Friday, October 28, 2011

(Foodie) Life Lessons Learned from Mom - Part 5

If you've been landing at and then exploring my series of (Foodie) Life Lessons Learned from Mom here on The Food Adventuress, thanks!  Here's the fifth (and final) obsession installment:

I've mentioned the life lessons of no special treatment, preparation, reading the instructions and proceeding slowly, seeking inspiration and embellishing.  Finally, life lesson five: honor tradition.

Honestly, my family is fairly certain they've bred a monster in me.  Straying in the slightest from years of tradition makes me nearly break out in hives.  It's not that I'm an inflexible human being, I swear!  (Sort of.)  It's just that in the same way that consistency and the comfort of our routines gives me a compass by which to navigate life, tradition helps me understand where I've been and where I'm going.  In fact, I now understand that this same predictability is a very small gift I offer my own family and specifically my children, but that it will be years before they can thoroughly unwrap it.
Here's the food-focused version:

Fall means pumpkin soup.  (Granted, my family abhorred it, and we no longer speak of it.  But I can taste it, and I still love it.)

Easter means hot cross buns.

Christmas Eve means fondue, inexplicably, and Christmas day means German stollen and prime rib.

May calls me to sneak around with my daughter leaving May Day surprises, June summons me to celebrate summer and July sends a signal for both Independence Day and Bastille Day.  In August, I pack my family up for a Perseid Picnic.  In September, I'm prone to a back to school celebration and in October, I notice the harvest moon.  In November, we gather those we love and those who may not have a place to feel warmth and camaraderie, and we give thanks for things mentioned and many more things unmentioned.

Long ago, people were drawn more strongly to the seasons and their related meanings.  Whether I'm reading the Little House on the Prairie series or jotting the latest seasonal attributes on our kitchen chalkboard, I've learned that the seasons and traditions matter.  At best, they offer us the sentiment that life and intentional living matter, and at least, they remind us that predictability feels good. 

I'm wrapping up a month of thinking about my Mom and the way she influenced and influences my life in countless ways.  We're approaching the holiday season, when we can allow ourselves to be drawn to what matters or to be overwhelmed by a sense of obligation.  I would challenge you just as I challenge myself to stop, slow down, honor the past and move with an eye to the future.  

This year, belatedly, our family grabbed a simple mason jar on top of the fridge and started pitching little cut up index cards in it with our favorite sayings and memories of the year.  We'll read them all together on New Year's Even as we thrash into another year together.  We started this little habit mid-August.  I could have skipped mentioning it because I thought my family might make fun of my corniness, or that it was so late in the year that we shouldn't even bother.

Instead, my gamble was rewarded by their enthusiasm.  Now, when things we know in the moment to be meaningful threaten to pass by, my daughter or my husband mentions that we ought to throw it in the jar.  And this year, when I embrace my own full corniness and serve up our Thanksgiving stuffing in a carved-out pumpkin, I'll be prepared to endure the smart remarks and the (passing) jokes.  I'll know that just like the Christmas Eve fondue, the attempted new traditions may or may not endure, but what will remain will be the memories and an assurance in our family that we care enough to risk a joke or two for the sake of tradition.

And that is enough.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

(Foodie) Life Lessons Learned from Mom - Part 4

Clearly, it isn't easy to encapsulate all that I've learned in the kitchen and in life from my Mom in one paltry series of blog posts.  I feel a bit below par just for recording them here rather than with pen and paper.  However, what matters is that the thoughts and memories are captured, rather than wishing someday that they had been.

And so, as I type away and attempt to get to the heart of the matter, I sit near my pantry, which is well-stocked with cookbooks new and well-loved.  A dear friend knew that I should soak in the greatness that was her grandfather, and when I visited his cozy, cluttered and eccentric home without a surface to spare (all of these attributes conveyed with much admiration), I saw that his life was captured in cookbooks.  It changed my outlook on what could easily be conveyed as part of the past, a Fahrenheit-451-esque view that cookbooks are easily replaced by searchable, digital recipes. 

