Ca’ D’Oro and the Palazzo Ducale between meals at San Trovaso where we ate squid ink pasta with big tender hunks of squid, and Alla Vedova where we ate our freshest meal of chicchetti; white beans and onions, sarde en saor, vegetable antipasti, and their famed meatballs.

Aside from some 12th Century bronzes, the Ca D’Oro was a trial for Luca that no amount of enthusiasm on my part could alleviate. He managed to amuse himself by sitting on the loggia overlooking the considerable action on the Grand Canal, mostly unchanged since the 13th century when other little boys, bored by the goings on in the palace itself, might have been enchanted by the same view.

In the Ca' D'Oro looking out

The Palazzo Ducale was a lot more fun, part museum and part living-history playground for Luca. With a belly full of a rich béchamel and porcini lasagne he spent the better part of a rainy afternoon in the armory picking out his weapons of choice (crossbow and sling), and in the dank prison cells where he alternately pretended to be a guard and a prisoner.

Blaming it on the long line snaking through the Piazza San Marco in the rain, we skipped the Basilica.

With the World Cup heating up, we watched Cameroon play Denmark in the Campo Santa Margherita where a small crowd huddled under awnings to stay out of the rain while sipping on beer or the incredibly refreshing Venetian spritz made with Prosecco, campari and soda water. The next night, with the rain still pouring, we had the luck to run into a little snack bar draped in Brazilian flags and offering caipirinhas. The place was cozy and dry so we stayed to watch Brazil beat Ivory Coast and made a dinner of tiny sandwiches and their version of the spritz made with Aperol and vodka.

It is said that no visit to Venice is complete without getting utterly and hopelessly lost and that night our visit was made complete as we traipsed through a bleak and eerie part of the Dorsoduro in the rain. Glimpses of the lights of cruise ships only disoriented us further until we found ourselves, blocks from our hotel, in a deserted courtyard of a police station with an armada of smart little police boats bobbing at the docks.

Beautiful food shop in Verona where we bought picnic fixin's.

In Verona, we avoided the local specialty of horsemeat stew and had a picnic of cheese, salami, bread, wine and artichokes on the banks of the Adige River. In the distance was the 12th century Castelvecchio where Luca had passed the morning shooting imaginary crossbows off turrets at the enemy advancing from the river.

Castelvecchio

Then it was off to the much hotter and drier Madrid. We checked into our hotel and immediately went out to find Luca’s beloved and much-anticipated giant pile of chorizo.

Oh beloved!

At the Reina Sofia Museum Luca learned about the horrors or the Spanish Civil War through works by Picasso with titles such as “Mother With Dead Child,” and his giant “Guernika.” Interspersed throughout the galleries were flat screen TV’s on which were shown odd little early experimental films and, to the delight of the loudly guffawing Luca, a 22 minute Buster Keaton short called “The Week.” While I tried to interest Luca in wondrous portraits by Miro he became engrossed in a documentary film about the war. Arguing about why he should be allowed to watch it for the third straight time, he said emphatically: “Mommy, this is history. It’s real. This,” he said with a sweeping gesture encompassing all the great works hanging on the walls, “is not.” I tried explaining that history is understood through art as much as through the so-called “facts,” but Luca’s eyes were glued to the screen where grainy images of dead children flickered. When did he become so literal?

That night we ate at El Mollete, a tapas restaurant in an old charcoal cellar so tiny that there are little luggage racks above the tables. We had an avocado salad that came wrapped in smoked salmon, a plate of tender, spicy pulpo, pork stuffed with cherries and blackberries, and best of all, fiilo dough saquetes of goat cheese drizzled with honey.

Goat cheese saquetes at El Mollete

The next day we were joined by our good friends from London; Nina (one half of the brilliant tropical/rock/pop band Zeep), and her son Johan who was a great pal of Luca’s when we lived in London. Fellow Brasil supporters, Nina and Johan arrived with a suitcase full of carnival paraphernalia and just in time to watch the match between Brasil and Portugal in the Plaza Santa Ana. In contrast to the more staid piazzas in Venice and Verona, the Plaza Santa Ana was hot, loud and smoky and, though less beautiful, a lot more fun.

Viva Brasil!

Sitting on the Plaza we noticed a small but steady stream of people in yellow and green heading to a little bar on the corner and a couple of minutes later we were speaking Portuguese and enjoying a nice plate of paella accompanied by a delightfully chilled light red wine. Brasil won the match 3-1 and just then it would have been hard to improve upon our mood.

Where we watched Brasil

The boys braved a walk in the 90 degree heat to the Parque Retiro where they had ride on the lake in a rowboat. Afterwards they played soccer in the rain and it was off for another tapas meal;  jamon iberico and cheese. Walking with the boys in the heat, it turned out, required regular stops for ice cream and “Fanta Naranja” which in Italy Luca discovered by the name of “Aranciata.”

