Nostalgia: Juggling Plates

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Listening to Ann Patchett’s book of essays, “Stories of a Happy Marriage” has made me surprisingly nostalgic and left me craving certain restaurant dishes so badly that I scoured Pinterest until I found knock-off recipes. We have eaten Portillo’s Chopped Salad twice and had Maggiano’s Shrimp Aglio Olio tonight. The Cheesecake Factory may be next.

Through college, I worked at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Oakbrook Mall. That upscale outdoor shopping center teams with all of the mid-range to upscale corporate chains you can think of. Maggiano’s and The Cheesecake Factory were my favourites. And just down the road was Portillo’s. I miss the Chicago suburbs for their restaurants alone. It explains those 15 pounds I could never drop.

Like Patchett, I waitressed in my 20′s. She worked at TGI Fridays while I on the other hand waitressed at Maggiano’s. I also worked part-time at a Jewish country club and two family owned restaurants – one upscale Italian and one Irish pub. In many ways, though, waitressing at Maggiano’s educated me in far more useful ways than my Bachelors of Science ever did. What strength my degree gave to my resume, waitressing at a nicer corporate restaurant gave me in business acumen. My degree got me an interview, but my waitressing experience got me hired and moving up the international corporate ladder.

That sounds very odd, but Maggiano’s with it’s mandatory wine tastings, extensive menu exam, and free meals exposed my 20 year old self to the likes of culinary culture and etiquette I’d never seen in my small town, middle class upbringing. (How I got that job as a doe-eyed minor I will never understand.) I needed to know how to sell the dishes and wines and Maggiano’s let us taste it all for free so we could speak with authority. I had no idea at the time how rare (and smart) this is. I learned how to approach a table and keep a mandated schedule (approach the table within in 3 minutes of being seated, never ask them how they are feeling, give them your name, deliver a drink order within 5 minutes, etc.) without looking rehearsed. I learned how to take criticism from nice people having a shitty day and from shitty people having a nice day.

I am a strong believer in the service industry. It taught me how to treat people and to separate them as people from whatever piece of work or food they are delivering to me. A waitress does not make the food or prepare the drink, but they are the face for better or worse to the customer. Most people are just doing their job inside of a large machine while swirling within a variety of circumstances. I learned that I can only control my part, but I can make sure to do that part well. Most people appreciate that. The others are miserable assholes.

I thank Maggiano’s for teaching me how to navigate a menu at any restaurant and order wine without looking like a hick. It taught me how to make small talk with anyone and the all important art of smiling and nodding in a convincing enough manner to encourage conversation, but not reveal my utter lack of knowledge or interest in a topic.

It was also the first time I had ever really dealt directly with grown-ups besides those in positions of authority. I was treated like an adult with all the weight of responsibility and the pure joy of earning some serious cash if I busted my butt. I looked down on the other waiters like only a sheltered college student can. Like Patchett, most of the women were newly divorced. Most were getting back into the job market by any means possible. Like Patchett, many were artists – authors, actors, writers. I could have easily been working with Patchett which blows me away now to realize since I admire her work so much. I should google my old colleagues. Their days at the restaurant would make for some great material.

There were a lot of adult problems going on around me – infertility, infidelity, insolvency. Bus boys snorted coke in the bathroom and managers quite literally got caught with their pants down with a married waitress. My naïveté mostly sheltered me from it all. Incredulous, I did not see things happening right in front of me. And people were too decent to expose such a fragile little bird.

On My Mind: February 9

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Today marks the end of Week 21 of my pregnancy and I am feeling really good. Except for the pregnancy panel on my jeans, I do not feel really feel pregnant and that is the best I can ask for at this stage. I do love feeling Wiglet move inside me, though. We had our 20 week sonogram this week. Everything looks normal which is everything I hoped for. We are having (another) girl!

Knowing the baby’s gender, seeing her in the sonogram, and feeling better than I have in months is getting me into nesting mode. For me, that means sorting and pitching. I started with E’s old baby clothes – the premise to help me keep my clothes spending on Wiglet under control. She basically only needs a few newborn-sized items since, with E, we had overestimated a newborn baby’s size and ability to spit up. I love Carter’s one piece zip up pajamas! Thanks to my mother’s upcoming visits from the US, she will bring them over for me.

Next I take on getting our spare room ready to become E’s new bedroom. I really love the idea of lofting her bed, but I am terrified of her falling out of it. In the meantime, she will stay in her crib. I see a visit to IKEA in our future.

Thanks to my new IPhone and my ever growing use of my IPad, I am reading and listening to more books. Right now, I am reading, two books – “Notes from a Blue Bike” by The Art of Simple’s Tsh Oxenreider and “A Small Fortune” by Audrey Braun. I am listening to “The Stories of a Happy Marriage” by Ann Patchett. My other recent Audible downloads have been the latest books by Tori Spelling, Billy Crystal, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sue Kidd, Malcolm Gladwell, and Anna Quindlen. I have an eclectic, mostly mainstream taste that is very loyal to a dozen or so authors. I am also a sucker for celebrity autobiographies especially if they will make me laugh.

