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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Real Men Make Quiche

Photo by Brandie Kajino
On the first day of his Summer of Cooking, my nearly twelve-year-old son came to me at five o’clock, the appointed dinner-preparation hour, with slumped shoulders and a heavy sigh. “Mom,” he said. “Can we start the cooking lessons tomorrow? I don’t feel like making dinner tonight.”
Aw, really?
BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!
I clapped him on the shoulder. “Welcome to my world, Son. That’s exactly how I feel. Every. Single. Night. Now go wash your hands and get in the kitchen.”
If the boy learned nothing else for the rest of the summer, that single epiphany of empathy would have more than satisfied me.
My girls’ schedules filled up with camps and activities for the months of July and August, but the boy’s calendar turned out fairly empty for the season. So we talked it over and decided that his job for the summer holidays would be to acquire culinary skills.
I never learned to cook until I lived alone in an apartment near Osaka, where my Japanese 101-level language ability and the dearth of take-out places did not facilitate ordering in every night. My mother, who tried for years with little success to introduce her stubbornly disinterested daughter to the ways of the chef de cuisine, presented me a Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook before I left the country, and I spent many an hour in my tiny kitchen making dishes I couldn’t recognize as things I’d ever eaten before.
The first time I attempted a hamburger I broke an egg into a bowl containing a lump of ground beef, then attacked it with my hands to work them together. Either the egg was too big or the meat was too small, because it turned into a goopy mess of stringy pink soup. I added some flour to stiffen it up. Then I remembered that Mom always puts soy sauce in her hamburgers, so I poured maybe a quarter cup of it into the bowl. Too soupy again. More flour. I kept on like this till I got it to what felt like the consistency of a raw hamburger. Then, lacking a grill, I sautéed my sticky little patty in a skillet.
Had I been making a salt-crusted chicken-fried cube steak, I’d have very nearly hit it on the head. But at least I went to bed that night with a full stomach and marginal sense of accomplishment.
“This will not happen to my kids,” I decided, and engaged the bull-headedness with which I defied my mother toward the compulsory culinary education of my children.
The first thing I learned over my son’s Summer of Cooking is that I have raging control issues.
Well, that’s not true. I already knew I had raging control issues. But they blazed into their full solar glory as I struggled to coerce my child into doing everything exactly as I would:
“You’re getting sugar on the counter!”
“Stir this way, not that way!”
“Not that spoon! The other spoon!”
Of all the things I might’ve learned in my youth, this was the one that stuck? A My-Way-or-the-Wrong-Way attitude that makes one’s instructional manner resemble that of a cross-eyed Nazi with PMS?
Awesome.
I spent the summer learning patience, grace, and how to give directions without qualitative assessments attached:
“Crack the shell in half, then pass the yolk back and forth to separate out the white…” (Shut up and say not another word. A trace of yoke in the albumen will not hurl the earth out of orbit.)
“Sift the cocoa powder over the batter…” (Close your mouth right now. A dishrag will resolve the explosion-in-a-chocolate-factory mess on the counter. And floor. And ceiling.)
“Roll the dough from the center to the edges…” (Bite your tongue and stand silent. If the pastry sticks to the counter and tears, he will simply begin again. A tough Quiche crust will neither render us failures as human beings nor rupture the fabric of space-time.)
The boy made an admirable job of it, assisting each Sunday in writing up a meal plan for the week, going with me to the grocery on Monday to purchase all the ingredients (and see how much they cost), then showing up at five o’clock each evening—like it or not—to work up dinner. Beyond the mechanical techniques involved with feeding a family, he learned a few soft skills as well, such as:
I don’t have to want to do it, feel like doing it, or enjoy doing it to get it done.
No matter how badly the job is going, the family still has to eat. Always have a back-up plan. Even if it’s just getting in the car and driving to Chili’s.
If you have to pull the batteries from the smoke detector, be sure to put them back in before you start cooking again.
Surprisingly, I learned a few soft skills, too:
My demeanor alone predicts the unfolding outcome of a family interaction with about 75% accuracy.
Kids want to please their parents. So behave as if pleased by their attempts, their progress, their hard work. Even if the resultant product is not especially pleasing.
Opening the window to vent the kitchen will often prevent the smoke detector from finding out about what’s going on in the kitchen.
One other side-effect of my son’s Summer of Cooking is that he’s now looking forward to the fall. “I won’t have to do this anymore after I go back to school, right?” he asked me.
Oh, but he may. Because about half-way through the summer I realized that he has become useful. He can now read a recipe, understand it, and follow it. When guests came for dinner one evening, we split the cooking jobs and worked in tandem, he at one counter and I at another.
Mama likes having a co-chef.
His sisters, coming up behind him in years, are already anticipating their own Summers of Cooking. I am employing the Tom Sawyer technique of insisting that they are not yet ready for or capable of such apprenticeship, thereby whetting their appetites all the more.
The time approaches, I believe, when I may retire from the kitchen altogether. Because training my children to employ life skills with independence is the goal of my vocation, right? The whole point of parenting is to do one’s job well enough that the job successfully launches itself right out of the house.
And with all that I’m learning through my children’s training, I expect to become a really great mom right about the time I’m done momming.
I should be awesome when I cook with my grandkids.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Poop Happens


