Friday, December 20, 2019

Notes From The Fields, or Coming Home

Note: originally written 5am PST, December 12th in Irvine, CA.

It is hard to come home again.  There are cliches about it, everyone has written about it, everyone knows it.  It’s hard.  People slip into old patterns of behavior, patterns they may have worked very diligently to change, but that are easy to fall back into when they are the behaviors that old family and friends expect.  Sometimes home is all too familiar, and one returns to a hometown that seems small and cramped compared with one’s now wider view of the world.  Sometimes returning home can be painfully different if a loved one has been lost or if one hails from Southern California where the bulldozer of progress has mown over all of the orange and avocado groves and replaced them with identical looking Spanish style shopping plazas.
Merry Christmas!

I have written much about returning home over the years, about the pitfalls and complications, and will endeavor to discourse more on it when I have had time to think.  For now here are a few notes from the field, or rather notes from the house I grew up in what used to be near a strawberry field.  

There Are So. Many. People. Here.
Southern California is crowded.  Duh.  Our forefather and mothers stole the land from a bunch of Native American tribes who were perfectly suited to living in its arable climate and turned it into a paradise and held it by stealing water from many surrounding cache basins, and people have flocked here for hundreds of years now from every direction.

Long story short, there are a lot of people here now.  A lot of people, each driving in their own car.  All at the same time. 

There are a lot of cars here now.

In Chicago and New York there are a lot of people too, but it is not as easy to see that as in LA and Orange County.  Here, the cities sprawl out horizontally, one city flowing into another endlessly until they meet the sea or the Mexico border, the Saddleback mountains or the Mojave.  Whenever Don is out in CA with me one of his favorite games to play while we are driving is to randomly shout “Where are we now!?” every ten minutes or so and see if I can name the exact city through which we are passing.  After 20 years away I’m not very good at this game anymore!

I flew into LAX this trip, and sitting in the back of my parents car (just like coming home from college!) in traffic on the freeway and I went into a trance just staring at the traffic patterns swirling around us.  The slow march of white and red lights becomes hypnotic after a time, and I start to lose myself in imagining all of the people inside each car, and wondering about their lives.  Where do they live?  Where do they work? Where do all of their coworkers live?  How far do they have to drive each day?  Did that truck really pass CA emissions standards?! Eventually I have to tear myself away from the sight and look through pictures of the girls on my phone for a minute to re-anchor myself in time and space.

Everyone Needs to Get Somewhere Faster Than You
You are a slow, worthless asshole.  

Everyone in front of you, next to you, and behind you is more important.  They need to get to their places much faster than you.  They are too important to be bothered with signaling their movements to you with a blinker.  They are too important to be bothered with stopping completely at that stop sign.  They are completely justified in cutting you off in order to gain 10 more feet in their race to the finish line.  That Trader Joe’s gingerbread mix is going like hot cakes and they need to score at least five boxes, and two bottles of Rosé, so get the fuck out of their way, pendejo!

But Also, Parrots
Around 6:30am the wild parrots fly toward the coast from their roosts near the mountains.  Around 5pm they fly back towards the mountains.  We get two wild parrot flock flyovers a day.  Probably not as exciting for people living here full time, especially people in whose backyard trees they roost for a few minutes, chattering nonstop in the early morning.  But pretty exciting for me.  There were no wild parrot flocks when I was growing up, just crows and ravens living in the eucalyptus trees in the parks and greenbelts.  Speaking of which…

Sometimes you will be driving along, cursing under your breath at the asshole who just cut you off for no logically apparent reason, and then it will hit you.  The pungent, life affirming odor of eucalyptus.  It is everywhere.  Lining the freeways and toll roads, in my backyard, right in front of my face in a vase on the kitchen table, along the railroad turned walking path greenbelts.  Eucalyptus.  


I can get fresh eucalyptus clippings twice a year at my farmer’s market, and occasionally imported from God Knows Where at the Whole Foods.  And anytime I order a wreath from my two preferred wreath ordering websites I get one with fresh CA eucalyptus included so that our entryway becomes a delicious home of homey smelling goodness.  But nothing beats the omnipresent odor of sun warmed eucalyptus out here!

