Monday
Jan012007

Superlatives

Years ago, my good friend Trevor started publishing his Year's Best list and emailing it to his wide circle of acquaintance. Several of us in that circle reciprocate, blithely clicking on the "Reply All" button and scattering our opinions far and wide. Every year it's a treat to discover what people known and unknown to me relished and despised in the year before.

Trevor waits until Oscar season to publish his list, but my life is too much of a blur to wait that long. I find I have to summarize pretty early in the new year so as not to lose all memory of what I read, watched, listened to, and tasted in the previous twelve months. So, here are my lists. Some of them are in order; some are not.

Top Ten Books:
1. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
2. Lisey's Story, by Stephen King
3. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
4. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susannah Clarke
5. Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell
6. if on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino (Yes, I read it again. Still a work of genius.)
7. Perfume, by Patrick Suskind
8. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
9. Rome, by Mauro Lucentini
10. Return from Tomorrow, by George G. Ritchie

Most Disappointing Book:
Eragon, by Christopher Paolini (How did this book get published? It is a puzzlement.)

Top Ten Movies:
An Inconvenient Truth
Casino Royale
Glory Road
Lady in the Water
The Prestige
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Invincible
Stranger than Fiction
Akeelah and the Bee
16 Blocks
Happy Feet

Looking Forward to Seeing:
Wordplay
Who Killed the Electric Car?
Children of Men
Miss Potter
Dreamgirls
Pursuit of Happyness

Top Ten Songs:
Reservoir (Hem)
Pride (Syntax)
Steady as She Goes (The Raconteurs)
Short Skirt, Long Jacket (Cake)
Firecracker (The Wailin' Jennys)
The Seventh Wave (The Duhks)
Woman (Wolfmother)
Jubilee (Alison Krauss)
Hey Ya (Outkast)
Beautiful Garden (Toni Price)

Top Eating Experiences:
10. Chicken Salad and Pink Lemonade at Pittypat's Porch (Atlanta, GA)
9. Chicken Burrito and Tres Leches Cake at Cafe Rio (St. George, UT)
8. Truffled Mac & Cheese and Sticky Date Cake at Cafe Umami (Fishkill, NY)
7. Black & White Cookie and Ronnybrook Creamline Milk at Garrison Market (Garrison, NY)
6. Thanksgiving Stuffing with Gravy Chez Les Perkins (Cold Spring, NY)
5. Return from Chiang Mai at Bouley (NYC)
4. Roasted Bluefoot Chicken at Alain Du Casse (NYC)
3. Bread and Butter and Hot Chocolate at Hotel Exedra (Rome)
2. Pizza and Carciofi alla Giudia at La Sagrestia (Rome)
1. Fettucine with Truffles at Il Colosso (Rome)

Yarn of the Year:
Malabrigo

Rose of the Year:
Sharifa Asma

Compiling this list, I am struck by the fact that 2006 was an amazing year--"the best of ever," as my nephews would say. Here's hoping 2007 tops it.

Monday
Jan012007

The valiant man and free


I love the peculiar mix of melancholy and hope that is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Ring Out, Wild Bells." That's exactly how I feel standing on the cusp of the new year. New Year's Resolutions have become a painful irony in today's society; nonetheless, I continue to make them. And not just at the beginning of January--I tend to make them at the end of August as well as I contemplate the start of another school term.
Self-sabotage comes when we don't make our goals simple and reachable; more comes when we lose the vision of why we made them in the first place. I'm taking my cue from Tennyson this year. A little more kindness, a little less greed. Less feeling sorry for myself; more trying to help others. We can all do that, right?

Saturday
Dec302006

Warmth


Generous gifts from friends and Patrick's clients prompted a Hot Cocoa Taste-Off in the quiet days between Christmas and New Year's.
Being quite familiar with the charms and strengths of our everyday standbys, Nesquik and Droste, we made a batch each of Ibarra, Godiva, and Marie Belle. We used milk with each, and blended each in our trusty VitaMix for optimum frothiness and smoothness.
Ibarra is a treat fondly remembered from my childhood. It's from Mexico, and you may be able to find a similar product under the brand name Abuelita. Milky, sweet, with strong cinnamon overtones, this was the kids' favorite.
I've never been a Godiva fan. I like my chocolate either a) American--which to me means homey, milky, and indulgent, See's being my favorite brand in this category; or b) Swiss--refined, less sweet, and smooth as silk. Cailler's Frigor and some Lindt work for me in this regard.
Godiva has always seemed to me to be a very awkward marriage of these two types, the lovely packaging notwithstanding. Sometimes the chocolates are nice, but too often I find them to be shrill flavor combinations housed in brittle couverture: not my idea of an treat. Unfortunately, the Godiva Hot Cocoa did nothing to change my opinion of the brand. It was redolent of powdered marshmallows--nothing more than a tarted up Swiss Miss.
The Marie Belle was the clear winner for me. It was the most like the celestial brews I've had in Paris (at Angelina's) and in Rome (at the Hotel Exedra)--thick, creamy, and to be sweetened at the drinker's discretion. No off flavors polluted its singular charm; it was nothing but good, dark chocolate, through and through. Marie Belle will be the gift that keeps on giving whenever I'm feeling the need for a little warmth in the coming months.

