Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mama's In the Kitchen, Again

I hate the kitchen, I love the kitchen.

I loved the kitchen when I wasn't a grown up. Before the the time when I didn't have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for every waking minute of my day. Or when I wasn't plankton brain exhausted from a day of work, only to have to face the kitchen. There I was, all alone to figure out how to feed my tribe. The mind-numbing feeling of coming up with dinner felt like having to do Phd level calculus with an abacus.

As a kid, the kitchen was a blast. My five siblings and my dad as the ringleader would all be given assignments. We used to get the newest issue of Cuisine Magazine (which no longer exists) and pour over which meal we would attempt as a family. My dad as our fearless head chef, my sister as the sous chef, the rest of us as mere line cooks and kitchen workers to help do the jobs for the meal.

Since I was the youngest, I usually got the job of dishwasher and setting the table. I did this all happily because watching my family members work in concert in kitchen was like watching a battle of the pans. We would each taste everything as we went, noticing how various spices improved things or brainstorming how we could take the meal to the next level.

Not only were we cooking as a family - it was like a party, a laboratory, a competition to see who could do their part the best, a chance to outshine in the spirit of fun. My dad with the dishtowel neatly tucked around his waist, a glass of rum and Coke in one hand - he would be the conductor of his noisy team. We would repeatedly trash the kitchen with choppings, dishes and tools everywhere. My job was to clean up behind everyone. And in the middle of it all would be the food-stained Cuisine magazine - our passport to epicurean exotica unknown.

Fast forward twenty years and here I am alone in the kitchen. By myself trying to be inspiring or find some sort of way to make the daily meal grind fun. As an adult I now appreciate what my dad did. I see how smart he was -- he could have begrudgingly cooked the meal for his five offspring or do what he did, make it a big giant project for all of us.

As parents, we probably spend more time in the kitchen than sleeping. I decided there had to be a better way than me, the momma, slaving over the stove and everyone else enjoying themselves until their restaurant meal was ready. Taking a cue from my dad's early teachings, I came up with a little list of ways to make kitchen time a more joyful experience. Here are a few ideas to try out this summer to see if you can transform your kitchen into the family fun zone. At the very least, not to be all alone in the kitchen.

Making Kitchen Time Fun Time

1. Start Simple.
Make one or two small changes to start. For starters, pick one special night of the week to make "family cooking night." Rome wasn't built in a day and small changes in your family kitchen are easier to manage in bite size steps.

2. Begin with something everyone loves.
Consider something easy to prepare and something your family already adores. Pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, nachos or roast chicken are all easy ideas.

3. Create ambiance.
If you're going to be in the kitchen together, you might as well make it beautiful. Consider matching the music to your menu theme with opera, salsa or country. While you are at it, get out the good plates, napkins and China. Life's too short not to eat off the good stuff.

4. Turn the TV off.
Declare a moratorium on the TV for family cooking night. The Weather Channel, Disney and MTV will still be available when you are done eating.

5. Be educational in a sneaky way.
Don't miss the chance to pass along valuable life skills as you go. This isn't a lecture on how to be a chef, but important things they eventually will want to know as a functioning person in society. This will vary according to your child's age but ideas might include how long to boil spaghetti, how to grate and chop. Pass along knowledge to them in a soft way that teaches them without them even knowing it.

6. Ask good questions.
Use this time to connect with your family in unique ways. This is your shining moment to enjoy them. Ask them the funniest thing that happened today. Or find out when they were most creative. What was the best thing they did during the day. Take turns letting them ask you good questions.

7. Move outside your comfort zone.
Once in awhile mix things up by trying something totally new and out of everyone's comfort zone. Ideas might include: fondue night, sushi rolling or breakfast for dinner.

8. Be sensory.
Invite your family to use their senses. How do things taste and how can they be improved? Experiment with spices and create a learning laboratory. Have them describe the way things taste using as many adjectives as they can.

9. Let the kids be in charge.
Your kids will have more fun if you let them make choices or be in charge, once in awhile. Ask them to be the "head chef" -- pick the menu or to decide which jobs everyone gets.