Merry Christmas!  Edged weapon, anyone?

Found Grandmother Prentice's old recipe box!

Recipe box.  So tactile!

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


Note: today's post is a throw back essay from 2016.  I found this half written essay last week while I was going through my archives, and had an extremely loud laugh over it with D (could have been due to the content, could also have been due to the giant bottle of wine we were sharing at the time).  I am out in CA for the week focusing on some family time, but thought everyone could use a post-Thanksgiving, mired in holiday shopping laugh at this time!  Fair warning, apparently I was in a mood when I wrote it and there is a lot of colorful language.  I hope you enjoy!

Original Essay written 5/21/2016

Tonight, for the first time in a long time, I had a good idea.  A writing idea.  I was going to write about reality and perception and gratitude.  I was going to draw the veil back across our Instagram curated lives and reveal the seedy underbelly, and then blow your minds with the truth that in that seedy underbelly was more beauty than I had every dreamed possible.

I have this picture, which is the backdrop for this entire conversation.  You were going to be amazed, delighted, enlightened.  You were going to close your eyes, nod your head a little bit, and in your mind say "yeah....yeah."

Lucy and Riley painting in the backyard.

But you're not going to actually do that.  Because I am not going to write that piece anymore.  Because I am an asshole.

I was looking at this picture while sitting on the floor on second floor landing listening to one girl snoring softly and the other girl sing (which is a loose interpretation of that verb) "Go away Ana!" over and over again.  I was thinking about pictures and images and image and truth.  Something started to click.  So I ran upstairs to my desk in the attic.  I was excited!  I haven't written for too long.  Inspiration, time, etc.  There are a million excuses.  But I felt it tonight!  Something was plucking at my subconscious, wanting to get out.  There was only one load of laundry to fold instead of the usual four.  Half of the children were already asleep!

As I ran up the stairs the stars seemed to align even more.  The evening light was streaming in through the attic windows.  The laptop was plugged in at the desk.  The wayward toddler was no longer wailing lines from Frozen.  The scene was set.

Look at my gorgeous desk!  Actually
it is a lot more cluttered now than it usually is.

I sat down at the desk and cracked open the computer...and froze.

What.  The fuck.  Is that?

Is that stain?  No, wait.  Two coffee stains?  Two perfectly round coffee stains in two separate spots four inches from each other.  On my Aunt Virginia's gorgeous wooden desk.  The desk that my parents drove out from California.  The desk that we had to surgically disassemble and reassemble after using a rope and pulley system to haul it up the tiny stairway and into my attic office.  The desk that I love, because family and history and old wooden furniture, you know.

The desk on which I keep a literal stack of fabric coasters.  Three fabric coasters.  Three fucking fabric coasters that are stacked, literally, no more than six inches away from these two fucking coffee stains.
Coffee rings to the right.  Many coasters to the left. 
Notice the coffee cup demonstrating their mode of use!

I sit, staring at the circles, still slightly wet.  I go numb.  Finally I spring into action, jump out of the chair and run for the cupboard in the little attic hallway where I keep the Old English polish and cleaning spray and the rag.  Seriously, I keep a bottle of Old English in the attic JUST for my desk.   I use the dusting spray.  Nothing.  A light, now slightly white circle remains on the formerly golden brown wood.  I spray on the polish.  No effect.  I polish the entire desk anyway, just to see if the oil needs some time to sink into the stains.

Nope.  No change.

I sit at the computer.  I stare at the coffee stains.  I forget why I came upstairs in the first place.  I cease to be anything except for a receptacle for dark, unforgiving thoughts.

Seriously?  Seriously?!  Does anyone else in this house even know what a fucking coaster looks like?!?  Why do we keep them everywhere when I am the only one who ever uses them, and also the person least likely to spill a drink?!!?!!

I mean, they were literally RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOU!!!!

How did you spill twice and not notice?!  Or did you notice and just didn't give a shit that you were staining my new/old desk!?

