For Your Annoyment…

Recipe # 15: cherry tomato pasta

Recently Luca was reading the National Geographic magazine and misread a sign in a photo of a Western landscape. Instead of “for your enjoyment,” he read “for your annoyment.” When he realized his mistake he cracked up laughing and now he gets a big giggle out of saying “for your annoyment” whenever he can fit it into the conversation.

On the day he made the cherry tomato pasta from Fanny at Chez Panisse, Luca was suffering from a low grade, generalized annoyment and didn’t feel like cooking. I was tempted to make light of it by reminding him of his new favorite word, but he was in no mood.

He was constructing something out of Legos (a battle station? a droid planet?) and when I asked him if he wanted to go ahead with the recipe he had picked out, he snapped at me: “I’m doing something!” I assumed that things would only go downhill from here and that we’d be scrapping the idea of Luca making dinner. But then he came into the kitchen and, without a word, started chopping the tomatoes. He toiled away as though he were a child slave owned by a cruel, cherry tomato-eating giant who, instead of allowing Luca to go to school and play with his friends, forced him to chop tomatoes ten hours a day, seven days a week.

It was interesting watching him work through his irritation. Everything bothered him – the height of the counter relative to his step stool, the volume of tomatoes, anything and everything that came out of my mouth – and yet he kept going. The possibility occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t as annoyed as he seemed but was doing a really good imitation of me on the days I don’t feel like cooking but have no choice. I love to cook but there are days when I’d give anything not to be staring into the crisper trying to think of something exciting to do with the cauliflower. Luca, all of 11 recipes into his cooking life, was having a taste of how even a beloved activity can be a drudgery. I kept expecting him to give up on the tomatoes but he didn’t. He also didn’t whine which, due to my inability to tolerate it even in tiny doses, would have put an end to the whole thing. He just forged ahead making it clear from the wordless banging around of the utensils that he was not happy about it. I tried to stay out of his way and watched him, thinking that if he was playacting then how tired we adults must seem to him; tired of cooking, tired of tending to the needs of our families, just plain tired.

With Luca sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s having an actual experience, or if he’s just a really good actor. When he dresses up as a scientist and does experiments, is it for the science or the make believe? When he cooks, the costume is half of it. Still he likes to eat more than almost anyone I know (a quality that also makes him one of the most fun people I know) so it’s hard to tell if he wants to learn how to cook or if he likes pretending to be a chef, or both. And does it matter anyway? Like most recovering actors, I live in mortal fear of my child following in my footsteps. I look for early signs of dramatic talent as though for a fatal genetic mutation, and wonder about the merits of brainwashing and interventions. Each big roll of Luca’s eyes, each dramatic exclamation and outsized expression of emotion send a jolt of terror straight to my bones.

When he was just under two years old, Luca became obsessed with the violin. We were living in London and had taken him to the WOMAD Festival, a three-day world music extravaganza on the outskirts of the city where among other acts we saw electric blues from Mali, a folk-singer-cellist from Ireland, and a children’s chorus from Tanzania that we were enjoying until we realized that the lyrics were in praise of the mine company that had funded their CD. (“Oh, Golden Pride mining company/We thank you for our social development/Without you we would have no schools, no roads, no hope for the future!”)

Luca’s thunderbolt moment came with Nigel Kennedy and Kroke, a hypnotic and danceable melding of electric classical violin and Polish klezmer music with hints of North African and gypsy rhythms. Luca couldn’t see over the heads of the people in front of us and only caught glimpses of the stage. At one point I looked down at him and he was swaying with his eyes closed and his hands clasped in front of him.

We bought the band’s CD, East Meets West, at the festival, and on the way back home to London, we listened to it in the car, not one or two times, but over and over through traffic on the awful M4 motorway. We crawled past Heathrow Airport and some of the dullest, grayest landscape anywhere in the world, a dreariness from which Luca, rocking in his car seat, was transported. When he pretended to play along with the music on an imaginary violin, Jim and shared a look. Where was this coming from?

