This Birthday is a Turkey

December 3, 2019

My sister’s birthday fell on Thanksgiving this year. Growing up, my sister hated, hated, hated it when her birthday fell on Thanksgiving. I can’t really blame her. Who wants to share their special day with a freaking turkey? And while she was partial to pie, birthdays are cake occasions, and she wanted her due.

 

Personally, I think she hated having her birthday on Thanksgiving because then she couldn’t torment me with the monstrosity that is Shipwreck Casserole. I mean, we did eventually have it (and the cake) but torture is so much sweeter on your birthday, I guess.

Thanksgiving felt hard this year. I threw up all day and all night, but I think it was unrelated because I throw up a lot these days. Still, we had to cancel Thanksgiving and we had crushing snowstorms and winds the entire week which just seemed to add to the misery. I think my sister would have approved.

 

I did raise my spirits a little by thinking of one of my silliest November 28 memories involving my spitfire of a sibling. Many moons ago, I spent Thanksgiving working behind the bar at a restaurant (a mortal sin that my Mama never let me forget). Halfway through my shift (about 6pm) my manager taps me on the back.

“You have a phone call,” he says. “Make it quick. We’re in the weeds.”

Yeah, I know, asshole. Who do you think is deep in the thicket, pouring hooch? Jesus.

“Hello?”

“Dude,” she hisses through the line. “NEVER do that again. Never leave me home on Thanksgiving with the parentals ever again, especially on my birthday.”

I laugh.

“Shut up, moron! It was terrible. All we did was sit and look at each other. YOU OWE ME. What time do you get off work?”

“Ten,” I say. “But I’m woofed. For real. I just want to sit down and forget about today.”

“Didn’t you hear me? You owe me, ass. I’ll pick you up at ten. We’re going out. You’re fucking buying. I’ll bring you something to wear.”

“That prospect is terrifying,” I say.

My manager comes around the corner, glowering. Okay, I mouth. “I gotta go.”

“Be ready,” she says. “I so need out of here.”

 

Of course, it’s freezing outside and my sister brings me a dress the size of a postage stamp.

I shiver all the way to the bar–an upstanding establishment called “Whiskey Bill’s.”

She’s already half-lit, cradling a beer between her legs and driving too fast.

“Slow down! Jesus.”

“Shut up. It’s been a day, and it’s my birthday. I deserve to have some fun.” She turns up the Van Halen.

 

And fun she has. She dances her birthday butt off and flirts with some guy named Roland (!?!) who seems totally sketchy and drinks more than her share of tequila.

The minute Slick Roland leans in for a kiss, I know it’s time to drag her out of there.

“Food,” she slurs. “I need food.”

There’s an IHOP across the street so we navigate over the icy corners into the utter chaos that is IHOP at 2am. She orders a steak, for Chrissakes, at the IHOP. Then she realizes she’s too wasted to navigate the steak (?) knife to cut the thing so she eventually gives up and picks the thing up like a chicken leg, gnawing away.

“Eat up and we’re going home,” I say. “I’ll drive. You brought my glasses, right?”

Of course she didn’t. She was too busy picking the smallest dress in the drawer out and booking the Hell out of there. But now we’re kind of in a pickle because I am both blind and night blind, and she sure as heck isn’t going to drive.

I look across the restaurant and there are two men in police uniforms eating pancakes and bacon.

Bingo.

“Hey,” I say, sidling into the booth, startling the heck out of the two grizzled-looking dudes.

“Ummm, hi. I’m sorry to bother you, but my sister and I are kind of in a situation? Can I get some help or some advice or something?”

They shoot an amused look across the booth at each other. “Sure, Miss.”

“Okay. Uh. My sister over there?” I gesture towards the booth. “She’s had a bit too much to drink.”

My sister picks this exact moment to manhandle the steak up to her mouth and chomp away.

“Apparently,” one of the officers says.

“Yeah. Well. Normally I’d be driving us home right now but she forgot to bring my glasses and I’m pretty blind without them…and…I can call a cab this late, right?”

“Yup.”

“Okay,” I sigh, relieved. “Thanks for that. Is there any cab company more reliable than the other? Do you know?”

 

“Wait. This is a truck,” my sister giggles. “Where’s the cop car?”

“I’m working security tonight,” the more weathered of the cops answers. “We moonlight sometimes for extra cash. Tonight it was the rockin’ Casa Bonita.”

We slide into the front of the truck. My sister giggles again. “Did you catch any Banditos tonight?”

He laughs a little. “A few.”

 

We pull up to a stoplight and my sister–apparently bored–flips open the glove compartment and is delighted.

“Aha! Handcuffs!”  She grabs them and shakes them around so they clank and clatter.

“Omigod!” I grab them, mortified. “Put those back. It’s not polite to riffle through someone’s shit, Cin.”  I click them back into the glove box. “Sorry.”

