Hey, Kid! Let’s Do Lunch.

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By Elizabeth Speth

I am not a good parent.

This is not false modesty.  Do not rush to comfort or reassure me when I say this.  It’s the truth, and my children will likely confirm the fact.

I’m not petitioning to be arrested here.  I more or less understand the basics of childkeeping.  Minimally, you must feed them, keep them clean and teach them to be kind.  You get bonus points if you mostly refrain from embarrassing them, and help pay for college.

You don’t leave them unattended.  Bad things happen to unattended children.

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But the rest of it has really eluded me, though I have read countless parenting books and compared notes and rubbed elbows with my betters.  I have struggled and chafed mightily against my failings.  In the nearly thirty years I have wrestled and warred with parenting, the only philosophy I have managed to pull from the smoking wreckage is this:

Take your child to lunch.

I mean it.  Every chance you get.  In a proper restaurant, with napkins that must go in your laps, with a menu that demands deliberations and choices.  Sit across the table from each other, and relinquish your leadership role.  Be equals.  Be people out to lunch.

That’s right.  My only parenting tip involves parenting time off.  All  fun, and no work.

You don’t cook, clean, or assume responsibility for the enjoyment of the food.

You take a break from the heavy slog of molding, teaching, shaping, guiding, refusing.

Go ahead and place the pressure of parenting on your server.  Let her make conversation for a while.  Let him engage your child, find things on the menu to entice the kid’s mercurial tastes, figure out what is going on in that tiny, inscrutable head.

Let your child’s critical attention and fragile expectations fall upon that tray-carrying, apron-shielded angel of mercy.  Order yourself a cocktail, sit back, and sigh.

If the meal disappoints, if the experience is a bust, if the carrots are cut in the wrong shape and the fish arrives with an eye still in its head, the server is the jerk.  Not you.  See?  Win-win.  And still no dishes.

You? Are the good guy.  There’s a gratitude factor, however reluctant, that comes to you when you say:  ‘Order whatever you’d like!’  And you must do that. And you must mean it. Lunch is a no-holes-barred experience, a rarified world of exemptions and permissions.

And, really, how many other times in your life can you really say that to your child?  ‘Have whatever you want.’  Doesn’t that feel marvelous, rolling off your tongue?  How bad can the damage be?  It’s the lunch menu.

Go ahead, Kid! Have a virgin margarita with whipped cream that’s mostly sugar and comes to the table looking for all the world like dessert even before your cheese enchilada arrives.  I want you to!  Do I suspect you won’t like calamari at all, with its little squid legs still attached under that crispy coating and silky orange aioli?  Yes!  But that’s what takeout boxes are for, and, here, fill up on these fabulous chips with salsa!  Shall we order guacamole?

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The rules are simple.  Everyone eats as much or as little as they like.  The kids get to talk about anything.  Anything.  If they tell you they have taken to peeing in their closets, shoplifting, or skating off the steeply sloped roof of the high school cafeteria at night, all you are allowed to say is:  ‘Oh really?’

Pregnancy scare? Second thoughts about college?  Flag down that busboy for more butter.  If you are tempted to parent, take a sip of wine.  Blink, nod, order the cheese plate. Or a second sushi boat.  Or spicier curry so you can justify your watery eyes.  Later, when you have dementia and wear diapers and have terrible confessions of your own, they may return the favor.

Of course, there will be some inadvertent parenting that goes on.  Obviously, your child has to behave — you are out in public.  Insist upon politeness to all who care for you during your meal.  Please, and thank you, and eye contact are non-negotiable.  Teach them how to tip well — very well — so that it will be that much better when you come back.  Explain to them how hard the work is, this making happiness for strangers out of chilled plates and lettuce and baskets of bread.

You will of course tweak these rules and guidelines for yourself, but, I beg you, take your children to lunch.  Do it because they are here now (that won’t always be the case), and you are here now(the clock is definitely ticking on this fact), and don’t you have to eat lunch anyway?

