Baby Steps

“Just take it like a shot, you can do it. One, two, three.”

I still cannot believe that Erik had to coach me through a small dose of NyQuil in a session that took the better part of an hour. At 18 years old I had the same fervent hatred for liquid medicines as I’d had at age 6, and the lurid, anise-scented syrup wasn’t making a strong case for itself.

The standard adult dose of NyQuil is two tablespoons, and it comes in its own plastic cup. In ounces, that corresponds roughly to an average-sized shot glass but I’m skeptical that the manufacturers of our favorite dolphin-emblazoned glasses were particularly committed to precision. Regardless, a two-tablespoon-sized cup of anything looks pretty piddling, but I couldn’t bring this one near my mouth without tears springing to my eyes and my gag reflex threatening mutiny.

I had my first college flu and my (older, wiser) friends had taken it upon themselves to look after me after listening to a few hours of piteous whining. Erik presented me with a bottle of deep green decongestant goo for what I’m sure he thought was going to be a one-gulp fix, and instead I presented him with my usual sickbed hysteria.

“What does it taste like? Will it linger? Does it work right away? Do I have to take it? Can I do it in little sips? Oh please take it away–wait, I need it. Really, just…one swallow? That’s all? Will it really help me sleep? How soon do I have to go to sleep? I won’t like it. I don’t like it. Do I have to?”

I cowered in my roommate’s chair trying to drum up enough courage for a single swallow while Erik and Jordan tried to increase its appeal.

“You know it’s really not that bad. It smells so much worse than it tastes; I actually kind of like it!”

“Yeah, dude, it will help you sleep sooo much better. You’ll get used to it.”

“It’s not going to magically cure you, you know that right? But you’ll sleep and then you’ll feel so much better, and that’s what you want isn’t it? We all want that–please!

I got brave. I took the cup. I studied it, took a few deep breaths–and handed it back.

“I can’t.”

To the boys’ credit, they maintained astonishing calm while we repeated this process. I came close to downing the cup, so very desperate to get it over with and finally sleep, but so repulsed by the smell and viscosity that I pushed it away every time. At last Erik threatened to pinch my nose shut for me while I sipped, which was enough to make me yelp, “That won’t be necessary!” and finish the dose in one go.

As soon as I was through sniffling and wincing, Jordan leaned over with a mischievous grin. “So. I wasn’t going to tell you this before, but I puked everywhere the first time I took NyQuil. See? You did fine!”

With that they sent me to bed and checked in the next morning, when I had to admit that yes, I had slept very well and my headache was gone and I could breathe and probably some of that had to do with the NyQuil, a bit.

I have since discovered that NyQuil comes in simple, odor-free pills, which mercifully takes all the drama out of a head cold. But I think of that incident often since it tends to repeat itself whenever I have a big decision ahead of me. The need to make post-graduate plans has gotten stronger in the few months that I’ve been out of college, yet I wind myself up in a monstrous web of pros and cons and lose my focus. I imagine many possibilities, some excellent and some outrageous, but if I overthink them I am likely to fall into NyQuil Mode and reject something promising and useful. When I feel myself veering too close to the planning anxiety (“I should do this, but I can’t do that, and this is too scary, and that is too far, but oh god, I should DO this!”), I have to remind myself that an independent move should be like medicine. However unpleasant at the time, it ought to be ultimately restorative so that I can continue forging forward. Sometimes I need a little push.

Rock and R-Old Fashioned

Please head over to your nearest music listening device. Anything will do, as long as it’s loud, although today a record player would be best if you can wrangle it.

Please call up the Rolling Stones and hit ‘play’. If you can’t do that, I don’t really know how to help you. I’m afraid you better move on.

Because today is a very, very important day that calls for a special soundtrack. I can’t be in Portland this morning, but that won’t stop me from wishing a certain Nikki G. a most excellent 22nd birthday in the next best way.