Fuel for walking

The last museum of the trip turned out to be the most trying for me and, surprisingly,  the least so for Luca. On the way to the Prado, Luca and Jim peeled off to fix a shoe problem of Luca’s and I went into the museum with Nina and Johan. Johan, who is incredibly easy-going and quiet, began to squirm the minute we joined the line for tickets. As I watched Johan in silent tears, literally wringing his little body away from the gloomy paintings on the wall, I wondered how Luca was faring, if he was being tortured as Johan now was, very like the victims portrayed in Goya’s dark works.

We lasted about an hour before we desperately fumbled for an exit, an hour that was a testament to Johan’s forbearance. Luca who is much more vocal would have complained so loudly that it would have been impossible to stay more than a few minutes.

Nina, Johan and I ended up waiting for over an hour outside the Prado for Jim and Luca to emerge, an hour I spent worrying for Luca’s mental health in the face of the monstrous faces of Goya’s masses and the firing squads. When I finally saw Luca bounding towards me across the expanse of the museum’s entrance, he was smiling and saying: “that was my favorite museum, Mommy!”

Then we were off to El Mollete again, this time with friends in tow. When the waiters saw us for the second time in two days, they sat down and shook our hands like we were old friends. We ate well, too well, and then took a long walk through the neighborhoods of La Latina and Lavpies which were deserted in the afternoon heat.

That night Jim watched the boys – and a match between USA and Ghana – while Nina and I went out to see Flamenco at Casa Patas (which turns out to be the best place in Madrid for Flamenco). I had never seen Flamenco and didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes for me to be completely enraptured with the clapping and percussive foot stamps of the melancholy, mournful singers. The guitar playing was extraordinary, brilliant really, and the dancing was jaw dropping. Everything was sexy and dynamic and musically rich and Nina and I wanted more of all of the performers, the whole gorgeous sextet of them.

High on great music and dancing, we went back to the Brazilian place on Santa Ana and drank a bottle of wine and ate an enormous plate of ham while we watched the thick parade of people walking by the windows. At one point we noticed that the people in the streets, though it was nearing 1AM, were not drunk in the least. They were merely enjoying the night, eating and drinking and, because this was Spain they were of course, smoking. We also observed the way in which the hipness of modern Spain has embraced traditional Spanish culture rather than casting it aside. The big hams hanging in the bars, the wine, the midday siesta which is no longer a siesta of course but which the Spaniards cling to nevertheless, even Flamenco; all of these are part of the new modern here.

Ham and breadsticks

The day after Nina and Johan returned to London, Luca, Jim and I took the train to Segovia. There we had a drink and an ice cream under the perfectly intact Roman Aqueduct and then walked across town to the Alcazar, a 12th century castle built in the shape of a ship’s prow on the confluence of two rivers.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia

This castle was mostly left as as is, and not unlike in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, it was easy to imagine life as it must have been when people actually lived here. The Fireplace room had its original dining table and chairs, the bedroom had what seemed like a strangely modest bed, and there was even a real throne in the Throne room. Luca examined the weapons in the armory before climbing the 152 circular steps of the Torre San Juan II, and at the top he fought another valiant battle against encroaching enemy forces using (I think) a canon and crossbows.

The throne room in the Alcazar

By this point in our journey my stomach was on strike so we bypassed the whole suckling pig that Segovia is famous for and had a little snack of cheese and bread before heading to the train station. This was our last day in Spain and we spent it by turns arguing with officious train station clerks and watching the rain fall on the Spanish plain from the top of a medieval castle.

Two days later we are home and, by noon, all settled down at the table to eat Luca’s quesadillas and greens from the Farmer’s Market.  “Mmmmm,” I said. “Fresh California salad.”

“I want some Fresh California salad!” Luca said as though this were its name. I heaped a mound of it on his plate and the colors were various hues of almost fluorescent green. He ate a big bite and then dug back into his beloved quesadilla. Less than an hour after landing at LAX, he had been at the stove reuniting with the familiar flavors of home.

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Halibut in fig leaves ready for the oven

By the way, for Mother’s Day Luca finally made the much-anticipated Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf. I have had fish wrapped in all kinds of things and usually I can’t see what the fuss is about. But this was different, another example of Alice Waters’ genius for making the simplest foods indescribably delicious. The fig leaves (harvested from our friend’s tree) gave the fish a slightly nutty taste and the halibut itself was so tender it melted in my mouth. Luca had wanted to make all three meals that day for me including breakfast in bed, but I convinced him that one meal was enough. And it was!