Do it because of the lies they will tell you for the rest of your life.

I’m not talking about naughty lies.  I’m talking about all the times they will say things are fine when they are not.

Do it because they will go through terribly difficult things you will never have even an inkling about.

Do it because when they were first handed to you in the hospital, though you had carried them for months and months, you were shocked at how heavy and self-contained they were, and that’s when you understood you were truly separated, going forward.

Do it because you did and will make mistakes, and you were and will be impatient and short-sighted.

Do it even though they are hard on you.  And because only they know what the rhythm of your breath and the beat of  your heart sound like from inside your body.

Do it because you break their hearts sometimes, as much as they break yours.

You do.  You break their hearts too.

Case in point:  my mother was not the sort to take her children to lunch, or even the sort to provide lunch on any given day.  A mentally fragile and self-absorbed woman, her thoughts rarely entertained things like food, shelter and clothing.  She was consumed by her own disastrous love life, her endless quest for the perfect fad religion, and her conviction that she was a true ‘artiste’ in terms of temperament, if not exactly in terms of production.

It took me a lifetime to figure out that it wasn’t personal.  She was a bad parent, just like me.  But she did not want to be a mother, and I did. That was pretty much the only difference between us.

As a child, I was chronically lost track of, and as a result occasionally unfortunate things happened.  I did not bear up well, I admit it. An inevitable general haze of terror hung over the first twelve or so years of my life.  I was afraid of everything, although I mostly kept it a secret.

Our lives were transient, and chaotic.  Always there was a new place to live, a new classroom, a new man suddenly in a position of authority, new dangers to suss out.  This did nothing for my catatonic outlook.

One snowy morning in rural New Mexico, in the dark lull between Christmas and spring, my mother walked me to a new bus stop in a new neighborhood on a new first day of school, holding my mittened hand while I trudged beside her in wet shoes, my attention riveted on my constantly roiling insides.

The cold was ruthless.  It was wicked.  If I could remember the date, and researched it, I know it would have been some sort of New Mexico winter record low temperature.  Cows died that day.  Fingers and toes were lost.  Pipes burst, and I’m sure ballads and folk songs were written.

The bus stop was in front of someone’s house, and all sorts of children were running and shouting and doing unspeakable things to each other.  The woman who lived inside the house came out to her front steps, and called everyone inside until the bus arrived.  It was too cold, she said, for man or beast.

My mother was not a sociable sort of person, and so she indicated that I should go in, and she, presumably, would go home to thaw out.  I clung to her. “Please,” I said, terrified.  “Please don’t go.”

Go inside, she said firmly to me.

“Please come in with me,” I urged her, knowing she would leave me alone with all of the boisterous young strangers destined to be my future classroom tormentors.  “Please don’t leave me here.”

My mother got quite stern, told me to stop fussing.  But I wouldn’t let go of her until she finally, reluctantly, promised she would stay.  Outside. I was to go in.  She would not.  I knew it was her final, rock-bottom offer.  Heavy of heart and foot, I followed the others inside, and spent the next ten minutes watching her nervously through the window.  To my utter surprise, she stood sentinel there, alone, her back to the house, blowing out gusts of steam and occasionally stomping her feet.

The sight of her nearly broke my six-year-old heart with gratitude.  It just about brought me to my soggy knees.  When I could stand it no longer,  I scurried back outside to wait with her for the bus.  We didn’t say anything else about my being out there.  We didn’t speak at all.

I will never forget the incredible tide of sadness I felt that morning. I don’t think I’ve ever been as emptied out by grief.  Her parenting sacrifice was bigger that day than any of mine.  Even then, I understood that she did not want to be there.  She would rather have been anywhere else.

It wasn’t personal. I do understand that now. 

I take my children to lunch because they see my flaws, which are weighty things for them.  I take them out to lunch because sometimes parents are a terrible burden.

I take them to lunch because of my mother’s unexpected steadfastness in a sea of swirling snow, and her vulnerability, standing out there alone, waiting.

