If my math is correct, Grandma Lucille would have celebrated her 102nd birthday yesterday. I still miss her tremendously, although I last saw her in 2006, when we moved from California to Oklahoma.
Having just eloped with her 20 year old grandson, I didn't know what kind of reception to expect when my brand new husband took me to meet his grandparents. Both 80 years old at the time, they were my first true glimpse into an American family, and they welcomed me with open arms. Grandma Lucille in particular, with her wide open smile and embrace instantly made me feel like I belonged. Given the fact that 57 years and a continent separated our upbringing, we should have had very little in common. But our love of family and food created memories that I will cherish forever.
Grandma was of Norwegian descent, and in fact grew up speaking the language on their farm in South Dakota. One of her favorite memories, and a tradition that she continued for her children was of making lefse, very thin pancakes make with potatoes and flour. Slathered with butter and sugar, they are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. There is a true art to making them, and getting the dough just right. Being Indian, and making rotis (whole wheat flatbreads) almost since I could stand upright, lefse were fairly easy for me to make. Learning how to make lefse from Grandma, and her delight when she realized that I knew exactly what she meant when she said that "the dough just needs to feel right" is hands-down my favorite memory with her.
I understand why we feel the need to memorialize people. Statues do it for some people. Grandiose poems have been written about others. We have an entire day (weekend, really) dedicated to fallen soldiers too numerous to honor individually. For Grandma Lucille, I think a fitting memorial would be to continue making memories - to pass down the art of making lefse to my daughters, to love someone because they love your family, no matter where they came from, to stay smiling until the very end no matter how many hardships you've endured, and to make a big difference in a thousand small ways. We don't have the time for anything less than that.
Making lefse, 2006
Insert emoji with one finger tapping my chin, while I thoughtfully look up somewhere beyond the tree tops. There are lots of things that make me go hmm...such as flip flops with fur on them. That one is pretty contradictory, in my opinion. Then, there are other things like cautionary signs on hair dryers that say "Do not use in bathtub". I mean, that one ought to be pretty obvious, right?
Except, seemingly it's not. Apparently, we have to state fundamental facts like "Smoking Causes Cancer" and "Black lives matter".
Let me introduce you to Mr. B, a former student from the culinary class I teach at the downtown men's shelter. These men are homeless for various reasons, and the reasons they are there is of less concern to me than the necessity to equip them with skills so they can get employed, and stay employed. Believe me when I tell you, not a single one of them wants to be there. Mr. B., who was initially quiet, emerged soon enough as the fastest learner in the group, and witty to boot. His interest was obvious from the keenly intelligent questions he always asked, and his quick comebacks kept class light-hearted.
One day I was teaching knife skills, and expounding on the various types of knives, their uses and specific functions, as well as the importance of keeping them sharp and at peak performance. Mr. B's voice piped up and said, "so you're saying chef's knives matter". Of course that got the intended laugh out of the class (I will admit it took most of them a minute to understand that he was, in fact, alluding to the slogan of Black Lives Matter). Have I mentioned that Mr. B is a young man who is black? I thought his 'Chef's Knives Matter' quote was awfully clever, and the more I've thought about it, the more appropriate it seems. We are all different, with various experiences and unique skill sets which, when applied properly, enhance the melting pot of our society. But, in order to contribute to society, we must first, as children and then young adults be taught our purpose. Be nurtured, taken care of and cherished, so we know to do the same. In other words, be honed to peak performance.
It should go without saying that all lives are of equal importance, that we as human beings matter. If ought to be shameful to us as a society that we have to talk about the fact that lives other than our own matter. I prefer Mr. B's take on it, his tongue-in-cheek approach that we can say anything we like, but it's what we do that matters. I liked it so much, in fact, that I put it on a shirt. Multiple shirts. And have decided to offer them for sale. Available for now at our Farmer's Market booth in North Hills, we are going to use every cent of the profit from the sale of these shirts to benefit children and youth who are not being taught their own value. I have a few ideas, but would like to hear from you, if you know how we can make an impact.
Do something. For someone. I promise you it matters to them.
Don't call attention to yourself. Don't smile at boys. Always be ladylike. Don't laugh too loudly. Don't run/jump/ride a motorcycle/take chances because you could hurt or disfigure yourself, and then who will marry you?
We, as girls, keep getting told that we should let other people's expectations define us. That we should be careful about our behavior, so we don't cause negative, derogatory or lustful thoughts in other people's minds.
My older daughter and I had a wonderful time while watching the musical Waitress last night. As entertaining and funny as it was, it brought on some pretty strong emotions because of the underlying theme of battered women - some emotionally, and some physically. Jenna, the main character, is stuck in an unhappy, controlling marriage, where she does everything she can to placate her abusive husband on a daily basis. Her only outlet is in baking - specifically, baking pies with true-to-her-situation themes like Betrayed By My Eggs pie - when she finds out she is pregnant.