Nobody appreciates me or what I do here.  No one even notices!  I just cook and clean for myself and my own enjoyment anyway.  If I disappeared it would be over a week before they noticed the dirty clothes piling up and realized they had been eating ramen and spaghettios for every meal.  I might as well just lock myself up here Mrs. Rochester style and spend my time doing what everyone thinks I do and read trashy novels and eat ice cream.  And then burn the house down!

Now, you shouldn't be so hard on him Crystal, you are saying.  After all, he was probably talking about Haiti, or consulting on a medical malpractice case.  And then he was probably late for his important work.  I mean, Haiti and work, both of the things that are more important than anything you have to do.  So it's no wonder that you aren't writing now, because the mess he made while doing more important things was just the thing you should be cleaning up instead of doing anything like writing!

Yeah.  I know.  Dark, right?  Not at all conducive to healthy marital communication, or giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, or offering them grace.  Or, you know, mental health in general.  The important thing to note here is that I dealt with it in a supremely mature manner.  I bottled down those emotions and never spoke of them to Don again, until December of 2019 when I found this unpublished essay while going through some of my blog archives!

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Inscrutable Rosie

Inscrutable Rosie.

Rosie was not the most lovable of dogs.  She came to the Zimmer family by way of a breeding farm (sort of a puppy mill) who basically abandoned her when she turned out to be a "bad breeder".  Having lived much of her early life in a small cage with metal mesh for a floor, she was not well taken care of.  The bulldog breed is prone to all sorts of genetic faults through inbreeding, and Rosie seemed to have inherited them all.  Snaggle toothed with an underbite, one of her lower incisors perpetually peeked out of her lips.  She was prone to fungal infections in her many skin folds, couldn’t go for walks in temperatures in excess of or below 68 degrees due to respiratory problems, and preferred to spend most of her time in her kennel.  She was territorial of her kennel and food bowl, and home in general.  Whenever we used to watch her for an extended period of time the first thing she would do is go into our own dogs kennel and pee on his bed, right in the middle.  “Rosie is in the house, bitches!” she seemed to proclaim.

I can't tell from her face if she is waiting for a treat or thinking about biting my pants.

Rosie was also among the most lovable of dogs.  Having come from a very bad situation, she was incredibly grateful for and loving towards David, her newly adopted father.  Her preference for an indoor and nearly sedentary lifestyle was ideal for a bachelor in veterinary school, and later for a young married couple when Laura joined the family.  When Laura later got sick, Rosie never complained at being shuttled around to different houses (aside from the occasional protest pee).  She adored David, and the feeling was mutual.  And Laura loved her too, and loved even more making fun of her and her various imperfections in relation to the adorable corgi puppy, Wrigley, that joined their family.

Rosie out on a walk in optimal not too hot, not too humid conditions
(with Lucy and baby Riley totally passed out)

But her greatest defining feature of all, to me at least, was her complete inscrutability.  Whether a trick of her specific breed, or an eye surgery she had earlier, she had a total lack of facial expression, a canine equivalent of a poker face.  After meeting her the first time I dubbed her “Inscrutable Rosie” and thought of her in only those terms for the remainder of her happy life.  She could display emotion through her body, certainly.  Her hackles would rise when a child or her new baby brother Wrigley would come too near a treat she was given or a toy she was playing with.  Her body would wriggle and quiver when people would get down on the floor and play tug of war with her.  And when David came home from school or work she would absolutely race to the door and spin in circles, belying the false tale she had woven earlier that she was too tired and old to go outside for a walk.

Her face and her eyes, however, betrayed no expression at all.  Whenever I would stop by her house to feed her or let her out it was honestly impossible for me to tell what she was thinking if her body was still. Was she happy to see me?  Was she just patiently waiting for her dinner?  Was she about to tear my face off and eat my eyes out of their sockets?  As long as she was standing or sitting still (which, let’s be honest, was the lions share of her time) I would feel slightly unsettled.  What was going on under that wrinkled, furry mask?

Merry Christmas! I'm coming at you to snuggle, or steal your snack, or eat your face!