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It’s important to remember that people are vulnerable, and that’s most obvious when we eat.  Even mean people look vulnerable when they eat.

Look at the poor horse, a flight animal, whose only defense against predators is vigilance. Yet he must put his head down to eat.

Take your children to lunch because, if you must be vulnerable, you can at least be so together.

Pick your reason.  But do it.  Be people out to lunch.  Together.



Eggplant Puttanesca — How Much Love in a Teaspoon?


By Elizabeth Speth

As a child, I was not sophisticated.  I loved snack time and Big Bird, glittery snow on Christmas cards and other obvious things.

I never wept about opera, or paintings, or written words.  That would or would not come later.  I didn’t care one way or the other.

But my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan?  That.  Made me weep.  Hysterically.  When she said I could not have thirds.

Fast forward to today, as I huff and puff and lug tomatoes, eggplant and basil in from the garden on a 102 degree Northern California day.  My grandmother would recognize my plump, over-heated, eager face.

Because I’m cooking today.  I have a mission in the kitchen.  That is my favorite.

Looking back, remembering as I watched her cook, I realize she made a Puttanesca sauce for that dish, which was different, and good.  I have had to recreate many of her recipes from memory this way, because she did not share.  I understand, now, that she withheld many things and kept many secrets.  Certain women reserve the right to remain complicated.

But the sensuousness of her hands masterfully preparing food is seared upon my memories, and I trust them as I jot down my own formulas and techniques for cooking, in case my children are interested. I will share all of this, although my notes are short on cooking time and measurements.  It is hard to fit a wave of love into a teaspoon.

So.  Back to the recipe.

I pour all my yellow and red tomatoes, so many soft plops, into a pan of hot olive oil, add sea salt and pepper to the hiss, and watch them bubble and burst.  I add honey here, to amplify the summer sweetness of what’s in my pot.

Then comes a sudden turning point in the plot as I scrape finely-diced anchovies off my knife into the sauce.  I add chili flakes.  Lots of them.  Cognac.  Garlic.  Diced olives and vinegary capers.  Fresh chopped basil.  It’s a briny, spicy, sweet, rich, fresh-tasting concoction.  Like no other.  Like my grandmother’s.

I slice the eggplants and let them sit, salted, so the moisture will leach out.  So they will not be slimy or bitter.  I rinse them, dip them in beaten eggs, and panko bread crumbs.  I fry them until they are crisp.

I layer the eggplant disks in a buttered pan with the Puttanesca sauce, and buffalo mozzarella and aged Parmesan.  Top the thing off with bread crumbs and more Parmesan.  Bake until brown and bubbly.

On my plate is another chapter in the history of my grandmother’s kitchen, and also in the history of my garden.  As I walk through all the rooms of flavor on my fork, all the layers of the past and present in my mouth, I understand it is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t weep as easily these days, now that I am no longer a child.  But I acknowledge the urge.  So I have a third helping.

The ‘L’ Word

By Elizabeth Speth

Love hurts.  Love scars.  Love wounds.

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Love is a many-splendored thing.

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All you need is love.

Love is the moon, jealous of the stars.

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Scientists have confirmed that both good and bad things happen to our brains when we love.  Or when we think we love, but maybe we just want to have sex.  We produce dopamine and ocxytocin, which make us feel pleasure.  They are the biological reward for mating.  Cocaine addiction, of course, does much the same thing to us chemically.

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The early stages of romance are linked with diminished levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and of a serotonin receptor, which, to some degree, mimics the chemistry of obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.

It’s wonderful and magical, and makes us write songs and sonnets.  It also makes our stomachs hurt, soaks our palms in sweat, dries out our mouths and makes us do stupid things.

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Love is agony and ecstasy.  We know all this.

We know that love takes up both spectrums of human emotion, but, as a society, have we allowed it to lay claim to everything in between?

Do we love too much?