10. Be goofy.
If you can't have fun, what's the point? Get out aprons for everyone, don chef hats, dance a little, get your hands dirty, sing as you cook, play with your food. You aren't cooking for an award, this is a chance to connect with your family and create something together. Enjoy it!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chocolate Bon-Bons From God

Looking back in my rear view mirror, I saw her.

A woman waving at me frantically, desperate to get my attention at the stoplight. I had that feeling in my stomach as if I was about ready to get scolded for something I didn't do.

She's going to tell me I cut her off, or my gas cap is undone (didn't I put it back on?) Better yet, my clothes were probably hanging out of my car and now stained with mud and highway tar. I rolled my eyes and rolled down the window, ready for whatever insult was going to come my way.

She stuck out her head and yelled "I read your book! My husband got it for me and it was awesome!"

Then the light changed and I turned and she was gone.


Here I was thinking I was about ready to be taken down and instead I was given a flower. Really more like a bouquet, a giant bouquet of roses in my favorite color for no apparent reason. By a complete stranger who had read my book, words that I had dreamed long ago in my head and dared to publish. She had read them and saw me in the middle of no where. Well, I guess Cary, NC isn't really "no where." But she took the the time to notice and tell me. I was thrilled.

I didn't tell you that story to brag or puff up my ego (although apparently I could use it.) What was funny is how it's so easy to assume the worst about everything. How we can create our own little mini-dramas in our head only to be completely wrong. It got me thinking how many times I had totally gotten it wrong and perhaps never even knew it.

Whenever someone compliments me for my writing, it feels like getting a giant chocolate bon-bon from God. It tells me to keep going and that I'm on the right path. That may seem weird, but it's affirming to know that people read my work and then remember it. They may not get it or even like it. But it tells me that I'm putting my gifts and talents to work. Or in the words of Wonder Woman, my favorite childhood superhero, "I'm using my super powers for good."

As I plow through another work week ahead, instead of assuming the junk, I'm going to look for the flowers. Or better yet, I'm going to look out for the bon-bons. You never know where they might turn up.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ode to Cheese Balls

Almost all of my happiest childhood memories involved cheese balls. The neon colored snack food item that stains your fingers and clings to the roof of your mouth were symbolic of the happy day moments of my youth. Every sleepover, camp out, birthday party, TV night, anything fun always involved cheese balls.

As I prepared for my son’s second grade “boy bash” with a jumbo size container of cheese balls, I couldn’t help but smile. My son beamed with delight as he was talking it up with his boy buddies boasting “my mom even got a mongo tub of cheese balls!” Never mind that there would be a limbo stick, musical shell game, pizza and video games. Most importantly, there would be cheese balls.

It got me wondering what was it about those precious orbs of puffed yum that sent me down nostalgia lane? And clearly they cued up the happy for not only me, but for my son too.

I decided to check out the ingredients to see what they put in those babies. You will be happy to know that there is indeed, cheese. It may be cheese monoglomate ezymatica along with other crazy sounding ingredients, but the label says “real cheese.” We should truly call a spade a spade and let it be known that it’s more like “essence of cheese” in those things. No cheese I have ever eaten or seen tastes like that.

Please don’t get me wrong. I have read the news and understand that we are creating the most obese generation of kids in history. I also understand that this may be the first generation of kids not to outlive their parents. I’m not promoting a steady diet of cheese balls. I’m just noticing this special treat makes me happy and I can’t quite figure out why.

Maybe it’s the fun shape or their bright sunshiny glow or the fact that we don’t eat them very often. Cheese balls don’t come out for big stressful holidays or for special dinner party style entertaining. They come out for cozy time casual fun. Cheese balls are for ordinary joyous moments like football watching or our favorite TV show or when a pack of rowdy seven year olds comes over to celebrate the end of a school year.

I think cheese balls are simple innocent joyful fun. It’s not only what I crave as a cheery snack but also a metaphor for what I long for in life. I think Forrest Gump said it best when he said “Life is like a box of chocolates.” But I think I would change it a bit to say “I want my life to be like a tub of cheese balls.” A dose of ordinary joy packed into a happy little ball.