Today, I enjoy collecting grimy recipe cards and dog-eared cookbooks.  To (I suspect) my mother's horror, I write enthusiastically in the margins of each cookbook, noting when I made a dish for the first time and how it went.  If some future offspring a few generations down the line chooses to keep one of my cookbooks and find comfort in the notations, so be it - and if they are lost to the sands of time, there is no harm done.

While my Mom is not any more enthusiastic about dog-earing a book by turning down pages to keep your place than she is affronting the body with a tattoo, here I think we agree: cookbooks are a source of inspiration.  And herein lies life lesson four: one must seek ample inspiration and then embellish and experiment.  

In retrospect, she might be surprised that she taught me these traits.  However, Mom's well-worn and time-loved cookbooks beg to differ.  The recipes torn from the newspaper or pulled from periodicals and shared belie her appreciation for print publications.  I received many a manila envelope full of newspaper clippings in my developing years.  Sometimes, an article on a place I'd visited (or ought to visit).  Others, a recipe or Dear Abby column (not so) subtly conveying an opinion.  But always, the true epitome of a "care" package.  And of course, Dad slipped in a column or two on financial security and investing.  Mom might or might not be surprised to know that I interpret cookbooks and travel tomes as an interpretation of inspiration and experimentation.  Bite-sized but still life-altering in their own context.

In 1997, I shipped off for France and five months of backpacking through Europe.  Boarding the plane and setting off into the American view of the sun setting over my left shoulder as the flight bore East, I slowly opened a package in my carry-on bag from Mom - she has a habit of slipping little things into our bags or spots we won't discover for a while.  It held a a little sterling silver charm that I recognized from an antiqueing excursion earlier that summer in Ellensburg, Washington.

Just as Mark Twain discovered that his father was far less hapless than he had imagined ("When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."), I had learned that a relationship with my Mom was inexplicable, but highly desirable.  In fact, that excursion was fraught with the turmoil of a young woman in transition and the strain of our developing connection, which has thankfully evolved to the point that I consider a conversation with my Mom to be a non-negotiable part of every week of my life.

The charm on a slender chain was a cowboy inside a little fence, with a gate that read "Don't Fence Me In" - a not-so-subtle encouragement from my Mom to see the world.  She thought, in fact, that five months as a twenty year old exploring Europe completely alone was far too little, and that I should stay a year.

The package also held a bookmark, obviously.  Mom gave me countless bookmarks through the years, conveying her appreciation of a well-read life and so many other virtues in the process.  This one read:

Fly high.
Look with open eyes.
See a new world.
Learn much.
Open your heart to a new world.
Honor God.
Have fun!
Mom - love 
1997 September

Honestly, you can't possibly understand all that - unless you do.  Suffice it to say that in the kitchen, and in life, Mom adequately conveyed that I must seek inspiration and experiment.

And so, obvious or not, I consider simply embellishing a recipe with my own life experiences and the inspiration that strikes in the moment to substitute an ingredient with my own embellishment and see what transpires to be the highest form of admiration and respect.

Thanks, Mom. ♥

Monday, October 24, 2011

(Foodie) Life Lessons Learned from Mom - Part 3

By current standards, I would most definitely have been diagnosed as ADD or ADHD.  While in my first nonprofit gig with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Arkansas years ago, I remember attending a workshop where I learned of the supposedly telltale physical signs of such afflictions: the way hair parts on the scalp and so forth.  I instinctively never checked myself against the list, knowing I would be likely to find multiple occurrences.

Regardless, Mom wouldn't have sought medication, she returned to the tactics she employed best as a classroom teacher of 5 - 7 year olds.  Discipline.  Repetition.  Routines.  Preparation.

And so when the time came to push my boundaries and force me to begin the long road to being a productive adult, Mom began with pistachio pudding.  Obviously.

She summoned me to the kitchen, where I found a step stool, a large bowl, a measuring cup and a whisk along with a box of pistachio pudding.  I was to a) carefully read the directions and b) follow them.

Naturally, I glanced at them and vaguely skimmed the directions, grabbed the milk, spilled it while pouring and was consequently stopped in my tracks.  "Stop.  Read the directions."  I weakly replied that I had.  I was told to revisit them.  I was told that I could not hold the measuring cup while pouring the milk, because I would tip it toward me and skew the measurement.  I was told to set the measuring cup on the counter and then pour the milk.