I’m talking about the fact that ‘love’ may have become a useless concept, stretched and strained, overused and flabby.  Because we love everything.

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We love coffee and fast internet connections.

My son loves pickup trucks and old movies.  I have lots of friends who love cats.  I have even more friends who love cat videos.

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These days we love food trucks, but we still love restaurants.  We love social media.  If something is ‘trending’, that means we briefly love it.

As a pre-teen I loved disco, and I tried to love all of the Bee Gees equally.  Even though everyone knew Barry was the cutest. The first time I ever tasted prosciutto, I thought:  What wondrous love is this?

I know words mean things.  I respect the power of words.  As a writer, I try not to use the same one twice in a paragraph.  I agonize over exactly the right, the best, the most effective selection.

But I invoke the word ‘love’ a lot.

How can this be?  Can I truly love as many things as I say I do?

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If I love my children, can I also love dry martinis?  Is it okay that I love my husband, religious and political freedom, the great outdoors, and also Sriracha sauce?

Do I really love Downtown Abbey?  Actually, I don’t.  That family is exhausting.

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Am I lying when I say I love, at least a little bit, every one of my friends, a number of my co-workers, and also the fellow at the grocery store who gives me such good advice about wine?

I remember when I was in second grade, huddled with my best friend on the outskirts of a Catholic school playground, sneakily splitting a Snickers candy bar, despite the fact that Sister Joseph Adrian wielded a yardstick in the cloak room for such offenses.  Even then, a girl had to have her chocolate.

I told Felicia, around a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts and caramel, that I loved Snickers, and I was shocked when she sneered:  “Well, why don’t you marry it?

Though I was offended at the time, I got over it.  I realized she was repeating something she’d heard.  But the admonishment stuck with me.  The message she’d received from someone at some point, and passed along to me, was:  Hey!  You there, with the chocolate dribbling down your chin! It’s not okay to love too much! Rein it in, Nougat Breath!

The thing was, though, that I really did love that contraband candy treat.  I was passionate about it at that moment.  I cared about it as much as I cared about anything in my tiny life.  It was a real high point, and I’m not sorry I said so, Felicia.

I mean, if we have to avoid over-loving, who gets to decide what is love-worthy?

Where do we draw the line?

What if you are only allowed to love, say, the person you can legally marry?  And nothing else is allowed to be called love?  Ugh.  What a tragedy.

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If the list of things I love is miles long, albeit ever-changing, it would follow that I will neglect the list of things I hate.  There are only so many hours in the day, and I have a lot less energy than I used to.  Isn’t that a good thing?  In my case and also in the larger picture?

Ah, you say.  But the absence of love is not hate.  It’s indifference.

Well, maybe so.  But I still think love looks better.

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If I do a kind thing for a stranger on the street, I’d rather feel that small, temporary bridge of love than indifference between us.

“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”  Mother Teresa said that.  Are you going to argue with Mother Teresa?  Don’t, because I love her.

Historically, hate and indifference both get us into trouble.  And trust me, you won’t have mass sales on discounted chocolate the day after a holiday celebrating either.

I’d rather have a world full of shallow, shifting, transient (or deep, passionate, lasting) love than the alternative.  I really would.

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I think you were right, John Lennon.  All you do need is love.

Vincent Van Gogh was kooky, but he was right when he said:  “The best way to know God is to love many things.”

Happy Love Day, my friends.  I think you know how I feel about you.

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A Letter to my Children… About Love, Butter and Chicken Bones

By Elizabeth Speth

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Dear Julia, Lyle and Leland:

As you know, your mother has been a vegan for more than two years now.  For health reasons primarily, I switched to a plant-based diet two years ago, and it’s working out very well.

But you also know I love pork products.  So much.

You know how I feel (very, very good) about raw oysters and a smear of bone marrow on crusty, buttered bread.  You still hear me talking about hamburgers, thick and rare, smothered in brie and bacon. And cheese…lordy, do I love cheese.