The Future

recipes 22 & 23; sourdough blueberry pancakes and pizza

I haven’t posted here in a while because instead of cooking and writing and writing about Luca cooking, I’ve been engaged in an epic battle with the monolithic bureaucracy called the Los Angeles Unified School District over its abrupt decision not to allow children who live within their boundaries to attend schools in other districts. Never mind that these kids have been going to these schools for years, forming friendships and deep attachments. Never mind that it should be glaringly obvious to any clear-thinking person, much less an educator, that a school is more than a place where numbers and letters are learned. A school is a place where a child learns to succeed and fail, and surrounded by strong relationships developed over time, learns to take intellectual risks. A school, if it is successful, is a sort of second family. It is not a community thrown together by force. But the LAUSD is in the hole $640 million and getting the permit kids back, even though without so much as a warning or a public hearing, could bring in some $51million according to their calculation. But as so often happens with such matters, the permit issue became about much more than money; it became about class and privilege, the dire state of public education in California, and because this is America, it became about race.

Luca is one of the more than 12,000 Los Angeles kids who attend school on an inter-district permit, and he has done so since kindergarten. Applying for the permit in the spring has amounted to so much paperwork. In February rumors began to spread about a possible shut down of all LAUSD permits, and in early March an internal memo from LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines began to circulate announcing the end to all inter-district permits effective immediately and with few exceptions. Within days the memo had found its way to thousands of email inboxes as well as to Facebook and the Los Angeles Times which published a forceful editorial against the cancellation policy.

At Luca’s school where many children are on permit from LAUSD, parents gathered in huddles asking if it was true. Could it be possible? Panic and dread spread through the school like a virus. As confusion and bewilderment to turned to outrage I met with a few fellow parents at the school and we determined a course of action. We would write letters to the seven members of the LAUSD Board of Education, the only people who could overturn the Cortines edict. We would bombard them with calls, emails and faxes. We would be heard.

Over the next five weeks we wrote hundreds of letters to the LAUSD Board. We called their offices and spoke with their understanding and beleaguered staff. “We’re getting a lot of calls,” we were told. We hammered them with more. We organized a meeting with parents from other schools and to a packed cafeteria we laid out an advocacy plan. We handed out sample letters. We encouraged over three hundred anxious parents to express their outrage to LAUSD. “Tell your story,” we told them.

One African-American mother in the back of the room raised her hand. “Tell me one thing!” she yelled. “What the hell am I supposed to do in September? I’ll be damned if I’m gonna send my son to Crenshaw High!” Suddenly, we had become the man. How did that happen? I wondered aloud. It happens, I was told. It’s part of the deal when leading the charge in a community effort. A few minutes later we were accused by another parent of putting our own kids ahead of everyone else’s because we wrote in our letters about the particulars of our children’s specialized language program. “Write about your special program!” we told the crowd. And so it began: the fight against giant LAUSD became itself this giant unruly animal; at times we were united and powerful; at other times it felt like a few of us herding cats.

For the next five weeks, this is pretty much all I did. I worked at my regular job for fewer hours than I should have, and then I worked on the LAUSD. Forget about my sourdough starter or the promise of fresh bread. Fueled by stress, adrenaline and the chorizo soft tacos from Tacos Por Favor, the battle with LAUSD was on. A friend of mine said: “Remember, there is no force as powerful as a committed, persistent parent.” I would add that, although there were a couple of dads in our core group of advocates, there is truly nothing like a band of pissed off moms. How often throughout history, I wondered, have women abandoned the kitchen for a good political fight? And how many of those fights have begun with a threat to our children?

Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Panisse gathered dust. Perhaps when this was all over, our friend’s fig tree would have gown leaves and Luca would finally be able to make what had become a wistful mantra for him, “Hali-Butt Baked on a Fig Leaf.”

“Why are you on the phone all the time, Mommy?” Luca asked. Determined that he should know nothing about the whole permit nonsense, I gave a vague explanation about trying to make the schools better. There were some kids at school who knew all about it and even wrote their own letters to the LAUSD board. As much as I was tempted by the idea of demonstrating to Luca the power of grassroots advocacy, I didn’t think he could handle the uncertainty of not knowing whether he would return to his beloved school. How to explain the idea of forcing him out? Who were the people in charge of his education? Keeping him in the dark required whatever was left of my energy – making sure he was out of earshot when listening to news stories on the radio, speaking in code on the phone when he was in the room. And for the sake of normalcy, I even oversaw his first batch of sourdough pancakes (“all by myself”).