“The subject of an essay does not need to prove itself worthy of the writer or reader’s care, but rather that the force of the care in the writing should be able to render any subject worthy.” (Lucas Mann)
Hmm. Let’s find out if that’s true…
* * *
PetPawfection
The other day during my morning run I glanced down to see what appeared to be a sparkling, ornate brooch on the sidewalk a few steps ahead of me. It glistened in the new sunlight, prism-like, the jeweled facets shimmering in greens and golds and blues and reds.
Two paces away from it I watched the thing erupt. The gems broke apart and flew into the air.
A pile of dog poop remained.
Hilarious.
At first glance a hoard of flies munching feces looked pretty darned pretty.
Wow, I thought. A meditation about this could go in so many different directions. I spent the rest of my run mulling over a few of them.
Civic Responsibility
According to local ordinance, the pooper-scooper law requires dog owners to remove and dispose of feces that their dogs have deposited on public areas or another person’s property.
Irritated by the absence of common courtesy demonstrated by the scofflaw owner of the dog who dropped his pile on the sidewalk, I thanked the bright and colorful flies for drawing my attention to it, so it didn’t end up squished into the treads of my running shoes.
Jerk.
Beauty from Ashes (or from A**es)
How wonderful, I thought, that God has constructed the world in such a way that the ugly stinkiness of poop can be camouflaged by the splendor of crystalline wings reflecting a spectral rainbow to the viewer. How amazing that an item so reviled and despised by certain creatures might be so cherished by and nourishing to other creatures, and in its consumption be metamorphosed into a thing of loveliness, like the Beast who is transformed under the loving gaze of the Beauty.
Candy-Coated Crap
On the other hand, fecal matter is fecal matter, no matter how you dress it up. It is the refuse of a gastrointestinal tract which could find no further use for the remaining vestiges of the Dog Chow.
Like Tricky Dick Nixon insisting to America in 1972 that the war in Vietnam was proceeding smashingly, or Bernie Madoff-With-My-Money promising a guaranteed and legal financial windfall, or Donald Trump (Hey! His name has the word “Rump” in it. Go figure.) professing familiarity with heroism or honor or integrity, what a thing is is what a thing is.
One can take a turd, dip it in chocolate, and line it up inside a candy box with eleven other chocolate-dipped turds, then wrap the box in a bow and give it as a gift. But it is not actually a gift. Because it is a box of turds.
Ill-Fallen Fertilizer
But even turds have a purpose in the cycle of life. Fecal matter decomposes into the ground, albeit slowly (i.e., this does not serve as justification for failing to pick up after your dog, Slacker Dog Owner), replenishing the earth with composted materials. These chemical compounds nourish the flora which in turn nourish the fauna and regenerate themselves back through the environmental system.
But this specimen landed on concrete. Hot, impermeable, impassive concrete. Like seed sown on rocky ground, it will not and cannot participate in the cycle of life.
It’s just gross. And fruitless. And offensive.
An Obstacle to Overcome
And it stood in my path, a potential landmine of ruination to the successful completion of my morning exercise. Had I stepped in it, my footwear would have reeked of its relentless odor until I took the shoe off and cleaned it vigorously. I would have had to curtail my run, as the poop occupied a place in space and time very near the beginning of my route.
However, I did not splat my sole into the steaming pile of brown sliminess. Instead, I veered to the left of it, avoiding a distasteful interaction. This generated an attitude of gratitude in me: for the keenness of my eyes, which saw the offending obstacle; for a healthy body, which could circumnavigate the obstacle; and for a functioning mind, which could plot a path around the obstacle, then spend far too long pondering the obstacle’s deeper meaning.
If it actually has any.
Poop Happens
What is the end of the matter, then? In the immortal words of Sage Taro Gomi, “Everyone Poops.” There is poop that is yours and poop that drops into your path from the careless loins of others. It may be disgusting or divine, wicked or winsome, hateful or possibly even holy. But regardless of its existential significance, it is there.
Yes, friends, there will be poop.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Behind Every Word