He just laughs a little and shakes his head. “You have your hands full, there.”

“Tell me about it.”

 

He drops us at the door of my sister’s apartment complex.

“Thank you,” I say. “You’re a nice man.”

He smiles wryly. “I try.”

“You are awesome!” my sister chirps and then leans over and plants an enormous smooch on the fella.

“Cin! Get out of the car! Now!” I yell.

The cop, startled, starts to laugh. “Ummm, yeah, get out of the car.” He shakes his head.

He looks pointedly at me and says, “And for Chrissakes, be careful out there.”

 

As if there’s any such thing with my sister around.

 

 

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You may be aware–I wasn’t–that the last recipe I posted on this site was in January 2019. As in, almost a year ago. As in, right before my sister decided to remove herself from this planet. When the year was new and I was hopeful for a happy, healthy, vibrant New Year.

Yeah. That dream sort of went up in smoke, didn’t it?

When Mama died, I found solace in the kitchen. I stirred batter and carefully poured it into pans. I dredged cutlets and sizzled them in a hot pan. I made things that were relics of my childhood–things I hadn’t made in years–hotwater cornbread, chicken a’la king, pasta primavera with lots of butter and cheese and basil from the garden. I even flirted with oatmeal again, for Chrissakes (a fail. I just ain’t an oatmealer, y’all). I found myself unable to sit still, beckoned by a warm kitchen, yearning for the heat and the smell of something made with intention and love.

Not so with my sister.

She thought cooking was for peasants and frankly, would far prefer to drink her dinner than eat it. Mama and I would spend hours in the kitchen, but she skedaddled right out of there, wanting no part of it. This was fine with me, but when she died, I had no place to go.

Where was I supposed to find comfort? The bar?

Even I knew that was a bad idea.

Mama’s death galvanized me into action, even if it was something as simple as making dinner. As long as I kept moving, arms deep in dough, I could get through the day.

My sister’s death sent me to the couch. And the bed. And paralyzing inertia.

To the Cracker Barrel.

I have not coped well and I still am not right in the head or the spirit. It’s hard to find a home for anything that’s clanking around inside me. I am not proud of this.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve cooked, I have fed my family, but it’s been a joyless enterprise. It felt like work; another burden to shoulder. Often I made dinner and couldn’t drum up enough enthusiasm to eat it. Suddenly, food started sticking in my throat. I’d gag and choke on anything solid, like my beloved rice and potatoes and pasta. I resorted to foods that slid down the gullet without effort, as if even the act of swallowing was too much to bear.

So. I have cooked and eaten endless upon endless pots of soup since my sister took her life. It’s the only food that feels right in my stomach, and you have to understand that I’m a girl who used to only resort to soup when sick. But I guess you could say my soul has been sick, so maybe it makes sense.

Bowls of pho, congee, chicken noodle, minestrone, broccoli cheese. They have kept me alive and kickin’, even if I don’t feel like it. I have found a completely new appreciation for soup.

 

And, because I am WEIRD, the time soup tastes best to me is in the morning. Yeppers, I eat soup for breakfast. All. The. Time.

I slam my coffee and sip my soup and check emails and think about writing (and often fail beyond that). The couch still has a powerful pull, even now. But mornings come no matter how soul-weary we are, and soup helps. It especially helps because I often have restless nights and wake feeling parched, cotton-mouthed.

“Shit, it feels like I ate a freaking hamster or something,” I complain to my husband.

Thus, soup.

 

The one soup I crave but have failed to successfully make is Chinese hot and sour soup, which I love but cannot have access to because we have the shittiest damn Chinese food in the world where I live. We don’t even bother ordering it anymore. One takeout order gave me hot and sour soup that had–gag–maraschino cherries floating in it. It is truly that bad.

A good hot and sour soup engages your tastebuds and makes you sit up and take notice. It’s almost bracingly hot and pungent and savory and full of good things that make you feel alive. Some of those things are a total pain in the ass to find in the Rocky Mountains; traditional hot and sour soup has wood ear mushrooms and lily buds and Szechuan peppercorns. Good luck, asshole.

 

I’ve been on a quest to find a reasonable facsimile of traditional hot and sour soup that is even halfway acceptable, and it’s been a struggle. I have tried no less than seven recipes for the stuff and all of them have been lackluster at best. No heat, no zing, no complexity. But this week, I tried a version that comes pretty darn close without my having to outsource lily buds. You DO need Chinese black vinegar, which King Google should help you find quite nicely. There is no substitute and don’t even think about it. Just get the dang stuff. And the chile oil. Get one with some balls on it, mmmkay, because hot and sour soup should be fiery.