Happily, I am not in an abusive marriage. But, the message of burying oneself to please others definitely dredged up the words, thoughts and old wives' tales brand of wisdom employed in my upbringing, and in the upbringing of almost every other girl I knew. And as I sat there watching, with my daughter at my side, and thinking of my younger daughter at home, I realized that to some extent, I had tried to teach them the same things that were taught to me. Not to repress them, but to protect them. To keep them safe from culture and society's portrayal of women.
But safety never has, and never will be in just staying home. To stay in a box made of society's expectations. We are safer when we are vocal, together. When we have each other's backs. While I observe plenty of young men who follow centuries of rules for the roles they are expected to play, I've encountered enough teenage boys who don't follow those rules. I see them treating young women as equals, and with dignity. Being open with their own feelings, and being vulnerable to getting hurt. Recognizing that while they might be physically stronger than some girls, they can't hold a candle to a woman's inner strength. And for that, I thank their mamas. The ones who changed the dialogue. The ones who taught them that paying attention to a girl's feelings doesn't make them weak, it gives them a partner. And to the dads, who are raising boys and teaching them how to be men of character.
I think I need to make a Time For Change pie: two equal layers of dark chocolate and white chocolate mousse on a baked graham cracker crust made just nutty enough with ground toasted pecans in it. Topped with a mixed berry compote that is sweet and tart, for fruitiness. Finished with cloudy, cardamom scented whipped cream, for the dreamers.
Is this post a little over the top? Yes. Do I hear my mother's voice in my ear saying, "it's too much, you're going too far, don't call attention to yourself?" Yes. Am I posting this anyway, for the women who won't, or can't say anything? Yes.
Oh, and Happy Mother's Day.
Clearly, the pictures above are of the same person. With just a few years in between the time that they were taken. What I'm not going to post (so that we may remain on speaking terms), is the picture of a time in-between. As most children do, my daughter went through a phase where she didn't look, or feel like herself. Where she only saw what was reflected back from the mirror, along with a hundred other imagined things.
The picture on the right was taken this past weekend, at her Senior prom. All the myriad details of dress shopping, getting her nails done, finding the perfect pair of shoes led to this one perfect moment, where her laugh is open, uncontained, and full of joy. Joy in knowing that not only did she look good, but felt good. Because she was with a group of people that she cares about. Because we had five of the girls come over to our house, and they did each others' hair and make-up while sharing stories and anticipation. Because although this was her last prom, and hence bittersweet, she had arrived at this point, intact and thriving.
The childhood laugh is in the moment, the one on the right was earned. Earned by being hurt, but moving on anyway. By realizing that you work hard to get what you want. That friends are extremely important, but your family is fundamental to your well-being. By losing loved ones, and honoring them by loving life.
My hope, as she is getting ready to graduate is this: that she can add another picture, taken thirty years from now, with laugh lines forming parentheses on either side of her face, eyes lined and crinkled at the corners with the same laugh, and a whole lot of living in-between.
Because the more things change, the more we want of the same.
If you follow our blog posts, and have read this one before you-say-farmer-we-say-market.html, you could possibly begin to understand the excitement, preparation and anticipation that went into our first day of the Midtown Farmer's Market.
After only three hours of sleep, and obsessively checking lists to make sure that we weren't leaving anything behind, we set off in our caravan of the minivan carrying Penny, followed by the SUV carrying all the baked goods and product for sale. We shall not speak of the minivan brakes overheating, necessitating an unscheduled stop, nor of the panic of getting there and getting set up on time. What I will tell you is that the day was glorious: a tad on the warm side, but perfect for market. From the variety of fresh vegetables and fruit to the hand-sewn aprons, and all the local honey, breads and various goods for sale, I'm not ashamed to say that I shed a tear over the sheer perfection of the day.
And we took in everything: the adorable, polite little twins whose eyes lit up when offered samples. The elderly beagle with the mournful eyes. The gregarious gentleman who announced himself a connoisseur, and bought two jars immediately upon sampling Rosalind, our raspberry-rose jam. The lovely family who just moved to Raleigh a month ago with their two little ones. The scruffy little dog who did a fine job keeping the area around our cart clean by vacuuming up every crumb. The older gentleman who said that the chocolate chess pie reminded him of his grandmother, long gone from this earth.