Graduation from Reed College, May 2012

Nikki and I both drew semi-unfortunate housing lots before our sophomore year of college, I as a House Adviser, she as one of my “dormies”. We should have at least heard of each other before then, but even at our very small college, we managed to live on opposite sides of campus, have none of the same classes, and ignore each other in the dining hall (I did find out later that Nikki was the very-harried chemistry lab partner to another of my best friends, so our eventual friendship was inevitable). We were fated to live on the basement floor of the dingiest dorm on campus (“You’ll brighten up the halls,” they said. “We need you down there,” they said.) where nobody lived after freshman year  unless they were inclined to join any of the eccentric theme floors in the building or had a terrible lottery number. In Nikki’s case, she’d settled for the tiny room with the stuck windows because she would only have to spend a few months there before departing for Paris.

We were friendly for a month or two at first. Possibly we each recognized a kindred spirit in the other, though we had never had more than brief pleasant conversations in the hall. Demanding classes and separate social circles kept us from real camaraderie, but all it took was a pizza to establish our true friendship, which should come as a surprise to no one. We found ourselves in the dorm at an off hour one night–we’d missed dinner, our friends were out, and we were both skulking around with nothing to do, so we ordered a pizza straight to the common room and gossiped for hours.

In some ways, we are as different as can be. Nikki is the tall brunette–and the G. in her name actually stands for “gregarious”–and I’m more of the short, shy, blonde type, but this friendship works. After the pizza night sophomore year, our rapport took off like a rolling stone.

Now, to the Stones. When I told Nikki excitedly, “I just started listening to the Rolling Stones!” as though I had personally discovered them, she didn’t laugh at me (like she should have) but instead exclaimed, “They’re my favorites!” and played me an album in the campus coffee shop. That became a theme over the next few years; I would wander in for a coffee in various states of consciousness, she would supply it, and we would rehash the weekend’s events over the sweet strains of Keith and the boys.

Since I can’t have a birthday drink with Nikki in person today, I have taken one of her favorite bands and one of her favorite cocktails, and put them together. I would like to introduce “Nicole’s Rock and R-Old Fashioned”–a loving cup from me to you!

Nicole’s Rock and R-Old Fashioned

Makes 1, once. Repeat as needed.

Now you must understand that I’m usually the gin-soaked queen in this friendship. Bourbon is reserved for those nights I’m feeling terribly, terribly bold. But you can’t make an old-fashioned that riffs on the Rolling Stones without bourbon, so that’s exactly where I started.

Kentucky Bourbon, like ya do.

I am neither mixologist nor food stylist nor photographer, so I made this all up from start to finish with a little help from the web. I tested two versions of the old-fashioned, with no expectations as to which would be better.

If I recall correctly, Nikki is full of good sense and does not care for maraschino cherries one whit. They have no place in a nice drink, but I wanted something to add a little punch. I took a cup of dried Columbia river tart cherries, to rep our Pacific Northwest, and drowned them in a jar of Maker’s Mark in hopes that they would reconstitute nicely for a garnish. I also planned to omit the orange slice, which some might call blasphemy, but think about it: the Stones wouldn’t mess with silly little orange slices in their drinks. I added some lemon zest to the jar of cherries and bourbon instead, to add a little more depth. The cherries took much longer to plump up than I had expected, so I let the mixture sit for a couple of days.

These cherries are absolutely smashed by now.

Once they were good and liquored up, I set about testing the old-fashioneds. I made a simple syrup with brown sugar instead of white, because, how could I not? It was sweeter than I anticipated, so I started with half an ounce of the syrup, and a couple dashes of bitters.

Before pouring in the whiskey, it occurred to me that I might taste the cherry mixture first. I know there are some of you who’d cry foul at using it in such a fashion–whiskey sullied with fruit!–but please, have some courtesy and get off of my cloud. It was a tremendously exciting idea.

Cherry Bourbon Old-Fashioned, Take 1

Cherry Bourbon Old-Fashioned, Take 2

I don’t own anything that resembles a proper old-fashioned glass, so I disassembled a small canning jar for the drinks. It’s about the right size, gives a little nod to “that Portland thing” about sipping from jars, and has a little bit of honky-tonk-ity to it. Perfect.