Photo by Meg
Some years ago I became generally dissatisfied with contemporary secular literature. The more I explored the wild claims of biblical faith, and the more I applied them to myself and found them not only sound but also mind-blowingly coherent and penetrating in ways my weak little brain can only begin to unravel, the less interesting and profound and meaningful proved the messages from pop culture material which has no basis in or connection to anything remotely God-interested.
At the same time I discovered myself equally exasperated (and occasionally nauseated) by the troves of safe, saccharine, sanitary tripe offered up by too many Christian writers who seem too frightened of their readers, their publishers, the world, or themselves to deal with any topic that doesn’t wear the buttoned-up sweater-vest of a milquetoast eunuch.
But that’s a different subject.
Writers and artists have throughout history been the bearers of ideas and ideals. They document the ethos and experience of their generations. They catalog and challenge the status quo. They question the mores of their societies, their leaders, their detractors. Just as Christ used parables to reveal to man the nature of God, writers use stories to reveal their own natures, their own worldviews, their own perceptions of reality and life and meaning.
Words have power because of what lies within and behind them—truth or falseness, honor or vulgarity, love or hatred.
We forget (or ignore) this to our own harm.
The Life of Pi
Pi, the titular protagonist of The Life of Pi, practiced pantheism; he equally valued and observed the traditions of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, explaining that he “just wants to love God.” The movie depicts Pi’s narration of the events surrounding his shipwreck and subsequent weeks adrift in the ocean, as told to a journalist. Near the end of his beautiful, fascinating, and heart-swelling story, it becomes obvious that the animals with whom he claimed to share a lifeboat were in fact allegories to the people therein: his mother and her murderer, in fact.
When the journalist asks which version of the story is the true one, Pi responds with a question: “Which do you prefer?” The writer assents that he likes the story with the animals better. Pi replies, “And so it goes with God.”
My eyes closed and my heart sank with a disappointed sigh at the end of the movie. Such a richly filmed, gorgeously constructed story culminated in the assertion that God is a myth we create because his existence makes reality easier to swallow. If true, then we who believe are merely beautifully self-deluded fools who lack the courage to face the way things really are. And those who disbelieve will have no beauty or mystery in their prosaic lives at all.
But what disturbs me most isn’t that there are those who hold that worldview, or even that such an internally unsound theology continues to appeal to an unexamined and shallow version of self-worship. It’s that so few of us even recognize that this is what we’re meant to take away from the story.
Intentions & Agendas
Every word spoken or written has a subtext, a pretense, a motive behind it.
I once went out for a drink with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. At the door we had to show identification. She and I tried to carry on our conversation, but the bouncer kept us there at the entrance, chatting us up. When he asked where we had gone to high school, I finally had enough of his irritating interruptions.
“Why do you keep asking all these questions?” I demanded, attempting to derail the flirting.
He looked me in the eye. “Because I’m not sure whether you’re actually twenty-one or not.”
I misread his intentions entirely.
How? I was distracted by the conversation with my friend, negligent about the real reason the bouncer was there, and probably a little vain, too. He had a purpose in questioning us, and it wasn’t at all what I thought it was in my self-absorbed little world.
I simply wasn’t paying attention.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman
In Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the main character, Mr. Peabody, is a modern Renaissance man, a prodigy of talent in every arena of study, from literature to bartending, engineering to psychology. And he is also a dog. Poignantly cognizant of the wounds left upon him by his childhood of loneliness and neglect at the hands of those who did not understand him, he takes in an abandoned baby and obtains legal custody to raise the boy as his adopted son. Mr. Peabody later builds a time machine and takes Sherman on heart-racing and educational adventures where they encounter famous figures across the span of history.
The movie is delightful, original, and wholly engaging.