For the next eight months we heard Nigel Kennedy and Kroke’s East Meets West at least six times every day. Luca would demand it first thing in the morning (he awoke in those days at five AM), and then several more times before lunch. He listened to it again after napping and before dinner. If we went somewhere in the car, we had to bring the CD with us. As he became more familiar with the intricacies of the music, he began to play air violin in time with every note on the CD, a trick that once moved his Hungarian babysitter to tears. If we were in a bookstore and he happened to spot a photograph of a violin, he would begin to shout and point: “Violin! Violin!”

The fact that my mother who died ten years before Luca was born had been a Juilliard-trained violinist added a supernatural spin to the whole thing. If you believed such things were possible you might think that her spirit were somehow coming back to pay us a visit. (That Luca and my mother share a birthday might send a further shiver down your spine.)  For about a year after my mother’s death, I had frequent dreams of spotting her on the street somewhere as she was getting on a bus or driving by in a car, always leaving me again. In the dreams, just like in life, she was supposed to be dead, and yet here she was getting on the bus and waving to me. Maybe this violin obsession of Luca’s was another little wave from my mother from the Great Beyond. After all, he had seen hundreds of instruments that weekend at WOMAD, and much more kid-friendly and eye-catching performances than Nigel Kennedy’s. So why the violin?

And yet, Jim and I often wondered whether it wasn’t really the violin that had captured Luca’s heart and soul. Maybe what he loved more than the music was pretending to play it. Maybe (oh, dread!) he was an actor in the making and all of this was just an elaborate form of mimicry like pretending to be a doctor after a visit to the pediatrician’s office. It’s amazing how much of mystery your own child can be. He is seven and I cannot for the life of me imagine the man he will one day become.

So as Luca sliced each cherry tomato in half, here I was again wondering if he was doing a dead-on imitation of an adult fed up with cooking, or if he was honestly sick of cutting the cherry tomatoes in half.

Since he had done most of these tasks before – chopping parsley, cutting tomatoes – we didn’t have to say much to each other. This suited Luca just fine. Small talk was out. There was only chopping.

He put the tomatoes into a bowl and then poured in the olive oil, or more accurately, he dumped it in. Then he added a little vinegar and the chopped parsley, added salt and pepper and stirred it all together. He slammed the spoon on the counter and said, “Is that all?” When I said it was, he sighed deeply and stomped off to his Lego planet.

Luca’s obsession with the violin lasted for over a year. When he turned three he begged us for violin lessons. We thought he was too young but we finally relented and then Luca spent a few months learning the unpleasant reality that, with anything worthwhile and difficult, you have to start at the bottom and work your way to expertise. Like cooking, good results often come only after a certain amount of tedium. “Different sound!” Luca had exclaimed in dismay the first time he held an actual violin under his chin. He expected the sound to come out just like Nigel Kennedy. When the frustration became too much he took a break from the violin and then later switched to piano which offered a fresh start and less demanding technique (or at least a bench to sit on).

Two years ago when my brother Niles was dying of cancer he gave Luca an old violin of my mother’s that had been in his basement for years. The violin was covered in bright green fuzz. It seemed impossible for something to have grown so moldy. I only didn’t chuck it because it was a gift from my brother and I knew he wouldn’t be around much longer.

Without much hope for its recovery, we had the violin restored and were surprised to learn that it is a somewhat special instrument; a concert stage-worthy, pre-War, handmade violin from Germany. We have no idea if Luca will ever play it, if his love for the violin will one day be reawakened. Maybe he will stick with the piano or take up the drum kit. Maybe he will forgo music altogether and never cut another tomato in half. Maybe someday he will say the dreaded words, “Mom? Dad? I’ve decided to give acting a shot.” There is no knowing. There is only cooking and eating and reading good stories and hopefully, through the intermittent tedium of daily practice, getting good at a few things. In the meantime, the violin, free of its green fuzz, waits in a corner.

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Bread and Religion

Recipes #12,13 and 14, pizza dough, pizza with tomato and mozzarella and white and whole wheat bread.

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Pizza dough made by Luca

Last Sunday I had a little bread baking party with a couple of moms and their two boys who are good friends of Luca’s from school. The last time I tried baking bread was in college when I was preparing to play Saint Joan and was giving The Method a shot by baking bread and washing my sheets by hand. Washing the sheets almost broke my back and it must be that I forever associated the bread baking with it because I have always thought of it as exceedingly difficult and not really worth the trouble. I learned on Sunday how wrong I have been all these years. All you need to bake bread besides time is some good company.