I proceeded, and everything seemed really watery.  The directions said it would be set and ready to eat in five minutes.  I stared.  It didn't seem set.

Eventually, it turned out well and I had the pride of a lion tamer at my hand-crafted, unnaturally green dessert.  It received rave reviews from my Dad and arched eyebrows plus rolled eyes from my Mom, albeit with pride twitching at the corners of her mouth.

I learned that I should probably prepare everything I'll need for an adventure in advance.  I learned that I should probably read and understand the directions, or my marching orders, thoroughly.  I learned that the proper outcome sometimes requires a little time and patience, both of which I often lack.

Now, in the kitchen, I often hold a measuring glass up to eye level while pouring, and I feel guilty every time.  Granted, I've also learned that many of my dishes and kitchen adventures (see ignoring the rules and my initial disclaimer for reference) often turn out alright even if the exact specifications are disregarded.  However, I've also learned that in the kitchen, as in life, thorough preparation and reading of the instructions is always a good call.  It is one thing to have no idea what you're supposed to be doing, and another entirely to know and then blatantly disregard the directions.

And so, lesson number three: read the instructions, lay out all the necessary items and proceed slowly.  

Sigh.  Sorry, Mom - I'm still mastering this one.  ♥

Sunday, October 16, 2011

(Foodie) Life Lessons Learned from Mom - Part 2

As you may have gathered in the previous post, we are a well-intentioned if often-straying family when it comes to food.  Here's the thing: I think that is true of every family.  Removing the barriers and, more importantly, the pitfalls is the key to success in so many things.

Mom would buy grapefruit and then painstakingly slice it, prep it, leave it in the fridge and post a note as to its existence near the cereal.  She bought and washed grapes.  She sliced cantaloupe.  She placed bananas in a visible and enticing spot on the counter.  It was (and is) genius, really.  Lesson two: preparation, preparation.  

Honestly, it is shocking how late in life I realized her tactics.  Each night, the coffee was prepped and the timer set.  A tray with all the appropriate accessories (spoons, sweetener, mugs) was readied... because honestly, does anyone want to search the deep recesses of their mind while uncaffeinated to figure out how to brew coffee on a weekday morning?  Breakfast cereal, bowls and spoons were laid out.  Skipping breakfast was not encouraged and met with almost as much of a lecture as far grander transgressions.

Now, I understand the method to the madness and preparation.  Breakfast is unlikely to be skipped when the thinking is done for you.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are very likely to be grabbed and consumed when the work is removed.  We thought we were choosing to reach into the fridge and swipe a handful of grapes of our own free will.  Alas, we were being cunningly manipulated into healthy choices.

I take it a step further with my obsessive meal preparation.  I consider the options, prepare the shopping list and write the menu on giant chalkboards in my kitchen.  I think a lot of people assume I do it for some sort of statement or a rubbing of my Martha Stewart-esque ways into their collective faces.  Au contraire... I dread the witching hour when I arrive home from work exhausted and preoccupied.  Without preparation, that hour arrives and I make a maddening move: I open the fridge or pantry door and stand there, baffled, staring into the depths, hypothesizing with my feeble mind what I will make for dinner.  A plan and a clearly-posted menu take all of that away.  Suddenly, we aren't the family microwaving cheese onto tortillas and passing them off as "quesadillas" or picking up fast food or making breakfast for dinner... again.  We are a family with a good meal ahead of us.  My kids and husband smell good things from the kitchen and know that I care.  The systemic chopping is therapy for my work-torn soul.

Preparation, in the home and in the kitchen as well as in life, turns out to be the best defense.  It's shocking, really.

And so, I'm now the mom who, on a weekend afternoon like this one, quietly congratulates herself and realizes she has made one small parenting step, and that one small step leads to another.  The neighborhood kids have been playing in the late autumn sun all afternoon.  The time has arrived when one breaks from the stupor of play long enough to realize they are very hungry (and they have to go to the bathroom).  The kids all disperse to their respective homes, operating on an unspoken childhood pact and hoping for a quick-grab snack and a hasty return to play without being apprehended by chores or parental demands.