However, near the beginning Sherman has an altercation with another child at school which leads to the intervention of Child Safety and Protective Services. Miss Grunion, the social worker assigned to the case, is an overbearing, power-hungry, misanthropic (or misan-dog-pic) harpy. She considers any canine—even one as brilliant, dedicated, and loving as Mr. Peabody—unfit to parent a human child, and sets out to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody. About the case she makes a number of pre-conceived judgments before she ever begins any form of investigation:
“Clearly, it’s because of how he’s being raised.”
“In my opinion a dog can never be a suitable parent to a boy.”
“A dog should never have been allowed to adopt a boy in the first place.”
Substitute the word homosexual in place of dog, and the scene becomes uncannily reminiscent of battles playing out in today’s courts and culture wars. And those opposed to adoption by homosexuals are characterized as prejudiced, mean-spirited, narrow-minded Miss Grunions.
But again, I’m less concerned about ideological agendas being woven into children’s movies, and more troubled that even Plugged In, Focus on the Family’s “publication designed to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving families the essential tools they need to understand, navigate, and impact the culture”, fails to take note of it in its review of the film.
Is Literary Criticism Even Important?
When I type “critical thinking” into my browser’s search window, the first definition that pops back is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” The word critical comes from the Latin criticus and the Greek kritikos, to judge or decide. When we are critical of something we assess it, weighing its merits and faults.
Should I buy this pair of shoes? Do I like them? How much do they cost? Are they comfortable? Do they match anything in my wardrobe?
Which job should I take? The one that satisfies me intellectually, or that which offers a larger salary? The one nearer my family, or the one that lets me travel the world? Which is more important to me, and why?
Is this the person I should marry? Do I find him attractive? What about his character? Is he honest? Kind? Wise? What kind of life could I make with him?
We make value judgments all the time, with consequences that run the spectrum from grave to trivial. But when it comes to words, what people and books and movies are telling us, do we listen with critical ears?
What is this author (screenwriter, advertiser, politician) saying, and why is he saying it?
What can I infer about the political/spiritual/intellectual agenda behind these words?
Does this agree with my perspective or challenge it? Does it make a good point, requiring me to rethink my position? Or is it a fallacious argument? How do I know for sure?
Wild
Cheryl Strayed’s popular book and movie chronicles her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Devastated by the untimely death of her mother, and having reached a crisis point following years of self-destructive behavior culminating in a divorce, she undertakes this journey to seek spiritual enlightenment and a new sense of direction and purpose to her life.
Strayed writes beautifully, and her sense of wonder and hopefulness pervade both her memoir and non-fiction work. But the ultimate conclusion to Wild, which she narrates as she crosses the Oregon-Washington Bridge of the Gods near the end of her hike, makes me sad, and concerned about what other lost people might take away from the story.
Strayed concludes that her years of drug abuse and sexual libertarianism were ultimately good for her, and necessary to bring her where she is today.
This smacks of several popular, pseudo-spiritual myths:
All roads lead to God. (“God” meaning “self-actualization.”)
There is no greater purpose to life than becoming oneself.
The pursuit of my own happiness is a moral imperative.
Permission was granted for us to shoot heroine, sleep around, lie and cheat and do whatever else we feel necessary for our own journey toward self-understanding, with no comment on the consequences of those choices.
What happened to the child with which Strayed found herself pregnant? What about the diseases that accompany drug needles and profligate sex? What of the physical, psychological, and emotional damage done to people and relationships?
What Are They Trying to Sell Me?
Everyone wants to sell us something. A product, an idea, a philosophy—we all have our agendas and we encounter others’ agendas all day long. Sometimes the outcome is innocuous: should I succumb to the lure of Peet’s or Starbucks? Other times it has eternal consequences: is Jesus or Allah or Shiva most likely to get me into heaven when I die?
But if we don’t pay attention to what we’re being sold, we’ll end up buying a lot of things we never wanted and that aren’t any good for us. We’ll make our decisions based on what feels nice at the moment, rather than what makes sense for the long haul. We’ll get led into a lot of places we never realized were the ultimate destinations of paths we didn’t even know we were on.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
More likely, it’s paved with unchallenged agendas.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Blah blah, blah-blah, Blah!" (Said Mother.)


