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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Tough Times Sourdough

recipe #21: Vanilla  Snow

There has been a lot of bread baking in our house recently. I tell myself it’s because homemade bread is so much more delicious than store-bought, but really it is because of the recession. In answer to the almost daily barrage of bad news – friends losing jobs, promising projects being canceled and the music program in Luca’s school on the chopping block – I roll up my sleeves and feed my homemade sourdough bread starter.

I spent fourteen days following Nancy Silverton’s instructions on how to make a starter from scratch, discovering along the way that following Nancy Silverton’s recipe for anything is to become a sort of crazed disciple. There are no half measures or shortcuts. Other bakers will tell you it takes three days to make a decent starter and that you need only stir in a cup of flour and a cup of water every day. Nancy says to feed the starter three times daily to the tune of seven cups of flour a day, and to adhere to precise measurements of weight and temperature. She says, apparently without a trace of irony, “Care for your starter as you would a newborn! Don’t miss a feeding!” In other less dire times, I might have read the fourteen page recipe for starter in the Breads of the La Brea Bakery book and laughed out loud. But because the world is in an apparent state of collapse, I am happy to follow her exacting instruction.

starter with grapes

I bought the equipment required for the starter and calculated that I would have to bake at least thirty loaves of bread to make back the money I had just spent. This did not include the price of all the flour that goes into keeping the starter alive and the hours I would have to spend burning off all the cakes and muffins and pizzas I would have no choice but to make. As my starter grew, I became obsessed with the mass of bubbles growing on my kitchen counter and read everything I could find online about starter consistency (it varies), what to do about mold (scrape it off and hope it doesn’t return), what it should smell like (yeasty, beery, bready). For weeks, I took Silverton’s Breads of La Brea Bakery to bed with me and curled up with it like a favorite novel.

I gave away gallons of the painstakingly acquired starter rather than throw it away. As though trying to find a home for a stray animal, I called and emailed all my friends and begged them to take some. “Think of the pancakes! The fresh pizza dough!” I implored. One friend told me that she had a hundred-year old starter given to her by her mother-in-law and that she purposely killed it off as a way to work out family resentments. I had no idea that bread starter could be so loaded with emotional baggage.

pancake or alien creature?

Waiting to find homes for all the containers of starter meant feeding them all according to Nancy’s rigorous schedule and keeping them warmly wrapped in blankets under a warm lamp. Within a few days my kitchen counter was covered with containers of bubbling starter, scales, thermometers and cups of flour. Jim tried making space at the counter and gingerly asked how long this was going to go on.

“She says to feed it for three more days,” I said.

“She who?”

“Nancy,” I replied. The voice in my head.

Jim looked at me as though wondering whether to seek professional help. But I had no time for his worries. My first pizza dough was looking a little blotchy and it was impossible to tell if it was rising properly because I was checking it every five minutes. I knew what was happening, that I was filling a creative void with bread, but I didn’t care. I told myself it was better than Facebooking or any other thing that shouldn’t be a verb but somehow is one. At least you can eat bread, a fact that makes the whole enterprise not only compatible with our tough economic times but deeply satisfying.

When it came time to actually bake bread, I made the mistake of following a much easier recipe than Nancy’s two-day recipe for Country White. Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that if you are going to bother with any kind of bread baking you should just roll up your sleeves and do it Nancy’s way. Her recipe for Country White is sixteen pages long! Have you ever in your life seen a recipe for anything that is sixteen pages long? Admittedly, she explains the science of bread baking as she goes along and also tries, as anyone might who has reached absolute genius status in her field, what the dough is supposed to feel like at various points in the process, describing it as “flabby,” “soft,” “alive,” “shiny” and “like a baby’s bottom.” There are several baby analogies in her bread book. You can tell she loves babies and children (I actually met her once when carrying baby Luca in my arms and she stopped to admire and coo at him). But you have the feeling it’s possible she loves bread more.

boule ready for the oven

By the time I was successfully baking two of Nancy’s Country White boules another local arts organization had gone under and I was talking to the dough, saying things like, “There you go. Stay warm in there and I’ll see you in a few hours.” Or, “Are you a little too dry? Yes, maybe a little. Let’s give you some warm water and see how you do.” Jim, throwing me sidelong glances, stayed out of the kitchen.

The only person in my life who is not alarmed by the depth of my new obsession is Luca. Unlike me, he doesn’t see it as a sad reflection of how little is going on in my work life. No matter how dire things seem to me, Luca sees only my accomplishments. He doesn’t want me to get a job. He wants me to keep making sourdough pancakes and pizza dough, which he tells me greatly improved with the purchase of a proper pizza stone. He compares one loaf of bread to another, loaves that turn out to have a golden crust and a chewy interior full of fermentation holes and a slightly salty, tangy flavor. This is why you follow Nancy Silverton to the limits of your endurance. When the economy is going to hell in a hand basket and taking the schools and the arts with it, you want to be eating her Country White.

Nancy's incredible bread

When Luca asked to cook, I said there was too much going on in the kitchen. A couple of days later, he asked again and this time I felt guilty and said yes. He wanted to make Vanilla Snow from Fanny At Chez Panisse. Lucky for me it was raining and therefore easy to plan a meal that would put the bread at center stage; a variation of Tuscan white bean soup with kale and potatoes.

"All food is bread. The rest is accompaniment."

I bought a whole vanilla bean and Luca said it looked like a dried up worm. I cut it in half lengthwise and Luca scraped out the tiny grains from the inside. It occurred to me that I had never seen the inside of a vanilla bean before. Completely forgetting about the tiny black flecks that appear in good vanilla ice cream, I wondered if the grains were bitter tasting and tossed them. A minute later a panicked Luca read from the recipe: “Add the bean and scrapings to the milk mixture!” He calmed down when I showed him the other half of the vanilla bean and we started again.

Luca went to work on the egg whites and before long they were holding the shape of “soft peaks.” I started to explain how to “gently fold” the eggs into the milk mixture when he stopped me. “I know what ‘fold’ means,” he said. And then I watched him fold the eggs beautifully so as not to break the air bubbles in the egg, thinking how commonplace this moment will become for us; me looking on as Luca (cooking, solving math problems, solving social problems) stuns me with just how well he can do without me.

Luca admonished me to let him turn on the ice cream machine this time. Last time, forgetting the joy that turning an “on” switch can bring to anyone under the age of ten, I did it myself. He poured the mixture into the machine and turned it on. It loudly began turning the mixture round and round. We sat down and ate the soup and bread while the ice cream machine worked on dessert. Luca couldn’t get enough of the soup. “Mommy,” he said importantly. “This is the best soup ever.” He is like me this way. Whenever something is tasty, it is “the best ever.” When we love something or someone, we forget everything that has come before.

I’m not much for sweets and dessert. But there is nothing quite like eating a perfect meal knowing that a perfect dessert awaits. We filled our bowls and ate the Vanilla Snow. Not quite creamy enough to be ice cream, it was cold and lovely after the hot soup and the slightly sour bread. Best of all, Luca observed: “It tastes just like snow.” Once again, I had to admire the genius of Alice Waters. The name of this recipe caught Luca’s attention back in October, the promise of snow and vanilla together being something no child should be able to resist. And it did not disappoint. If there is no word for the taste equivalent of onomatopoeia we should invent one.

snow!

A few days later, I landed a project that will keep me too busy to bake much bread or to obsess about how much hydration to give my bread starter. But for now the snowy dessert had perfect, tiny flecks of black vanilla rescued from oblivion by Luca’s careful reading of the recipe. The rain drummed on the roof and inside we were warm and full and pleasantly accomplished.

Luca's bliss