I couldn’t taste the cherries in the bourbon at first, because even half an ounce of brown sugar syrup overpowered two ounces of whiskey. I added a bit more whiskey, and found it better, especially after chewing on a tart, boozy cherry. The cherries came out the real winners of this experiment. They’d make a wicked little snack over vanilla ice cream, if you need to go there.

For the next old-fashioned, I took the traditional route. A hint less than half an ounce of syrup, a few dashes of bitters, two ounces whiskey, with cherries to garnish. Bourbon Old-Fashioned

This take was nice, in the sense that it conjured fond yet hazy memories of running around campus, soaking wet, during Reed’s end-of-the-year festival (you had to be there, really…). Perfect if you feel like playing with fire, but a bit much if you’d like to get on with your day. So I did something I hadn’t planned on doing, and added a splash of water. The Classics major in me likes things as pure as possible, and adding water felt like a cop-out, but it did serve to mellow the drink to my liking.

I hadn’t forgotten about the cherry bourbon concoction. When I tasted it again, with the extra whiskey and a few more melted ice cubes, it was much more pleasant. The sweetness of the sugar was less pronounced, and the cherries added just a little something extra to the whiskey–not enough to be identifiable, but enough to be different.   I’d have finished this one, but I had to sway my way back to the kitchen to clean up and hightail it out of town for a brief vacation.

Just Can’t Seem To Drink You Off My MIIIIIIIIIIND!

I wound up with a couple of tasty drinks, a jar of evilly-tasty cherries, and a bunch of Stones songs stuck in my head. This whole experiment would have been greatly improved if I’d had Nikki around to help me finish the bourbon, but you can’t always get what you want. Given our current unfortunate distance, the tribute would have to do, and sometimes, you get what you need. Which, in our case, is almost always a strong drink.

Happy happy birthday, Nikki, from me, Keith, and Mick!

Let It Rock

P.S. I’ll buy you a drink if you caught all the Stones references.

What Happens At BlogHer Food…

…Stays at BlogHer Food.

Jokes, jokes. I’ll share the gossip now that I’ve settled down. I moved out of Portland last week, a two-day drive that felt a little bit like I was playing a live version of the Oregon Trail computer game in reverse. I half-hoped my GPS would narrate the trip for me (“You have crossed Lake Shasta! Weather: Hot. Health: Fair.”) but she wasn’t up for it.

I could have used a bit more of her navigational input on my drive up to Seattle for the conference. I got a late start, and a few hours later found myself zipping down the wrong exit ramp for no reason whatsoever and winding through a Washington suburb trying to find the freeway. But if you’re acquainted with my infamously flawed sense of direction, you know it wouldn’t have been a real trip if I didn’t take at least one unnecessary turn.

Detour aside, I made it to my friend’s home in Kirkland in time for an insane snack before we rounded up the rest of the Leite’s Culinaria posse, who hail from Anchorage to Austin to NYC. Our dinner at Delancey was a highlight, since I had been trying to visit for years and had never had the time or means to make it up there. Over pizza and prosecco (which, uh, had a starring role all weekend), we checked the conference schedule and snapped glamor shots of the food with our phones. All the better to tweet them with, my dears.

Right, so, the tweeting. I was in school for the past eighteen years, where gratuitous use of phones, laptops and otherwise tech-y gizmos was verboten. Not so at BHF, where every table looked like an Apple expo, and I felt like a Luddite with just my phone and ancient laptop. Hell, my phone doesn’t even have Siri. But for the purposes of occasional live-tweeting (not only was this not considered rude, it was useful for keeping track of the various panels and connecting with folks) and sharing photos, it got the job done.

I discovered some important secrets about food bloggers that weekend. First of all, this crowd is cheerful and clique-y–if you haven’t been tweeting, producing content, and commenting on other blogs for a long time, don’t expect to roll with the bigwigs. I saw introductions and smiles fly all weekend, though, and while there are certainly some weird politics deep within the blogging world, people are friendly and eager to meet one another. I did happily take advantage of being part of the E-Leite team (this is funny if you know about my job–oh, come on, it is), but it meant that I spent a lot of time shaking hands and silently reminding myself to “be cool be cool be cool don’t scare the bloggers!”