Photo by John Keogh
I speak Lithuanian. Or maybe it’s Klingon.
I never knew I spoke Lithuanian or Klingon, but it’s the only explanation. You see, I talk all the time, giving the various members of my household instructions and answers and counsel and wisdom.
And no one ever acknowledges a single word I say.
100% true, unexaggerated, unembellished story (not that I ever exaggerate or embellish stories) which happened just moments ago:
MOTHER: Little Girl! Comb your hair, then go upstairs and have your reading time.
LITTLE GIRL: Can you comb my hair?
MOTHER: Yes. (Combs Little Girl’s hair.) Now go have your reading time.
LITTLE GIRL: Can you comb my hair?
MOTHER: I combed your hair. Now go upstairs to your bedroom and read for thirty minutes.
LITTLE GIRL: Can I read in my bedroom?
MOTHER: Go upstairs. To your bedroom. And read.
LITTLE GIRL: Is it okay if I read for a while before I go to bed?
MOTHER: Yes. Go read.
LITTLE GIRL: In my bedroom?
She gets good grades, scores above average on tests of intelligence, and passes her hearing exam every year at the pediatrician’s office. So the only explanation for this kind of stunningly floundered dialogue is that I am failing to speak English.
Another true story. The kiddos were going to spend a four-day weekend with their aunt and uncle, who take the children to their neighborhood pool at least once a day. I gave my progeny written packing lists. I instructed them to check off each item as they put it into their suitcases. When we were about to leave I asked if they packed everything on the list.
“Yes,” came the unanimous reply.
“Did you pack two swimsuits?” I questioned each child individually.
“Yes,” said the littlest one.
“Yes,” replied the middle one.
“Yes,” answered the oldest one.
Not forty minutes later, one-third of the way into the drive to the home of my sister- and brother-in-law, the boy piped up from the back.
“I forgot my swim trunks.”
I may have roared a little.
With the rear-view mirror adjusted to convey the full reflection of my facial wrath to the child, I asked, “Did you not tell me, when I specifically asked this very question, that you had packed two swimsuits?”
“You never asked me that!”
Yes, I did.
“It wasn’t on the list!”
Yes. It. Was.
Even my husband suffers from my inability to speak the common language of the household.
Back in the day he served in the Navy. During his first hour home following a six-month deployment, he noticed our new calendar. He took it down and looked through the pictures.
“Isn’t that gorgeous?” I said. “I got it at the aquarium. They had all their calendars on sale fifty percent off after the first of the year, and I thought the underwater photos of the dolphins were exceptional.”
He returned the page to the present month and hung it back on the wall. Then he turned to me. “That’s a cool calendar. Where’d you get it?”
Buh?
I majored in English. I used to teach English. I write poetry and novels and blogs. In English. Which people tell me they read. And understand. And sometimes even like.
Yet somehow, in my own home, with my own people, I am failing to communicate in the lingua franca of which I otherwise appear so competent.
I have long known that mothers are invisible. The laundry magically washes itself and mysteriously reappears in drawers and closets. Food materializes on the table every evening at six o’clock via the imperceptible hand of destiny. Messes evaporate because the house maintains itself like a giant, benevolent automaton.
My friend once set the table for dinner at her house, relieving her children of their usual shared responsibility because they’d all been busy with evening extracurriculars. After the meal the kids tried to sort out whose turn it was to clear the dishes. “Who set the table?” one asked. “Nobody,” another replied. “Well, I mean Mom did.”
We are nobody.
Now it seems I have become both nobody and functionally mute.
I can say anything I want, anytime I want, anywhere I want, because my words are meaningless.
“I’m going to eat the last full-size Snickers bar from your Halloween stash.”
“I think I will now dance naked on the front lawn to the music of Nelly.”
“I am going upstairs to hari-kari myself in the bathtub. Farewell, my family.”
Seriously, the above are all things I have actually said, to no response.
But there is an upside to this. A silver lining that reveals the true nature of life and kin and human relationships. A conclusion to the matter which repairs the heart and elevates the spirit and renews the discouraged soul. A message of hope and joy and peace and love. And that message is:
Blah blah blah, blah-blah, blah-dee-dee, blah blah blah.