Needless to say, I am not watching much tv, but that is mostly because I have worked my way through all of the series I follow. Ann Patchett and Tsh Oxenreider, though, are pushing me to leave the tv off and make more time for the things I always wish I had more time for. So far, Ann Patchett’s book “talks” mostly about becoming a successful writer. Writing is probably my first passion and, if I am honest with myself, the one skill I hold most dear. I would love to do it for a living, but have always stuck to my more practical, more reliable and more marketable skills – namely accounting.

Ann’s advice is basically, stop the excuses and start putting in the time. And Tsh says basically the same thing about blogging, the way I could imagine myself writing for a living. So here I am, forcing words to (web)page.

I bought Tsh’s book, what I think of as “The Blue Bike”, because of a lot of parallels I see in our lives. She has (and plans in the future to) live with her family overseas. Partly from this experience, she now values living a more simple and intentional life. These are popular catch phrases especially with the 30-40 something crowd, but I like her perspective. I do not intertwine my perspective with Christianity like Tsh does, but we were raised going to church so I understand where she is coming from. Living simply and intentionally are ideals of all religions and, in my experience, the mind, body and soul’s most contended state.

For me, living in The Netherlands means living in a house half the size I’d have in the US, but three times the price and in general having far less choice on everything from cereal to diapers to shoes to cars. Having less space and choice has forced me to live slower and more intentionally. And thanks in large part to the Internet, I can digitally access as much or as little from the world as I choose. I have my bad days, but overall I am very contend. So in the coming weeks, I plan to write about what that looks like for me and my family.

Triple Threat

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This weekend I tried three different recipes – muffins, scones and waffles.

Last weekend I made banana peanut butter muffins. They turned out perfectly – except my husband and daughter hated them. My husband lives by a tenant that peanut butter belongs only on bread and he seems to have passed it along to our daughter. Oh well, more for me.

So this weekend I went back to flavors passed success. I tried a carrot, zucchini and banana muffin. They did not rise as much as I wanted, but they were a big hit with my panel of two judges.

Periodically, I slip down the rabbit hole of buying new cookbooks. Amazon and the Kindle app for my Ipad make it far to easy (and relatively cheap, thank goodness). I watch tv and search through Amazon. Before I knew it, I’d bought two new cookbooks and sampled several more. I bought. “Baking: From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan and “Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook”.

So far, I am really enjoying Greenspan’s book the most. I found it inspiring that she bakes something nearly everyday. I thought I had begun to go overboard lately on baking, but clearly there is a whole other echelon of home bakers out there. And as strange as it sounds, I like the writing in the book. Her explanations seem clear and friendly.

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That said, the first recipe I tried out did not turn out as I expected. I tried Toasted Almond Scones. They just did not rise like the ones I have eaten in the past. I think it must go back to the difference in what she refers to as all-purpose flour and what the Dutch call self-rising flour. I (obviously) have not figured out the difference completely yet, but I think I need to substitute one tablespoon of cornstarch into every cup of flour. That means I take one tablespoon of flour out of a cup of flour and replace it with a tablespoon of cornstarch. Does anyone else have any ideas?

For lunch today, we christened our new waffle iron. My husband’s Holiday bonus this year from his employer was a choice from a huge online catalog of gadgets and experiences. We chose a waffle iron (that we are going to try to multiple purpose as a panini maker). It was between that or a chocolate fountain. I could use a chocolate fountain every day, but SHOULD I?

For our first try, I found a Sour Cream Waffle recipe. I know it sounds weird, but it was the winner because it used up some spare sour cream and whole milk I had left over from other recipes. You do not actually taste the sour cream at all which is a great thing. The cinnamon and flavoring (it calls for vanilla, but we used almond). Since the iron is heart shaped, I am already searching Pinterest for waffle dessert recipe for Valentine’s Day.

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Number two

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I am twenty weeks pregnant. Half way there.

Okay, it is out there. It has taken me this long to post about it because, frankly, I do not know what else to write about it. I have so many emotions and thoughts about it all, like most expectant mothers I am sure. I end up feeling ambivalent and in slight disbelief most of the time.

In some ways it has been devastating to have been one month pregnant when we were shocked with the death of my father. It also felt like a karmic slap in the face to be nauseous basically from the moment of conception. I had none of that my first go around. They say that every pregnancy is different, but I smugly doubted that. Wrong. Thankfully, it stopped almost to day at the end of the first trimester.

In many ways, the pregnancy has been a healthy distraction. I could not drown my sorrows in Sauvignon Blanc. My nausea put me off chocolate and big, fatty meals. I craved McDonalds hamburgers, but the fries left me feeling worse.