Stinky snaggle kisses!

Whenever I would play with Rosie I would always think of the old cliche “still waters run deep.”  For those of you who have pets, you know they often betray a wealth of emotion in their faces, especially their eyes.  Our Labrador, Boss, is able to express entire Roman Catholic confessions to us just through a glance when we return home and find that he has eaten a loaf of bread or dug through the trash.  But Rosie’s eyes always appeared utterly still to me.  Perhaps it was because I never knew her well enough, but that mystery always made it fun and a little exciting to play with her. 


What was she thinking?  Was she thinking anything at all?  Was she making advanced calculations in her head about the best way to expedite dinner or a treat?  Was she plotting a takeover of Wrigley’s food bowl?  What was she feeling?  Was she happy?  Sad?  Hungry?  Annoyed?  Completely dead inside until a Beggin’ Strip or her beloved David showed themselves? It was impossible to know, but also didn’t really matter.  No matter her thoughts or feelings Rosie would be certain to find the most comfortable spot in the house (whether or not she had just peed on it) and enthrone herself for the duration (the night, the visit, the week…she had stamina when it came to hunkering down on a pillow chair).

Rosie passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly last Friday in Angola, at the vet clinic where she was first rescued and where she spent so many happy vacations and family holidays with her canine and human brethren.  The whole Zimmer side of the family was gathered in Indianapolis for the Thanksgiving holiday, so David was unable to be with her as she passed, and that was really hard.  She was the second member of his family to die, his wife Laura having passed away over three years ago now.  That is beyond hard.

Rosie, Laura and David at Riley's memorial bench in Pokagon State Park.
To me, losing Rosie is losing a fixture in the family, and a personal mascot almost.  She was weird and often visually unappealing and damaged and incredibly loving and completely loyal and inscrutable.  My God, who among us isn’t?  OK, seriously though, was I describing Rosie just then or myself 99% of the time?  I even peed on the floor of David’s bedroom once after a particularly raucous Christmas party in the mid-2000’s, the legend of which has remained unacknowledged by me until this very moment.  I only thought about her occasionally while she was alive, but I have been thinking about her nonstop since last Friday.

I am 99.9% sure there is a treat involved in this exchange.

To David, losing Rosie is something different altogether, and something with which he has altogether too much experience.  It is losing a beloved family member, and friend.  His companion since the summer he adopted her in 2012, she was with him through veterinary school and then medical school and into residency.  Through bachelor years and married years, through devastation into widowerhood.  She may have been inscrutable to me, but she was family.

Rosie, you are missed.

Rosie and her brother-from-another-bitch, Wrigley.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Chocolate Chip and Toffee Cookies

To say I am a devote of Smitten Kitchen would be an understatement.  I love Deb, I love her recipes, I love her attention to detail and her dedication to making things easier for home cooks.  Her preternatural tales for winnowing recipes down to one pot or pan has made it so that she is the only website bookmarked on my phone.  Whenever I have an idea for a meal or want to know something more about a recipe I check in with Smitten Kitchen first (usually followed by a check in with Ina, Nigella, Kenji, and Stella just to see what else is floating around).  

That being said, sometimes you mess with perfection just because you can’t help yourself.  I have been making Deb’s perfected version of David Leite’s consummate chocolate chunk cookies for years now, and I adore them.  I make them when we have guests to stay and leave warm cookies in people’s rooms.  I make them for tailgates or birthdays.  They are a thing now.  And sometimes I really go nuts and say “But what if I added bacon?” or “Maybe some toasted oats?” or “Oh look, a bag of toffee nuggets!” or "How much chocolate is too much?"

Mmmm...add cocoa powder!
Double chocolate cookies (answer: no amount of chocolate is too much)!
 Several months ago two friends of mine had their first baby, and I jumped on the chance to bring them a meal (yay Joanne, Kieran and baby Clodagh!).  Bringing families postpartum meals is one of my faaaavorite things to do.  Not only do you get to snuggle a sweet babe when you drop off the goods, but you get a chance to really delve into someone’s food joys and think about making something that will deliver love, care, and some essential recovery nutrients.  Two of my college roommates are pregnant now, and I am seriously looking into some Chinese postpartum herbs and coolers with dry-ice so I can ship bone broth cross country! 