(Your email address will never be shared or sold. At least, not by me.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Let Them Eat Baklava (A Tribute to Food For Life DC)



“Oh my… what is in this?” I exclaimed as I slipped into my impatiently salivating mouth another dripping forkful of creamy macaroni and cheese.
My dining companion accused me of being with child, because only pregnant women savor their food with that degree of passionate abandon.
“This stuff is amazing.” I tried a nibble of the sautéed kale with chow-chow. Tender, yet crisp, seasoned to the lightly salted edge of a peppery spiciness, the piquant greens drew up a puckering “Hallelujah!” inside my cheeks.
Then Kristi began to eat. She moaned as her eyes rolled back in her head and her lids fell closed. “Have you tried this chicken yet?” Casting rules of etiquette to the wind she described it between chews. “Crunchy, herbed breading. Juicy, succulent meat…”
I must speak with the chef, I thought.
Fortunately, the chef, Marisa Stubbs, is a friend of mine. When she started Food For Life, a Christian culinary enterprise which utilizes food to offer skills, training, and support to young adults in Washington, D.C., I purchased one of their first take-out meals to encourage and promote my buddy.
Now I order Food For Life meals because I want them. I want them bad.
Cravings. They’re not just for the knocked-up anymore.
The foundation of the Food For Life (FFL) organization is dinners—unbelievably delicious, gourmet-quality, ruin-your-palette-for-other-food dinners—sold online to customers, who pick them up ready-to-eat. Dinner sales generate revenue for the FFL training program, making it a more financially sustainable non-profit. In 2014, about 40% of FFL’s budget came from meal sales.
Stop by the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, on Seward Avenue in Southeast D.C., on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday evening, and you’ll see a cadre of young people working the baked, brined, braised, and basted bones out of a commercial kitchen as though they’ve been trained by the likes of Julia Child, Gordon Ramsey, or Anthony Bourdain. Because they have.
Marisa, a professional chef, has also worked in development and education through her Peace Corps years and in various positions with a number of non-profits and anti-poverty/anti-hunger ministries, locally, nationally, and internationally.
“I learned that transformation, accountability, and the power of small group settings are pretty important to me. Then a friend who watched me preparing a brunch said, ‘When you cook for others, you experience joy.’ So I added food in the mix—which is one of the best ways to connect with friends and strangers—and Food For Life was born.”
“Excuse me, Marisa?” I interrupted. “We have recently renovated our home and have a lovely, newly updated in-law suite with its own private bathroom. It’s yours. Rent-free. All I ask is that you cook for me. Not even every night, just once or twice a week.”
She smiled at me. “That’s sweet. But I’m a D.C. girl, and I’d have a hard time running Food For Life from out in Virginia. But thanks.”
Rats. It was worth a try.
Anyway…
Marisa recruits her staff via local social service agencies, personal relationships, and former students. For each session she chooses six to eight 18- to 23-year-olds who are at-risk due to lack of education and skills, or because of life history or present circumstances.
“I hate applying the term ‘at-risk’ to these kids, though,” Marisa says. “Because everyone is at-risk of something. My students are strong, resilient, creative, hopeful, smart, and intuitive… I’d love for more of us to call out their assets over their limitations. And most of them have great senses of humor. They crack me up so often. Like the pizza thing,” Marisa said, shaking her head with a chuckle.
“The pizza thing?” I asked.
She nodded. “So I’m teaching the students how to make pizza. They’re always excited about pizza from scratch: the dough, the sauce, the toppings. Making calzones and stuffed crusts. Using the leftover dough to bake cinnamon or cheese sticks. Of course, the practical instructor in me wants to educate them about the technical aspects of dough, like how yeast and gluten work. Then one of the young women interrupts me to say, ‘I know what yeast is. That’s when your jeans are too tight and…’ All the girls nod seriously. The guys? Deer in the headlights.”
If I’d still been enjoying one of Marisa’s pecan-praline brownies (a square of heavenly decadence on a plate), it would surely have spewed out of my mouth and peppered the area around me with its dark, brown-sugary goodness, I laughed so hard and so suddenly.
I wondered what Miss Manners might say about licking a tablecloth in front of a guest.
Marisa told me more about FFL. “Our training programs run for nine weeks, with three sessions offered annually. Students come to FFL because they want the culinary skills. We take advantage of their attention to the cooking process to also work on soft skills like communication, teamwork, dependability, taking responsibility, handling mistakes, accepting feedback, dealing with conflict, managing stress, marketing yourself. These are the things that will make them successful in any industry.”
“How about post-FFL? Are you seeing positive changes in your students’ lives?” I asked.
“They’re amazing,” she tells me. “Two of my former students have gone on to be extraordinarily successful culinary arts students. Many are making their way into the food industry. Kids who never finished anything, who didn’t have a single award or certificate to show anyone or to hang on the wall, complete Food For Life training and walk out proudly with a framed graduation certificate in their hands. It’s awesome to watch their growth.”
“That must be so gratifying,” I said.
“It is.” Marisa nodded thoughtfully. “But there are some who go through the program and are still floundering, and occasionally someone who doesn’t finish. It hurts, and I’m sad for them. But we keep trying.”
“Would you be willing to reveal one of your recipes to me and my blog readers?”
Marisa smiled. “Based on many emails and what I affectionately refer to as ‘friendship-stalking,’ I know that my baklava is your favorite. In your honor, I’m going to share that recipe.”
My heart thrummed like the wings of a hummingbird at the cusp of a honeysuckle blossom. Marisa’s baklava!
If I am ever on death row, and am offered my choice of a last meal, I will want an entire platter of Marisa Stubbs’ baklava.
So if you live in or are visiting the D.C. metro area, do your taste buds a solid and order a $15.00 (two-course) or $20.00 (three-course) Food For Life dinner some evening. If it’s your last I’ll be as shocked as the kid who stuck his knife in a power outlet. Use the order form at www.foodforlife-dc.org; pick-up instructions are below the order window.
And even if you don’t live within noshing distance, please consider supporting Food For Life with a one-time or recurring donation. You’ll be helping to change lives and support dreams.
Now, please don’t try to contact me for the next couple of days. I’ll be spending some quality time alone with my pan of baklava.