Of course it helped to have an experienced baker in the kitchen. I have never actually eaten a full meal at Amy’s house, but it’s impossible to go to her house, even for five minutes, without her offering you a million different things that she just happens to have in the fridge and that she whipped up the day before. Some of these offerings (she calls them “snacks”) have included homemade blintzes; various soups such as bean, cabbage, vegetable and chicken soup with homemade matzoh balls; strudel; lasagne; and challah bread. A snack in my house is a banana or some chips out of a bag. I have seen people leave Amy’s house laden with Tupperware containers full of roasted meats, coffee cake and cabbage rolls.

I was looking forward to the old-fashioned-quilting-bee aspect of our afternoon, three women communing over a shared activity that would result in some homemade deliciousness. Bread is the simplest of foods and is symbolic of many things from friendship to God. But for me, the Italians sum it up best: “Bread is all food, the rest is accompaniment.”

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Since there would be three or four different breads rising at various different times that afternoon, I suggested to Luca that, before our friends arrived, he tackle the pizza dough recipe from Fanny at Chez Panisse. That way we would have a nice pizza to bake for everybody later. It took a little coaxing because Luca could think of nothing else but playing with two of his best friends. Amy’s son Micah is a great pal of Luca’s. The first time Micah came to our house we were living in an old beach shack in Venice Beach. As he climbed the rickety steps to the house, Micah said: “It must be a drag to live here.” I adore this kid.

That same day in Venice, Luca and Micah had a conversation about God. They were both six years old and were figuring out their differences while I typed madly on my laptop trying to transcribe it all. Micah’s grandparents, Amy’s parents, are Holocaust survivors who were interned at Auschwitz. Amy is a Reform Jew and says that she “learned at an early age that I had to repopulate the world with Jews.” (She’s not doing badly on that score; she has three sons)

Here is Luca and Micah’s conversation about God:

Luca: Jewish people believe in things that are not true.

Micah: Christian people believe in things that are not true, too.

Luca: I don’t believe in things that are not true.

Micah: What is true?

Luca: The queen is true. She lives in England. God doesn’t exist.

Micah: Yes, he does.

Luca: That’s magic stuff.

Micah: No it’s not. Do you believe in Christ?

Luca: No.

Micah: You are a Christian.

Luca: No I’m not. I’m an American.

Micah: But you’re a Christian. Americans can be Christians and Jewish.

Luca: Let’s play another game.

Micah: God does exist – there has to be a god, the thing that made us. There has to be something that made us.

Luca: No, our dad did. He made the seed.

Micah: He made the seed?

Luca: Yeah. He made the seed. And it went in the egg, and you grew in your mom’s tummy and then you came out. Our dad actually made the seeds.

Micah: How?

Luca: I don’t know but he made the seeds.

Micah: Luca, you don’t get it. You said it was unfair that gods have the power of invisibility. But if god has the power of invisibility, then you just leave him alone.

Luca: OK, then don’t pray to him. If you leave him alone then don’t pray to him.

Micah: Well, if you leave him alone and not pray to him then he’ll get mad at you.

Luca: Jewish have to do that but not Christians.

Micah: Yes they do.

Luca: I don’t.

Micah: You don’t pray?

Luca: No. I don’t go to church. I only go to school and classes.

Micah: You don’t go to church?

Luca: No. I just do whatever I want. I play around. I only go to school and classes and that’s it. I don’t go anywhere.

Micah: You only go to school and that’s it?

Luca: I don’t go to church. I only go to the cemetery.

Micah: I went to a cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Luca:  Me too!

Micah: But there is a cemetery in California.

Luca: But that’s not the one I went to. I went to the one where my uncle is buried. So when I go to visit him when he’s dead, I have to go there.

Micah: You go to visit him when he’s dead?

Luca: Yeah.

Micah: You can’t visit him when he’s dead.

Luca: Yes you can. That’s how all the flowers get there. By people visiting.

Micah: No. People plant seeds.

This discussion held several surprises for me; that the Queen of England is truer than God, for one. But the main surprise was that Luca was such a fierce agnostic. He had been to church once with his cousins and pronounced it “boring,” and “a lot of magic stuff.” But since we had not discussed the subject much I hadn’t realized how strongly he felt. (It was also interesting to learn that the dad makes the babies because he makes the seed, never mind what I remember about months of backache, nausea and exhaustion.)