 

Admission: this soup is still quite a pain in the arse to make. It looks so simple, but is time consuming, it uses quite a few bowls and dishes, and there are some steps that seem fussy (cornstarch and egg, I’m talking to you) but they are necessary and if you are faced with a pantry of ingredients and a chilly, miserable day, consider making the effort. Put on some music, even songs that remind you of who you miss. Soothe yourself in stir and chop and julienne.

Remember, for a moment, what life tastes like.

 

Hot and Sour Soup

from Cook’s Illustrated

serves about 6

 

7 ounces extra-firm tofu

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 (6-ounce) center cut pork loin chop, trimmed and cut into very thin matchstick slices

3 tablespoons plus one teaspoon cold water

1 large egg

6 cups chicken broth

1 (5-ounce) can bamboo shoots, sliced lenthwise into thin strips

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick

5 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar

2 teaspoons hot chili oil

1 teaspoon ground pepper or ground white pepper

3 thinly sliced fresh scallions

Red chile flakes, for extra heat (optional)

 

Place tofu on a paper towel-lined plate, top with a heavy plate and weigh it down with 2 heavy cans. Let the tofu drain until it has released about 1/2 cup liquid, about 15 minutes. Cut into small cubes and set aside.

Meanwhile, whisk 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch and sesame oil together in a medium bowl. Add pork, toss to coat and let marinate for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

Combine 3 tablespoons cold water with 3 tablespoons cornstarch in a small bowl. Mix the remaining 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with remaining 1 teaspoon cold water in another small bowl. Add egg and beat until combined.

Bring chicken broth to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add bamboo shoots and mushrooms and simmer until just tender, about 5 minutes.

Add marinated pork and tofu cubes to broth and stir vigorously to break up pork; simmer until pork is no longer pink, about 2-3 minutes.

Stir water and cornstarch mixture to recombine, add to soup and increase heat to medium high. Cook, stirring, until soup thickens, about a minute. Stir in Chinese vinegar, chili oil, pepper and remaining soy sauce. Remove from heat.

Without stirring soup, use a soupspoon to slowly drizzle very thin streams of egg mixture into broth in a circular motion. Let soup sit for 1 minute, then return pan to medium-high heat. Bring soup just to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Stir the soup once gently to distribute egg. Sprinkle with sliced scallions and serve.

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The Strangelings

October 23, 2019

We are only ten minutes into the hike and I am ready to throttle Littlest Minx.

She has a litany of complaints: It’s too hot. It’s too sunny (sunshine in Seattle, how dare you?) Her water bottle isn’t full enough. Her feet hurt. She needs a bench to sit down, because she is ex-HAUS-ted. She is thirteen and has to spend time with her family. Life is full of everlasting fuckery and she’s not going to let us forget it.

I turn to my husband and hiss, “That child is never, ever, going to Europe with us. Can you see that child moping her way through the Louvre? Recoiling at the crowds on the Tube? Scowling through the Coliseum in Rome? With all of those sweaty bodies and the dust?”

“Well, she wouldn’t be impressed, and Jesus, she wouldn’t eat anything, anyways,” he laughs. “I guess she could live on eclairs and gelato?”

“Technically, yeah. I think she could. But I don’t wanna be around for the Poo Baby.”

He loses it. “Oh man. Just…don’t go there. That’s terrifying.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to our misfit family and the thing that is the Poo Baby.

The Poo Baby is a vacation phenomenon. It afflicts only female members of the family and it usually happens around day 3 of travel. Too much sitting in an airplane, where you willingly dehydrate yourself because the airplane toilets are jarringly loud and stinky and scary. Too much strange hotel food. Too many grab-and-go meals when you’re on the run, trying to squeeze one more thing into your daily itinerary.

You think it’s all fine and good until, on day 3 of vacation, everyone with an xy chromosome looks pregnant. We are cookin’ up something, and it’s not pretty. It also (alas) is here to stay unless you take some drastic measures. And the thing is, we never learn. We don’t. At least half a day of every. single. vacation. is devoted to the attention and expunging of the Poo Baby. We never know who is going to be afflicted, but it’s a certainty.

Sometimes, the Poo Baby rears its ugly head during a hike in beautiful, verdant, dog-filled parks in Seattle and you gotta hustle, mothersucker, and we make it but barely.

Later, younger child is in a much better mood. She will agree to 20 more minutes of hiking.

This is a gift that we aren’t going to squander so we tromp around and pet every dog that halfway wags its tail.

At least I do.

“Mom. You know that you can actually SEE a dog without yelling, ‘Dog!’ at the top of your lungs.”

How quickly the familial landscape changes, minute by minute with the dazzling strain of the teenage years.

I’m trying to ride it out, but let’s be honest. Nobody knows who the fuck is driving this bus.

I can pretend, though. With carefully packed lunches and stacks of folded laundry.

Do you think they are fooled?

Is anybody?

 

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