And then, the next week was even better. We got to see some faces from the previous week, and meet a whole lot of new folks. And we sold out! Every blueberry muffin with lemon glaze, every slice of pie, every lemon bar, and almost every jar of jam. All we had left were five oatmeal craisin cookies, which we were happy to share with our neighboring vendors. And in return, got the most tender, flavorful early spring lettuce from Nourishing Acres. Honey from the Pleasant Bee. A thumbs up of thanks from another vendor who was too busy enjoying the cookie to say anything. I'm going to get all Southern and say, "we LOVE this y'all"! And can't wait to come back every week.
You can come find us from 8:00 a.m. until noon every Saturday - we'll be the ones with the cookie samples and smiles.
The 'fellow' in question was my oldest maternal uncle, and this past month marked a year that he has been gone. His last name was Jolly, and kindness, love and wit shone from his eyes as well as his through his actions. As fate would have it, at the beginning of this year one of my aunts passed, followed by her husband a mere two weeks later. The loss of three Jollys within a year has left a wide, gaping hole in our family's fabric. The Jolly family embodied hospitality and an inclusiveness of people the likes of which we will probably never see again.
It was extraordinary: people would come for a meal, and stay for a month. Every hurting, sad, temporarily lost child has, at one point or another, taken refuge in the Jolly household for months even when their families were just one city over. We still marvel at the capacity of a two room apartment to expand and accommodate as many people as it did. How my aunts managed to feed three meals to as many as fifteen people on a daily basis out of a kitchen that is smaller than most closets still baffles me.
But what I remember most is the joy. So much laughter that we ended up with aching sides most days. Silly games and pointless arguments. Bollywood music both new and classic demanded choreographed dances that the older cousins taught, and we younger cousins obliged. Beautiful, clear voices singing as often as they could. It was magical. Sometimes I think that it's just the hazy shimmer of a lost time that lends that sheen to my memories. And then I talk to another cousin, or the friend of a cousin thrice-removed, and we all remember it the same way, because that is how it was.
Which means that it is possible to have limited resources, and still spread unlimited joy. What it looks like to be so completely free of judgement that the five children who had the unbelievable good fortune to be raised in that home are the most loving, generous, kind-hearted and joyful people I know. We all, in some way, carry the Jolly legacy because we were impacted by it, and loved unconditionally. With Jolly Good Jams, we hope that you will spread a little joy, a little love and a little hope of your own each day. We could all use some of that, especially right now.
So asked a song that was sung by a band with the folksy name of 'A Lovin' Spoonful'. If you're familiar with it, you're probably humming the tune in your head right now. The lyrics are sweet, and conjure up images of a girl in bell bottoms with her center-parted hair swinging down to her hips, ubiquitous daisy tucked behind one ear.
But it is March, and whether you believe in it or not, there is a little magic in the air. And not just because of the funny little green man at the end of the rainbow, who should rightly have a beer keg next to him instead of a pot of gold, given the manner in which St. Patrick's Day is celebrated.
For me the magic is in the promise the air holds. Winter is almost definitely past, and thanks to unseasonably warm temperatures a couple of weeks ago, the dogwoods are blooming. The sight that makes me the happiest, though is when the forsythia bursts forth in riotous bloom. Whether because it's yellow, or because it seems to bloom overnight, catching sight of forsythia against the blue sky lifts my spirits immediately.
I, of course, also deal with magic of a different kind each day. For what is baking but alchemy - a little bit of chemistry, and a whole lot of magic - that transforms ordinary ingredients into luscious and decadent desserts?
Then, there is magic of a different sort. Of watching children who just yesterday were missing teeth and chasing butterflies, and now are getting ready to chase their dreams. Some of them across state lines, and some halfway across the world. Where does it come from, this confidence, this yearning to leave and explore? Maybe it's just a wish, but I like to think it comes from sitting in our laps, with a bear tucked under their arm, eyes wide as we read them fairytales of lands far, far away. Of brave boys and girls who survived turbulent seas and fierce dragons so they could reach the shore and fulfill their destiny.
But, there is such a thing as 'mama magic' in our home, with which I would 'lock' the doors and windows of my daughter's room each night by sprinkling imaginary fairy dust. And that mama magic will surely keep them close, and keep them coming back when they can. Or maybe it's just my chocolate chip cookies that will bring them home . Either way, I'll take it.
My red bicycle saved me. It took me to book fairs so I could buy books, which were frowned upon in my house because anything fictional was considered a waste of time. They were also not available anywhere else, as we didn't have the luxury of public lending libraries.
As a nine year old who was fascinated with all the books written by Enid Blyton, I wanted to inhabit the world she described - where little girls and boys gathered under weeping willows for picnics provided by their beautiful mums - picnics that consisted of enormous slices of chocolate cake, warm scones accompanied by sweet berries and clotted cream, washed down with tall glasses of lemonade. I learned how to dream because of those books, to dream of a world beyond mine, which, beautiful as it was with swaying palm trees and fragrant mangoes, did not, in my childish opinion, compare to visions of rolling hills, blue skies, and cake. Oh, that chocolate cake that inhabited most of my fantasies.
