Food Olympiad

IMG_2568Like good athletes, we’ve trained. Grocery bag lifts, squats to the bottom shelves of the fridge, stretches to the highest cabinet shelves. After work dinner preparation speed trials. Our muscles are toned from the repetitive motion of chopping, stirring, kneading, mixing, chewing, washing, and drying. We are ready for the biggest food day of the year: Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. No expectation of gifts, just food, football, and family time. There is literally nothing planned for the day except the creation and enjoyment of the big meal. There are occasional surrounding activities like running a local Turkey Trot 5K, watching the Macy’s Day Parade, and the professional football match-ups, but mostly we hover around the kitchen working out when to get the turkey in the oven and how to get all the sides baked as well.

Our menu is usually traditional, the most memorable update for a couple of years being stuffing made from White Castle hamburgers (delicious). Our kids love to cook and we let them take the lead this year: oyster stuffing with bread cubes from a homemade loaf, green bean casserole made with a garlicky white sauce and shallots, shaved Brussels sprouts and noodle salad with an Asian dressing. Of course there’s still a turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy.

When the kids were small, the feast was met with selective enthusiasm. Carving the turkey was exciting, making gravy pools in the potatoes was especially fun, and then there was dessert. Sitting in the formal dining room was a novelty, but odd, and after a few attempts at “trying everything on your plate”, they’d slither out of their seats and run off to play.

Now they’re as invested in the meal as we are, and skilled cooks too. We’re all vying for position in the kitchen, prepping the sides in the last hour before we eat. Every pot and pan is in use, all surfaces are covered, and our eyes are on the clock. I’m clearing counter space at the appropriate moment, washing and rewashing mixing bowls and pots, and pulling china from the cabinet.

Somehow it all comes together, like an elongated episode of Chopped. We are at the table, our plates mounded high, and everything is delicious. While proud of how well it all turned out, this is about the time that we realize we can barely finish our food, and there will not be room for the pies for a while. But we’ve also achieved an equally important aspect of the Thanksgiving meal – having leftovers! I see a turkey tetrazzini casserole, veggie plates, and pie for days. Yum!


X Marks the Spot

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 12.03.20 PMIn the rush hour crowd I try to maintain my distance so I don’t run into anyone. Rather than admiring the magnificent sights of the city, I’m usually focused on the back of the person in front of me. That’s when I see the occasional odd mark; an X, sometimes faint, sometimes bright white, on the bottom of the coat in front of me.

Chicago is a town of serious winter coats. Canada Goose or NorthFace down coats, or full-length mink coats. But some people still wear cloth coats. A lovely wool or cashmere coat is the right choice over a business suit, but the wearer doesn’t always notice the X stitched on the back. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve worn the coat, and they’ve overlooked this, like leaving the price tag on, or worse, they think it’s some sort of decoration. It’s actually a basting stitch meant to keep the vent of the coat closed and unwrinkled during shipping and while hanging in the store. The first thing you should do is snip those threads so the vent can work the way it is supposed to: it allows you to move.

Most of us buy clothes off the rack and expect them to be ready to wear. For women, especially, there are enough sizing options that post-purchase tailoring is less and less necessary. Petite sizing and pants in custom lengths make it a lot easier for me, but I’ll still have jackets tailored to ensure it doesn’t look like I’m a 10-year-old dressing up in grown-up clothes. But usually we are many steps removed from the garment construction process, and may even turn to a dry cleaner to fix a hem.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that, once indoors, there are other X’s to be found. I’ve stopped co-workers before to free them of the stitches on the vents of their suit jackets and the slits of skirts. Not everyone grew up sewing, so I guess I can’t fault them for their ignorance. I’ll bet these same people think their clothes don’t have working pockets because they arrive sewn shut. Perhaps it’s a massive practical joke played on us by the garment industry. Maybe women’s pants really do have pockets, or deeper ones, if we only knew which stitches to snip.


Communal Living

Slide1Recently, I was surprised to see a youth hostel in the Loop. I guess I thought they only existed in Europe – like rail passes – but apparently not. I imagined the rows of bunk beds and shared dining tables for student travelers. Nothing fancy, but safe and clean with room to store a big backpack. Maybe the guests are US students coming for a music festival, or frugal international travelers who want to see the entire country in two weeks.

Hostels appeal to a very specific niche – adventuresome folks with limited funds. Before Airbnb existed, this was the low-cost option, unless you could find a friend’s couch. I spent one college semester in France and our group was on a budget, so we stayed in a hostel part of the time. I don’t remember where we slept, but there was a large common room filled with a jumble of couches, tables and chairs where we would meet each morning before venturing out to find breakfast. There was an evening curfew, so whatever else the day held, we had to be back by 10pm or the doors would be locked. I never missed the curfew, but I’d like to believe that there was a bell to ring after hours so tardy students weren’t left on the doorstep all night.

For a post-college trip across Great Britain, lodging was all bed and breakfast places. I don’t know if we even considered hostels at the time, or if those were only options in big cities. Most of the places were small, meals were in a common dining room, and we shared a bathroom with other guests. The least appealing place was in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was more like a dormitory with a kitchen; other guests cooked and watched TV, and every surface seemed to be greasy. The highlight was staying in Wales with Ian and Beryl who hired out a room, cooked for us in their kitchen, and made us feel like members of the family.

More recently we tried Airbnb in Brooklyn as an alternative to a pricey hotel. We ended up sharing a small apartment with a young couple – their rental offering was a single bedroom, not their entire apartment, but we didn’t figure that out till we showed up. At first we thought it would be awkward, but they were friendly. Our beds were only separated by a bit of drywall that didn’t even go up to the ceiling, but they never complained about my snoring,

Back home after a trip, we’re relieved to have our own space back, but it’s a temporary illusion as the city is mostly a communal place. It’s comforting to have people close by, but it also requires patience and civility.

Kid Stuff

hopscotch_drawing-13625Occasionally new train cars replace some of the older models. They’re shiny and clean, but, not unlike trends in airplanes, the seats seem to be getting smaller. Blue plastic scooped seats made for small bottoms in a jumbo bottom world. When I’m able to take an open seat, I press my knees together, my briefcase and lunch bag piled on my lap. As the car jostles, I’m trying to stay within my designated space but inevitably, I feel the warmth of my neighbor’s thigh. I question whether these seats were made for adults.

Maybe the builders had kids in mind – school trains, instead of school buses. I imagine 8 year olds excited about the ride, kneeling on the seats to look out the window, waving at people on the platform, watching the billboards fly by. Kids are standing, purposefully not hanging on to the straps or poles so they can test their skateboard balance, and then tumbling into their neighbors while squealing and grinning. Noses pressed to the glass when we come above ground. A small boy is removing his shoes and tossing them aside.

Someone opens an Ironman lunchbox to trade a ham sandwich for a cookie. Loose chips are flying through the air, on their way to an unseen target, and an apple is rolling around on the seats. A few of the older kids have text books open on their lap, hastily finishing homework problems or short essays. They observe the rowdiness with disdain. A hopscotch game is underway on quickly chalked squares. A girl in a frilly dress is sitting primly in her commodious seat, patting her curls.

As we approach a stop, one of the kids chirps,”we’re here!” Everyone scrambles to the doors and they’re gone. A small shoe is left in the chalk box marked “nine.”

There’s a restaurant near my neighborhood train stop that serves kids for free before 6pm. Most temperate nights, the outdoor seating is packed with families, strollers and highchairs. It’s just like any afterwork gathering, filled with commuters looking to decompress after their work day. Among them, I recognize the kids from the imaginary school train.