Photo by Isabelle Hurbain-Palatin
BAKLAVA
36 square pastries (OR TWO PANS)

SYRUP
2c             sugar
1c             honey
1 ½c        water
2T             lemon juice
4               cinnamon sticks
whole cloves, cardamom pods, orange/lemon zest

-        Combine all ingredients and stir over low heat until sugar dissolves
-        Increase heat to medium and cook an additional 5 minutes
-        Strain syrup and cool

FILLING
2lbs        almonds and pistachios, mixed and coarsely ground
2c             sugar
1T+          cinnamon
1t             ground cardamom
1t             ground clove
orange/lemon zest
                  salt

Combine all filling ingredients

2lbs        phyllo dough (keep dough covered constantly under a damp towel)
1lb           butter

-        Preheat oven to 350 degrees
-        Melt butter and brush two 12”x9” pans with butter
-        Place 8 sheets of phyllo dough in each pan, brushing with butter between each layer
-        Distribute half the filling evenly between two pans
-        Repeat with another 8 sheets dough and melted butter in each pan
-        Spread with remainder of the filling
-        Top each pan with a final 8 sheets of dough and melted butter

-        Cut into serving pieces
-        Sprinkle top with cold water and bake for 20 minutes
-        Reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake an additional 15 minutes
-        Cut into serving pieces
-        Cut through baklava lines again
-        Pour cooled syrup over pastry and let cool