Since I couldn't reasonably expect that sort of cake from the modest and irregularly found bakeries in my hometown, the only logical thing was to make my own. There was, of course, the slight problem of how. Not that I was incapable, in my self-assured little mind, but how, and from where, could I procure the ingredients? Not to mention, we didn't even own an oven, nor did I have access to any recipes. This was, after all, South India thirty seven years ago. Our grocery stores existed on tiny street corners. Vegetables were sold door-to-door from hand-carts pushed by the farmers who grew them, fresh every day. The milkman brought the cow to your front door, so she could be milked in front of you, into a tall brass container you provided, so you could see it was fresh, and free from contamination. Most grocery stores had no refrigeration, hence could not sell cream.
Thank goodness for my red bicycle. It took me to a traveling book fair, from where I purchased my first recipe book, with my own allowance. All these years later, you can still see my childish handwriting marking the book as mine, and the penciled price at the top right hand corner - it cost Rs. 47.00, which is less than ten American cents.
My bicycle also allowed me access to stores farther than walking distance, and I began to hunt down the ingredients I would need. I begged for an oven, and was told that one would be purchased IF it was proven that I could indeed bake. A neighbor was kind enough to lend me hers in the meantime.
That bicycle gave me wings, and eventually led me here - to a country where I can walk into almost any store, and be overwhelmed by the choices offered. To a land that's indeed rich - with it's melting pot of cultures, farmer's markets, resources and people. I've come across a few bad apples, but time and again have had reason to believe in the good. Where I found love, the kind that lasts, and was blessed with our daughters. And as my eldest prepares to fly the nest, I wish for her her own version of a red bicycle, no matter where she goes.
I didn't start with chocolate cake of course, but I outlined it - marked it in ink that was red at that time, as IMPORTANT. That it was my goal, and I would work up to it. I did, and with the patina that time lends, it is the best chocolate cake in my memory.
The younger me had a vision of myself: in a gingham apron and bandana to tame my unruly hair, I would be handing out sweet treats and smiles to folks young and old under a cerulean sky. Chickens would be clucking nearby, there would be a profusion of sunflowers, and hay bales always featured in the background. The temperature would be hovering around 68 degrees, and everyone was happy. Rather an unlikely vision for someone from a bustling coastal city in South India, wouldn't you say?
But, my ideal vision of America was never Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue, but more Main Street. The descriptions of small town America always charmed me, with the corner bakery and high school homecoming.
Fast forward at least twenty five years, and at least parts of my vision are about to come true - we have been approved as a vendor at the North Hills Farmers Market! To say that I'm excited and overjoyed would be stating it mildly. Beginning April 14th, you will get to see us, (and Penny!) every Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until noon, dispensing both smiles and cookies (and pies, and bonbons, and muffins, and cinnamon rolls).
I can't guarantee the weather, or the cerulean sky. And heaven help us if there are chickens running everywhere. But yes, I'll be wearing the bandana and apron. And the sweet treats taste better than the ones in my imagination.
My knight in shining armour drives a minivan. Willingly.
Even though we are past the stage where he needs the automatic sliding doors because he is carrying a sleeping baby, and we no longer require twenty-three (I exaggerate, but only slightly) cup holders for sippy cups and our daughter's rock collection. At an age where some men are trying to reclaim their youth by trading up to the sports car and investing in hair plugs, my husband just bought a minivan. For Penelope, and by extension, for me.
It began with an idea I started kicking around, of being able to sell our cookies and baked goods to our customers - in person, not just impersonally, online. After all, that's what I miss the most about not having a brick-and-mortar location is people interaction. The widened eyes when they take that first bite, sticky chocolate on a child's face, and the older generation patting my hand and telling me that the pie crust is just like their mama used to make.
So, we decided to build a cart. Not just any cart, but one that looks and feels like an extension of us, our home kitchen where we make all the desserts from scratch. And my engineer husband went to work. First, a list of my must-haves. Then, a hand-drawn design. Our daughters weighed in on the aesthetic. And I got excited. Very, very excited. Until, inevitably, we clashed. His superbly engineered design was impractical for me. My suggestions for cutting corners to speed up the process went against his every belief in retaining the strength and integrity of the cart.
But, like everything else we have done in this life we've built together, Penelope was created as the slightly imperfect but very loved collaboration of both our minds and hands. In order to transport Penelope (Penny for short) to various events and venues, only a minivan would work. And so my husband bought one as his daily driver, to accommodate Penny.
Love is expressed in many, many forms: flowers, chocolate, balloons and teddy bears. But for me, love is a minivan in our driveway, and Penny in the garage.