I watch quietly and unnoticed as some, though not all, of the neighbor kids re-emerge from their homes with processed, individually-packaged (i.e. convenience) foods and disposable water bottles.  It won't kill them, and it definitely won't be the end of humanity.  But again, I won't lie about the pang of pride as my kid saunters in, grabs one of her chilled, reusable stainless water bottles from the fridge, downs a big swig and covertly swipes some grapes and a hunk of cantaloupe from the fridge before springing back out into the afternoon sun.

She definitely got away with something.  I did, too.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

(Foodie) Life Lessons Learned from Mom - Part 1

Today is my Mom's birthday - read The Glamorous Glennis here .  I'd been mulling over this series for a while, and kicking it off today seems a fitting tribute.  For all that you knew about that you conscientiously taught me in the kitchen, thank you.  For all that you didn't know about but, I suspect, vaguely hoped you taught me about life in the kitchen, thank you even more.  ♥

By comparison, I definitely grew up in a household where family style meals were the norm.  My mom would probably argue that she didn't cook that often, but she absolutely did.  She used an arsenal of fairly familiar meals and fresh ingredients.  Although I stopped eating meat at age 15 and Mom didn't pander to my whims, I always found it easy to make a full meal out of what she prepared for the family.  Lesson 1: You won't get special treatment, and meals are prepared for everyone.  Make your own adjustments.

Regardless of my fickle teenage whims, I looked forward to the smell whipping me in the face when I came in the back door after activities or sports practice.  One whiff told you whether it was orange juice chicken, spaghetti, Chinese (an all-encompassing term for various stir fry dishes) or, to my chagrin despite its relative merits, meatloaf.

But that whiff conveyed many other things: even though I knew, I asked what was for dinner.  Even though she knew I knew, Mom told me.  I knew she cared enough to buy the groceries and fix an involved meal even when she probably didn't feel like it.  I knew we would all sit down to the table together.  I knew to pull back my hair and wash my hands, and to use manners: a napkin in my lap, no elbows on the table and please and thank you even as a sullen teen.  Sulking may have been mildly tolerated as a teenage phase, but overlooking these simple expectations was not.  I could certainly stalk off to my lair after dinner, but not before asking to be excused.  I knew, above all, that many things in my life were consistent and predictable, and that the comfort of our routines feels good.

The lesson of the meal prepared for the greater, familial good mattered because I was free to make my own choices, but Mom wasn't going to plan dinner around me.  Lesson subtitle: I love you, but the world doesn't revolve around you.  Second lesson subtitle: you will act appropriately, and our family has rules and standards.

When my older daughter was about age three, I did what I thought I was supposed to do as a new parent and picked up "kid-friendly" things like fish sticks, chicken nuggets and miniature pizza bites.  Then, I started reading the ingredients and the sodium content and thought about the lack of real ingredients.  By contrast, the meals my husband and I ate were well planned, fresh and enjoyable.  I stopped immediately and realized I was on the road to developing a picky eater.  It's shocking how quickly a child stops informing you of what they don't like when no other options are presented.  Now, Chez Stephens, your plate must be cleared but a small treat or dessert is always an option when that happens.  If you don't clear your plate, no other meal options are offered and you'll find yourself hungry.  I don't mention to my kiddos that I was once in deep trouble for pouring my glass of milk into a nearby plant instead of drinking it.  More on that later.

It probably didn't hurt in the early years that I turned mussels into "We're having seashells for dinner!"  Regardless of the tactics, my eldest now eats an impressive array of foods, and I suspect the small one will follow suit.  The eldest loves "snacky dinner," which in our house translates to a sampling of things like cheeses, meats, crackers, fruits and vegetables.  She considers cherry tomatoes a preferable snack and loves finding a fridge full of washed and ready to grab items like grapes, carrots, cantaloupe and grapefruit.  Sure, she would devour a pantry full of Ding Dongs and Twinkies, but they aren't there, so there isn't much opportunity.  She is baffled that other kids don't love bananas as much as she does, and recently did an impressive pitch to a neighbor kid joining us for dinner on the virtues of "my mom's mushroom pasta."