Second, writers are writers and not public speakers for a reason. I scribbled some amusing notes during the panels I attended, but I got more out of the discussions from conversations I had afterwards. That is not to say that the panels were unsuccessful, but it is clear that discussing the simultaneously personal and public act of blogging, in front of a live audience no less, is tricky no matter what approach you take.

Third, when it comes to food and drink, these people can put it away. It was a pleasure to eat with friends who know Seattle well; our crew made certain that the word “hungry” was not in our vocabulary. We had uproarious meals, all appropriately fueled by plenty of beverages, and mornings found us comparing hangover cures. This is the way I like to live, always tumbling towards the next meal, but by Sunday evening my stomach had announced, “Excuse me–you are not to consume any more charcuterie, cheese, or chocolate milkshakes until I say so.” (We have since reconciled.)

I stayed an extra night in Seattle, in part because I was already feeling sentimental for the Pacific Northwest, but mostly because we had established such a pleasant lifestyle for ourselves in such a short time: Eat, Drink, Tweet, Repeat. I can’t think of a better way to have ended my time in the PNW–I’m starting Phase Two with new blogs to read, new friends to @tweet, and some new writing tools under my belt. Along with a few Top Pot Doughnuts, obviously.

My mise en place

As soon as I set up this site with the help of my housemate (hi, Sean!), I got an uneasy feeling that we had created a monster. Not because I’m a monster, although if you make me wait too long for breakfast we will have a situation, but because I’m being haunted by the words of Amanda Hesser. Amanda is a well-known food writer and curator of Food52, and recently published an article entitled Advice for Future Food Writers (full text is on their site, here). I read it in April, when I was two weeks away from turning in my undergraduate thesis, and what started as a little pleasure reading for procrastination soon became a full-blown “What am I going to do with my life?!” crisis.

Amanda’s essay can seem grim if you scan it quickly, late at night, and under the influence of way too much caffeine. Her premise is that, as an established author in the rapidly-changing food community, she no longer advises aspiring food writers to start a career focused exclusively on their writing. It simply cannot be done anymore; food publications and their budgets are dwindling and the proliferation of blogs (food and otherwise) has made it harder to stand out as a fledgling writer. These observations made perfect sense to me and confirmed some of my suspicions about the state of food blogging, but after my first brief read-through of the article I felt queasy and a little angry. I’ve only wanted to be a Saveur contributor since I was oh, 9 years old.

However, I regard the food writing community as I do a crowded kitchen: when someone who knows what they’re talking about pipes up, you get out of the way and listen. Amanda Hesser has never let me down culinarily and her own publications are impressive, so it seemed only right to give her article a more studied read. As it turns out, it doesn’t really warrant all the hand-wringing and sighing on my part and Amanda is not out to squash my dreams after all, so I can blame my earlier hysteria on thesis-related madness. Advice for Future Food Writers concludes with a list of Amanda’s new recommendations, and the future is starting to smell a lot riper (in a fresh nectarine kind of way, not a Limburger cheese way). My takeaway from the article is that it is most important to get busy collecting experiences with food whether you’re growing it, preparing it, selling it, or writing about it.  Then you’ll build yourself a nice foundation in the food world and contribute to what is already an amazing community.

This is happy news for me, since I never wanted to spend the rest of my life typing away at a keyboard anyhow. Now that I’ve been kicked out of my nest of academia (okay, true confession time: I am pretty damn sore about having graduated–my precious college years, where did they go?!–and I miss my thesis every single day), I have to consider what I want to do next and how I’m going to do it, which brings me to the mise en place.

Mise en place is a culinary term that refers to the careful organization of ingredients and equipment before cooking begins. You’ve surely seen the pictures on various blogs: spoons just so, carrots scrubbed and peeled, minced garlic heaped in a tiny bowl, ready to be sauteed. Mise photos on cooking sites are my favorites, because they often include ingredients that I’d otherwise forget (oh hey, bay leaf), and I think the components of a meal before they are incorporated into the whole are always gorgeous. I love the concept of the preparation but in my own world, I struggle with the actual execution.