Along with a veggie curry, I brought a batch of Consummate Chocolate Chunk Cookies Plus Toffee.  They politely asked me for the cookie recipe several days later, which I promptly ignored.  I usually ignore a first request because I think people are sometimes asking out of politeness and I forget that they asked 5 seconds after the subject is changed.  But they asked again, and then a third time.  So I knuckled down and scratched out the following:

This recipe is based on Deb Perelman's recipe on Smitten Kitchen, which is in turn based on David Leite’s amazing recipe from the NY Times.  If you want to bake these cookies check here first in case you decide you want to bake THOSE cookies.  If you are still here, then proceed below.

  • 1 1/4 cups (10 ounces, 280 grams or 2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature (if you are strapped for time and didn’t set the butter out you can soften it in the microwave by cutting it up and heating it in 10 second bursts)
  • 1 1/4 cups (240 grams) light brown sugar
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt
  • 3 1/2 cups plus 2 teaspoons (yes, really) (445 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 bag Ghiradelli’s milk chocolate chips
  • 1 bag toffee chips
  • Sea salt
  • If you want to include oatmeal, I add in 1/3 cup rolled oats, and take out around 2 tbps of flour :)

Method (after a fashion):
With a hand or stand mixer (I really prefer a stand mixer for this with the paddle attachment), cream the butter and sugars together until light, fluffy and then some, about 3 to 4 minutes.  What is light and fluffy?  Kind of a café au last color, and looking pillowy and increased in volume.  You have whipped air into the butter and sugar — good job!

Now add the eggs, one at a time, and mix on low to combine.  I sometimes scrape down the bowl in between each egg or after two eggs. Then add the vanilla, mix to combine, and then scrape down the bowl again. Sprinkle baking soda, baking powder and salt over dough and mix it until fully combined.  Instead of adding the leaveners into the flour and distributing them evenly into the dough that way, you are doing it here instead.  Mix very well on this step so that the leaveners are really well mixed into the batter at this point, then you won’t have to mix the flour a lot later.

Next, add flour all at once and mix it in short bursts until it almost completely disappears (put on the mixer cover for this one!). You don’t want to over-mix it at this stage. 

Add chocolate chips and toffee chips and mix them in by hand with a spatula or with your dough hook.  Now comes the hard part: cover your bowl with plastic wrap and chill it in the fridge for a minimum of 24 hours and up to 72 hours, although I have totally had it in there up to 5 days are we’re all just fine.

When you want to bake:
Take your dough out of the fridge around 30 minutes to an hour before you want to bake.  You need to warm that dough up a bit so you can scoop it!

Heat oven to 360 degrees and line a couple large baking sheets with parchment paper ( I strongly prefer parchment paper to silicone mats or foil for baking cookies!) Form dough into 3 1/2-ounce (100 gram) balls, which will seem completely absurd.  They are larger than golf balls, they look absurdly large, but they will give you the proportions you need.  Arrange balls of dough very far apart on sheets (these cookies will be up to 5 inches wide once baked, so I do only 8 cookies per sheet) and sprinkle the tops of each with a few flecks of sea salt.  

Note the spacing (not the burned cookie)!  I only fit 8 cookies on this pan.

For me, the size of the cookie CAN be variable, as long as you make sure each pan has the same size cookie on it.  I have made smaller ones for kids, so the dough ball will be about a golf ball and you just start checking the dough at 11 minutes.  

Bake the larger sized cookies for 12 to 17 minutes, until golden all over.  This is a large time range, but you should start checking around 12 minutes.  They will spread a lot, and each oven is different, so use your first batch to test the correct timing for your own oven.

Cool the cookies on the tray for a few minutes until they are set enough to transfer to a cooling rack.  I find a metal fish spatula works well for this transfer!

So much deliciousness!