Luca dissolved the yeast in warm water and a little milk, and right away the whole room smelled like bread. “What is yeast?” Luca asked. I had no good answer except to say that it was what made the bread rise and that it was alive. This must be why I don’t know what yeast is, because any time I have asked the same question, I get a similarly lame answer. (Anyone who actually knows what yeast is, please post a comment.)

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Great illustration by Ann Arnold

He added the flour, salt and olive oil and mixed it around until it was too thick to stir. Then he sprinkled some flour on the counter and started kneading. I love watching Luca knead dough. He goes at it with intensity and passion. Plus he’s good at it.

When he was done, we rubbed olive oil all over the cleaned bowl and Luca placed the dough inside. The smell was divine, just like a New York pizzeria. Luca must have been reading my mind because just then asked me if he could spin it around in the air when it was time to make the pizza pie. I said he could try it if he wanted, but by that time, he was too involved in playing with his friends.

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Luca kneading

Then we covered it with a towel and put it in the oven to rise (the oven was off). I made tomato sauce, grated mozzarella and chopped some fresh basil for the pizza. When it was time, Luca punched down the pizza dough (he loved this). Then he kneaded the dough again, got a little silly with it until I told him to cut it out, and put it back in the bowl for another rise.

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punching the dough

Later, after the three boys had had their first fight and then got settled into some friendly Star Wars battles, the three women made bread. Amy made a dill and cottage cheese bread and Marie a gluten-free loaf. I made the White and Whole Wheat Bread from the Alice Waters cookbook figuring that if it was a recipe meant for kids it couldn’t be as hard as washing sheets by hand.

Baking bread is a great excuse to hang out because there is so much waiting around time. Marie brought her mother, so there were three generations of us in the house all engaged in our various activities including kneading, killing off the Death Star, reading, drinking raspberry-infused vodka gimlets, brokering peace among the boys, making soup, taking photos, and of course baking bread in two ovens and trying to keep track of the baking and rising times for each (made harder by the drinking of the vodka gimlets).

I used more whole wheat and less white flour than Alice Waters’ recipe called for. This is what mine looked like before it went into the oven.

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This was Amy’s bread right out of the oven.

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At the end of the day we sat down to three kinds of bread with a few other things as accompaniment. Marie made a nice barley soup, I baked the pizza and we had some wine. All the breads were delicious. Warmth all around.

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The Living and the Dead

Recipe # 12 risotto with mushrooms and spinach

Luca had planned on making risotto for his good friend Jonathan who was coming from the East coast to stay with us for a few days. Actually, Jonathan is my friend from college, but since he is so much fun for Luca to hang out with I can no longer lay claim to him. The minute Jonathan walks in the door he belongs to Luca and only Luca. The minute he walks out the door, Luca wants to know when he is coming back.

Jim, Luca and I spent the day at the Dia De Los Muertos festival at Luca’s school. Jim’s father died in February, and Luca had honored him on the altar his class made for the festival. All day people wandered through the otherwise dull and smelly “cafetorium” quietly viewing the altars set up by the classrooms. It was a stunning sight. Tables were laden with hanging lights and candles, papel picado, paper marigolds, bread and fruit, dancing skeletons, sugar skulls and photos of loved ones who have passed. There were photos of grandparents, photos of dogs and cats, an occasional newborn baby and some too-young, recently deceased parents.

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The photo of Luca and Grandpa that he put on the altar

One boy in Luca’s class lost his father one week before school started and on the table he placed a photo of the two of them as well as a New Yorker magazine, addressed to his father, because it was his favorite.

In one corner of the room of altars was a tree full of paper butterflies. People wrote the names of the dead on a butterfly and placed them on the branches.

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It is impossible to walk through this room and not be moved both by the visual beauty and the significance of children coming together in this way to honor their ancestors. In Mexico where this tradition originated children grow up in a culture that, once a year at least, laughs at death while acknowledging its power to take from us those we love the most. Here in the USA, there is no such awareness of death and very little sense of our own ancestry.