Here’s what happens when I try to assemble a mise en place: I have to wash a bunch of dishes first, knowing that I will only have to wash them again once more when I’m through cooking (we do it old-school in my mint-green Portland kitchen, with soap and a sponge). It does not make for a cheerful start. Then I have to chop, measure, and pour my ingredients into their respective bowls. Now, okay, I went to a Montessori school. I should have learned to chop, measure, and pour before I could spell my own name, but somehow that early tactile education did not transfer to my experiences in the kitchen. I spill. A lot. No two slices come out the same size, and I’m too terribly impatient to measure accurately (yes, this is my own fault). So let’s recap: I’m trying to put this recipe together, my hands are still kinda soapy, I’ve dropped food on the floor and down that infuriating, unreachable crevice between the stove and the sink, I’m getting hungry, and I’ve probably forgotten something. There is nothing about this process that says to me, “Keep going, girl! Don’t give up and order a pizza instead!” If I practiced, had more patience and a larger kitchen, I might have better luck with the mise en place and wouldn’t be such a haphazard cook, but what really concerns me is the way I fail to carry out those plans.

When it’s a recipe, that’s one thing. I really can just order a pizza or have cereal for dinner if a dish gets irreparably ruined. But there is something a little more sinister about the idea of having a mise en place for my life as a well-rounded Future Food Writer. I love to make plans. I live for lists (both To-Do and Pro/Con), and I like to know where I’m going, when I’m going there, and who I’m going to meet. I would love to have a mise for the next few years, to have all the ingredients for my life in one place, so I could start putting plans into effect and stop wondering, “What should I do next?” Lately it’s becoming clear that all of my imaginary plans, the “Well, what if I worked on a farm first and then tried to do some catering and then moved to Europe and then went back to school?” ideas, are becoming a hindrance to any real action on my part, but I fear that if I don’t plan, whatever I do next will be as messy as my meals.

It has been a very long time since I’ve been left to my own devices without school assignments or social commitments, so I’m easing into a freakishly free world. Yes, I would like to set up that mise en place with some rock-solid plans, but having already seen what happens when I try that with food, I’ve started to wonder if perhaps it might be time for some improvisation.

You say "ice cream," I say "research."

A Bit About Just A Tidbit

“Just a Tidbit”? Why would I tease you with such a diminutive idea? Shouldn’t I ply you with the written equivalent of rich food and drink so you’ll want to linger and chat with me a while longer, symposium-style?

Well, not yet. First of all, I’m no M.F.K. Fisher. Until I hit my stride, I’ll keep it short and sweet. Second of all, I’ve got a soft spot for the whole concept of the tidbit, an affection that has its roots in a distressing childhood misunderstanding.

My parents, being the creative individuals they are, would often assure their picky and hungry daughter that she could have “a little tidbit” as a snack before dinner. This was always a delightful idea and should have satisfied us all. However, we had a problem. Upon mention of the tidbit, I began dreaming of a very specific, utterly tantalizing snack that had never yet found its way to me in spite of my parents’ promises. I imagined that it involved peanut butter, maybe some pretzel-y crunch, and was the perfect union of sweet and savory goodness (years later I discovered a certain grocery’s peanut-butter-stuffed pretzel nuggets, and it was as though the heavens had opened up). I wanted this tidbit so, so badly, and found myself disappointed time and time again by my snacks. There were simply no tidbits to be found in our kitchen, ever, nor could my parents comprehend why their offerings frustrated me so.

I don’t recall us ever talking about my confusion. Eventually I stopped wondering, “But why didn’t you give me a tidbit?” and must have discovered the sad truth about tidbits, the catch-all treats, on my own. I’ve always loved the term, though, and it seemed the most appropriate name for this site, where I’ll be feeding you bits and bites of my thoughts about food. Perhaps I’ll start a candy company someday and make my dreams of a tiny snack come true, but for now, I’m content to tap away right here at Just A Tidbit. I promise, it won’t spoil your appetite.

Oh but please–don’t even get me started on the elusive “morsel”.