Saturday
Dec302006

Jollity





"Good times." That mantra, spoken in unison by the bemused hosts of "Delicious Dish," an NPR radio show spoof on Saturday Night Live, is one of Patrick's and my favorite code phrases.
We've had good times aplenty in preparation for Christmas this year. A highlight was our annual Gingerbread Construction Night, usually held the last Monday before Christmas.
We use graham crackers instead of gingerbread. This way I don't stress out over broken or eaten pieces that ideally would have been used as structural material. I've experienced the joys of working with real gingergread in the past, the most famous example being the year we made the Chrysler Building complete with internal lighting system. Also, for my kids, authenticity is eschewed for the finer pleasure of eating and building with as much candy as possible. It's all about the candy.
What did we use? Two batches of buttercream icing; two boxes of Honey Grahams; one box of Frosted Shredded Wheet (great for snow-covered thatch); one cardboard box, cut into six pieces and covered with aluminum foil; and pounds and pounds of candy. Mini marshmallows are great for internal buttressing, by the way. And buy twice as many Crunchy Gummi Bears as you think you'll need. Not only are they tasty, they are also excellent for representing anyone from Santa to members of the Holy Family.
Sometimes we go for theme with our buildings. This year I made an a-frame creche; James favored a rendering of a house damaged in a California mudslide. In years past, we've had models with such diverse inspirations as Stonehenge, the Provo Temple, and Fallingwater.
After construction was completed, we did some dancing. I treasure this image of Hope and James cavorting, and I'm sure I'll be blackmailing them with it for years to come.

Saturday
Dec302006

CIA Night

I'm big on traditions and routines for our family. Family Prayer, weekly Family Home Evening on Mondays and weekday Morning Scripture Study: these are the foundation of our religious life at home. But we have many other rituals that are just as important. In the past, we've had Family Movie Night on Saturdays or Sundays, always accompanied by popcorn and chocolate milk. Then there are the pancakes we have for lunch almost every Sunday after church (yes, many of our traditions feature food as the central component). Patrick and I have Date Night on Thursdays; this time is a priority for us both, and the kids respect this commitment.

We're flexible enough to drop an activity when it no longer serves the family's greater good, and we're always on the lookout for something new that will help keep us learning, growing, and enjoying each other's company. Recently, I had a brainstorm for the new year and shared it with the rest of the crew.

Christian, at age 13, needs to be honing serious cooking skills in preparation for adult life. He and all the other kids love time with me in the kitchen, so much so that the bickering over who gets to 'help' can be a problem.

Here's my new solution: Friday night will now become CIA Night, named for the famous Culinary Institute of America just an hour upriver from our house. Each of the four bigger kids will have a Friday night tutorial with Iron Chef Mom (their appellation, not mine) per month, in which we will make a dinner of their choice, then serve it and do the clean-up.

Once in a while we'll have a Guest Chef. Our good friend Mike, who has been to culinary school and whose smoked spare ribs are the best I've ever had, has already agreed to several appearances in Perkins Kitchen Stadium.

The plan was met with great enthusiasm--everyone has already decided what they want to make for January (Christian: Cowboy Stew; James: Jambalaya; Hope: Scratch Mac & Cheese; Tess: Quesadillas). I haven't yet figured out what to do about the occasional fifth Friday night of the month; maybe we'll have a Family Restaurant Review. I'm open to other ideas, though.

I'm excited! Of course, the kids will still be pulling up a chair to watch what I'm doing in the kitchen, probably on a daily basis. But somehow even the prospect of scheduled one-on-one time with Patrick or me can cut a lot of arguing out of the kid mix.

My goal with all of our traditions (and of most of my other parenting strategies) is this: I want our home environment to be so fun, warm, and attractive that it is always everyone's favorite place to be. Of course, family members will always enjoy outside activities, as balanced and healthy individuals should. But I want Home to be first in their hearts. That can't come through compulsion; it only comes through the powerful attractive forces of unconditional love, clear expectations and communication, and absolute safety. Plus good food, of course.