The making of the altars took several days and during the process Luca said, “I am more sad about Grandpa now than when he died.” I was glad that Luca felt a renewed sadness about his grandfather. This is what these rituals are for, I thought, to remember and give rise to our grief and to give it a place free of the usual distractions. The past two years at the Dia De Los Muertos school festival, Luca has honored my brother Niles who died in 2007. Luca was five when he went to Niles’ memorial service, his first, and then he watched his mother grieve intensely and for months on end. My grief was like an unruly guest, one who makes normal life impossible and shows no sign of of ever leaving.

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Luca and Niles in a photo on last year's altar

When Grandpa died, we were told to keep Luca at home, something that went against our instincts as parents. But because we had to respect the wishes of the rest of the family, and because we were assured there would be a service for Grandpa sometime in the future we went back East without Luca. One day in April after all talk of another memorial for Grandpa had died down, Luca drew this card.

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He insisted on going to the beach to throw it in the water. So we walked to the beach and Luca threw the card in the waves. Then he built a little mound in the sand and knelt with his hand on it as though praying, although praying is something we don’t do in our household. Jim and I watched Luca carry out his solitary memorial service, a little dumbfounded, a little happy that he had found a way to memorialize his grandfather even though he had been shut out of any such communal experience.

We happen to have a gorgeous copper risotto pan and for this reason and others I always love making risotto. The suggested optional ingredients listed in the recipe for risotto in Fanny at Chez Panisse are mushrooms, wilted greens, fresh peas, ham and saffron threads for a golden risotto. I had figured on mushrooms and spinach and asked Luca if he liked those additions. He did. But first he made his usual announcement: “I don’t want to work with the onions!” (I was already chopping them.)

IMG_0654Then he said he had to count his money first. I have no idea why he had to count his money right then, but it seemed urgent so I waited. He got out his math notebook and his spending jar and now there was money all over the table.

After about ten minutes I implored him to take a break from the counting and start the rice. “For Jonathan,” I reminded him. He hotfooted it to the kitchen.

The onions went into the pan with the olive oil and butter, a bay leaf and some thyme which Luca read out pronouncing the “th.” He said we needed a sprig and I explained that we didn’t have fresh thyme and showed him the dried stuff which was a decent substitute. He nodded his assent. He stood over the pan on his stepstool stirring and saying “Mmmmmmm…” as he took in the aroma. Alice Waters is a huge fan of thyme and the divine smell of it cooking with oil and onions may be a major reason why. Luca looked at the cookbook and read the part about adding saffron, so I took down some saffron and let Luca smell it. He wasn’t too impressed but I added it anyway.

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Luca had decided to double the recipe, so in went two cups of aborio rice and Luca stirred that around, but a bit lazily so I urged him to stir with more energy. He did and then the rice began to glisten.

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“Now comes the fun part,” I said, and told him to ladle the chicken stock from the other pot on the stove and pour it onto the rice. Interestingly, this recipe does not call for ladling a bit at a time and then the constant stirring that other risotto recipes do. Instead, it says to cover the rice with the stock, cook the rice for 10 minutes and then pour in the rest of the stock and cook that all down. Much easier! So Luca, cautious as ever, ladled tiny spoonfuls of chicken stock into the rice until the rice was covered.

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Then he asked if it was OK to go back to counting his money. What was it about the money all of a sudden? Did it have something to do with spending the day in the presence of the dead? I remembered that when Niles died one of the unexpected effects of grief on me was an intense desire for a steady and robust income stream (to this day unattained).

Luca went back to his money and when the rice had absorbed all the stock I let him know that it was time for more. He called out, “Just a second!” I said that the rice was going to burn if he didn’t add more stock, and he said, “Wait a minute!”
“The rice isn’t going to wait a minute,” I said with a surge of delight. It wasn’t me waiting at the door for him to put his shoes on. It was the rice! His beloved food! He was out of his chair in a second and up on his stool ladling in more stock. He gave it a stir and went back to counting by tens and fives.

When the rice was almost ready, in went the mushrooms and spinach and Luca stirred those around. “Spinach. Yum,” he said. Just then the doorbell rang and Luca ran to answer it.

“Hey buddy!” I heard Jonathan say and he and Luca hugged in the doorway. We all sat down to the risotto with grated parmesan and plenty of black pepper and a little salad and wine. The risotto was delicious.

What better way to honor the dead than to cook for those who are still living?