adding berries to the pancakes

The phone never stopped ringing with some new heart-stopping setback, or a sudden meeting that needed a delegation, the putting together of which required the utmost political sensitivity. At a LAUSD Board meeting, fifteen permit parents spoke and after the first one, one of the board members stormed out, claiming that he didn’t have to listen to “arrogant parents” besmirch LAUSD schools. A few days later, Cortines went on the radio and accused permit families of not wanting to send their kids to school with people “the same color as me or darker.” A tiny triumphant jolt went through me. Cortines was backed into a corner and this was the best he could do! How cheap was it to play the race card! Ha! We were beating him. But I quickly realized that he had a point. Even though we send Luca to a more racially and socio-economically diverse school than our local one, I had to admit that this is probably not the norm for permit families. Most permit families are just seeking better educational options for their kids. But I couldn’t help remembering an ex-neighbor of mine in Venice who now permits her child into a school that is 76% white. She once told me she would not send her child to her local school because “all those immigrant kids from other neighborhoods bring everyone down.”

Luca's 2nd grade singing in Spanish

Board members began to respond to our emails and we felt as though we were chipping away at the fortress walls. It also became clear that they cared about educating kids. Some emails questioned the validity of the Cortines policy on the basis of what is best for kids as well as the uncertain financial benefit. Others admonished us to think of the kids in LAUSD schools whose class sizes would increase because our kids were absconding with money that was rightfully theirs. The crisis was “painful,” they reminded us. They asked us to consider whether it was fair for some kids to permit out to better-funded districts while those with fewer options were forced to watch their libraries close.

We had meetings with several board members and one City Councilman. One Chief of Staff of a LAUSD Board member shed more light on the complicated aspects of the issue. “The other districts don’t take our special needs kids,” he said. “They take our gifted ones. And then we get dinged for our test scores.” The permit kids represent more than the meager per-pupil spending from the State (currently ranked 47th in the nation), they also represent a brain drain. These are the most involved parents with high performing students, the Holy Grail of school success. Each of the seven LAUSD Board members had been forced to close down whole schools, to fire cafeteria workers and teachers. And here we were, parents who had the mobility to find educational options for our kids elsewhere. The sheer amount of noise we were making made us worth going after.

So it was that the LAUSD morphed from powerful and heartless institution to underdog guardian of the underserved. Deeply wounded, they defended their schools, their students of color, and their hard-working teachers against us, the parents of privilege. How did I end up on the other side of this argument?

The whole story is so tragic, from the under-funding of public education in California to the social problems that plague some of LAUSD’s schools. The problems are too big. The idea of tearing kids from schools where they are thriving is a terrible one no matter how you look at it. But the desperation underlying it is just too sad. At ten or eleven at night, after the hundredth email, the 10th urgent phone call in an hour, I would turn off my computer and break down in tears.

Public schools, including the ones we were fighting to keep our kids in, are facing the closure of libraries and the eradication of their arts programs. Once these things are gone, it can take decades to bring them back. What do we expect things to look like in ten or twenty years? How do we expect our children to succeed? What might the cancellation of a music program mean to a kid who is two steps from giving up entirely? While LAUSD was telling us to suck it up, my fury was turning towards Sacramento.

Luca's pancakes

The date the permit issue would be decided at an LAUSD Board meeting was April 6. A few days before this Luca made pancakes using the sourdough starter, blueberries and strawberries. He must have read Nancy Silverton’s recipe but I don’t remember much of this because I was no doubt on the phone and computer most of the time. I do remember that the pancakes were tangy and airy and that Luca ate them proudly. It was good to know that in the midst of intense civic outrage there could still be whole wheat sourdough pancakes loaded with berries and made by a seven year old.

hopeful outside LAUSD

On April 6 several hundred parents rallied outside LAUSD headquarters. Some of us prepared impassioned speeches on our kids’ behalf. As the board meeting got underway, Superintendent Cortines announced that he was delaying the implementation of his policy for at least a year. Applause went up in the boardroom. In September, he would come before the Board with another plan, one that took into consideration all the reasons that parents were requesting permits. He would not knowingly “harm the education of any boy or girl.”

We left feeling giddy but unsure. Was this good news? Would we be right back where we started in a year? Anyway, we went out and had mojitos.


The next day Luca made a pizza with some sourdough pizza dough we had in the freezer.

He picked all the toppings including mushrooms and parsley and then while he ate, he read about the Chez Panisse fire in Fanny at Chez Panisse.

beautiful fire illustrations in Alice Waters' book

Luca's pizza

There had been some discussion about whether it was better to put the mushrooms on top after the sauce or to cook them in with the tomato sauce. We opted for the latter and when it went in the oven, Luca disappeared in his room and came back with a wooden toy pizza he hadn’t played with in years. He put the wooden toppings on just so.

Luca's wood pizza

“This, Mommy,” he said. “This is what I want my next pizza to look like.”

Here’s to a vision of the future.

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