We're not saints - we keep around things like fruit snacks and cookies, but the household favorites are ice cream sandwiches and dark chocolate bars that we dip in peanut butter.  Currently, there are some packaged cupcakes and a boxed yellow cake mix baked and frosted in chocolate frosting on the counter, but it all works here.  A friend just told me that she felt like she was corrupting my child when they stopped by Burger King recently and Sophie told her that she had been there once or twice before.  Definitely, definitely we are not martyrs - we don't preach our approach, we just do it, and the way other families do things is up to them and we are not judging.  However, I'm not going to lie that I felt a strong pang of pride.  She gets fast food, because we are as harried as the next family - but the fact that it isn't a staple of our lives makes me feel some sense that we are getting it right.

More importantly, I realize that every single day of my upbringing, Mom was teaching me simple lessons.  I cling to these things when I feel overwhelmed by the challenge of raising small humans.  And then, I realize that it isn't about how many meals we ate at the table together as a family last week - it's about the day when it all blurs together in the collective consciousness of my daughters, and they remember that more often than not, I cooked for them as a feeble expression of my love.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Food Adventuress Goes Green (Eat Your Veggies!)

Today I'm completely honored to have a guest blog post on Eat Local When You Eat Out over at Practically Green ( and!

There's mention of some of my favorite spots to dine in addition to the fun of contributing to one of PG's action items for a sustainable lifestyle.  I'm also pretty stoked to have my main blog,, mentioned over at EcoPressed.  What a fun week!

Thanks to both current and new readers of both The Little Magpie and The Food Adventuress.  It's such a treat to share with you, and even more of a treat to interact.

Starting next Wednesday, October 12 (my Mom's birthday) and running throughout the remainder of October, watch for a five post blog series on (Foodie) Life Lessons From Mom - hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

More Books To Devour

I posted last month on some of my favorite foodie reads: Books to Devour.  If you didn't read it, I'd love for you to skim it and add your favorite food-centric reads.  I also set up a special shelf on Goodreads for these tantalizing tomes.

Today, I'm adding to it all the books on my foodie "to read" list.  Although I just read and couldn't get enough of The Hunger Games trilogy, I suppose they don't technically count.  As the winter months approach, here are a few of the books I'll be tackling from my hibernation post on the couch by the fireplace:

1.  Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

2.  How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking by Nigella Lawson

3.  The Sweet Life in Paris: A Recipe for Living in the World's Most Delicious City by David Lebovitz

4.  Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

5.  Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate by Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris

6.  Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession by Julie Powell

7.  Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon

8.  Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford

9.  The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering and eating locally (all on $40 a week) by Robin Mather

10.  A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines by Anthony Bourdain

These are all catalogued along with those I've already read on my Goodreads "Books to Devour" shelf.  I note with some amusement that the vast majority of the books on this list offer the clever minimalist one to three word title followed by a colon and an exhausting interpretation as you might read on the book jacket if you wanted to further explore the book's premise.  It's ok, they've done it for you right there on the cover!

Any additions?  Which foodie books are whetting your appetite?

Also: I'm excited about launching a series next Wednesday, October 12 (my Mom's birthday) honoring her and the (foodie) life lessons she taught me in the kitchen.  I hope you'll tune in for the rest of the month and share some of your own stories of kitchen inspiration!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Food I Find Pinteresting

Hello foodie friends,

You may realize that I do not post predictably or regularly here on The Food Adventuress. My main blog is, and I find this blog to be most satisfying when I don't force it and simply let inspiration strike.  However, with that said, I am certainly in the kitchen far more frequently when hibernation months are upon us. If you'd like to keep up between posts, however, please visit The Food Adventuress on Pinterest:

I think of it as my virtual recipe idea file, and I pin good eats to try out almost daily. And, once in a while I even get around to making them! Friday was my sister's birthday, and we are both adorers of Blue Moon beer. So, naturally I had to make her these Blue Moon cupcakes:

And then, naturally, I had to take this highly inappropriate picture of my young child playing with the Blue Moon box:

A mere twenty years until she can raise a toast to Birthday Aunt

And that is why there are some days when I simply should not blog.  Anyway, hope you'll follow along on Pinterest, or follow The Food Adventuress on the Twitter if you're so inclined:!/foodadventuress

Then meet me back here, same bat channel (but not necessarily same bat time) for more foodie fun. What have you been cooking up lately?