My hormones and grief have made me very aware of my time with E. I am very aware of what my father is missing, but I am also much more present with her. I spoil her..more. I try to come up with new mini adventures for us each week. Even if it was only trying out a new cafe around the corner or taking the tram to Central Station to people watch at Starbucks. One Sunday we rode the tram to the edge of the city and got of and got right back on the next tram back home. Today I sat in on her dance class and then took her to our nicest department store to share a brownie and glass of milk. Oh and she picked out a new puzzle and book. I feel like we only have 20 more weeks until adventures like this get shelved for awhile.

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Baking This Weekend

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The weather turned colder today. It is the perfect day to sink into some warm oatmeal. It is a great comfort food. Today, I tried Shutterbean’s Banana Walnut Baked Oatmeal

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I nearly doubled all of the spices and served mine with maple syrup & butter. Thank you Tracy Shutterbean!

This weekend, on my path of baking therapy, I made After Dinner Mint Brownies from the Domestic Sluttery website. I love the name of that website, but cannot keep from giggling when I think it.

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I had to borrow her picture because I took these to a Girls’ Night In and there was not much left of them to afterwards. I adjusted the recipe by putting them in a smaller, round spring form pan so I could put in a double layer of mint chocolates. It was gooier and yummy in the middle.

New Year’s Eve

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I wrote this on New Year’s Eve, but am just getting around to posting it…

I am finding it really difficult to keep it together today. As we close out the year today, I am experiencing overwhelming waves of emotion. I am hoping that writing proves once again to be lethargic. In many ways, I have never been so happy to see the backside of something. I think, “Go on 2013, get out of here! Good Riddance!”

In two big way, I think this has collectively been the worst year of my family’s life. I cannot speak for them, but my father’s death and the tornado that ripped through my sister’s community just one month later permanently broke my heart. Sometimes, like today, it feels like my heart is breaking over and over again. Nothing seems to make any sense these days. Nothing can be taken for granted.

In some ways, I wish my mind would accept that my father is no longer with us. Most of me clings to whatever illogical hope or wisps of a dream I that I sometimes get that he is still alive. I miss him so deeply. My mind plays tricks on me reminding me to buy him a Christmas present or expects him to walk into the room when I Skype with my mother. The realisation steals my breath as my heart and hope shatter.

So I am also finding it very difficult to say goodbye to 2013. I see another page turning and I just cannot let go. If feels like losing Dad all over again for some reason. If feels like having to say goodbye all over again and not actually getting to say goodbye to him at all. I guess I grieve most for that – for not getting to say goodbye to him properly. I wish for one more time to hug him, to look into his warm eyes, to him I love him and to hear those words from him. Most of all I grieve for the years that feel stolen from us all. He died at 72. He was literally here one day and gone the next. He will miss the pure delight of watching my daughter grow up. It devastates me to think that she will probably not remember him.

And yet I know that I have so much to be grateful for. So many things went wrong in the world this year. A tornado ripped through my sister and her family’s home, but they are all safe. Everyone they know is safe. Their house can be restored. People – family, friends and strangers alike – have been so generous to them.

My friends and family have also been so incredibly generous to me in this time of loss. I know there are so many people out there wishing us the best. Please know how grateful I am. It may not seem like it, but it helps tremendously. I believe there is no way through difficult times except right through the middle. I have never felt alone for a single moment, though, along the way.

Thank you to my husband for his ongoing support. I have space to feel a whole range of emotions whenever they come. And thank goodness for my healthy little spark plug of a daughter. She keeps me in the present and enjoying life with fresh eyes like only a toddler can.

Life is moving on whether I try to deny it or not. As I wrote this, a delivery man came to our door. I tried to pull myself together, but there was no hiding my red nose and eyes. He did not even notice. He was in a rush to get through his day and probably on with celebrating New Year’s Eve. Life has a way of snapping me out of sadness and of rescuing me from my grief.

Please, Have a Cookie

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It has been awhile since I have felt like writing and it has been even longer since I have had the time. I have been busy with all the same things as everyone else, but I have also felt the weight of grief weighing on my mind, muscles and emotions. How have I been coping? Baking. It sounds strange and a little naive, I know. Very few things make sense in my world right now, but recipes do. Buy the ingredients, measure them out, combine them in the right order, pop them in the oven and everything turns out as promised. No surprises. Just what I wanted. Comfort.

I have been doing a lot of baking with my daughter. She is only two so there is a limit to what she can do and to how much I can stand her “help”. Let’s see…here is a list of what I have baked since my last post:

- Chocolate sour cream cupcakes with cream cheese icing and dark chocolate candy topping
- Almond turtles
- Chocolate whisky cookies
- M&M peanut butter cookies
- After Eight Mint and dark chocolate brownies
- Sour cream sugar cookies toped with cream cheese icing and sprinkles
- Hot cocoa mix popcorn
- Chocolate Rolo Nutella Cookies
- Nutella chocolate chip cookie bars
- Dark chocolate pretzel and caramel bark
- Gingerbread muffins
- Banana bread muffins

Have I missed anything? Most of these were given away as gift boxes. My husband and I have also surprised our co-workers with homemade treats. If anyone asked, “If there is anything I can do to help with your loss,” I would say, “Please have a cookie.”

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