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So I just want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to cook for you, you beloved carnivores, while I virtuously scarf down my legumes.  Because of you I still make cream sauces, rare meat, cheese plates, buttery desserts.  Because of you the kitchen still fills with the smells of these foods.

But there is something you may not know, because I have tip-toed around telling you for years.  In my defense, you spent the last decade as prickly adolescents who did not welcome a lot of gushing on the part of your mama.

I don’t hold that against you.  It was as it should be.

And now, you are all grown, and our conversations are filled with logistical questions.  When will we see you?  How is school going?  Are you getting enough rest?  What are your plans for the future?  

No wonder you don’t always want to talk.

So what I haven’t told you is that I cooked for you — then and now — as a way of saying how very much I love you.  That I hope the world will always be a warm place for you.  That people will be careful with you.  That you will be strong and nourished and understand that life is both work and pleasure, sometimes all in the same meal, as it were.

That, having eaten so many of the same meals, you will stick together. At least in spirit.

I wanted you to know that life is uncertain, with dark places that you must avoid.  That people — from your loved ones to your leaders — will switch loyalties.  That we live in a world where entire planes full of people can just disappear.

I cooked to comfort you.

When you needed it, and when you didn’t, because I wanted you to store up an entire lifetime supply of comfort. I wanted you to draw upon it as needed, long after the pancakes and pastas.

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Now that you are rarely home for dinner, I realize it is time to give you a tool or two going forward to comfort yourselves.  I expect you to share this with your friends.  Share it with all the people you love. Some of them will hurt you.  Share anyway.  I want to give you one of the most basic life skills ever, and I hope it will help.

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I want you to have the perfect roasted chicken recipe.

Everyone should know how to cook one.  But you will be among the few who do.  Consider it an embrace from me.  The day after you cook it, you can have sandwiches and chicken salad (hug!).  The day after that, put what’s left of that gorgeous carcass in the pot and make chicken soup (kiss!).

Now, before you get started, I acknowledge that you three spend hours in the gym on a regular basis to get the kind of lean body mass that eats skinless chicken breasts and brown rice.  It’s working.

The world never saw three more beautiful people.

But, at least once a month, you ought to cook chicken the way it was meant to be, under skin and on the bone.  Put a little butter on the skin (yes, that’s right, I said that), because life is about moderation in all things, including moderation.

You should be immoderate, a little, now and then.

As you bite into a crackling skin and meat so tender and complex it obviously had a long conversation with marrow during the cooking process, remember that your mother loves you.

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You will need:

Salt and Pepper
One young roasting chicken
Butter – 1 cube, plus a basting brush
1 Lemon
1 Head of Garlic, unpeeled
Thyme – 1 bunch
New potatoes (small red), or sweet potatoes peeled and cut into large cubes
Carrots, cut into large, rouch chunks

Pre-heat oven to 350. If your oven is not efficient, or does not hold heat, turn it up to 375.

Empty neck and liver, etc. out of center of chicken and discard. Just get in there and do it. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle salt and pepper inside the cavity. Put butter on stovetop to melt, or into microwave. Do not burn or allow to brown.

Cut the lemon into four parts. Put TWO into the cavity of the chicken. Cut garlic head in half across center, exposing as many of the cloves inside as possible by cutting them through the middle, like this:

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Put half into cavity of chicken. Put other two pieces of lemon into cavity, followed by other half of garlic head. Stuff sprigs of thyme in after, as many as you can fit in. They will be partially sticking out of the cavity. Place the chicken in a roasting pan. Brush very thoroughly and thickly with melted butter, getting it into every nook and cranny and crevice. GENEROUSLY salt and pepper the chicken. Most of the salt and pepper will run off into the vegetables, so don’t spare the seasoning.

Tuck the wings up against the body so they won’t burn. Truss the chicken by tying the ends of the drumsticks together with kitchen twine. That’s all you have to do in terms of trussing.  Just tie the two ankles together.  This keeps the drumsticks from burning, and the chicken from cooking too fast.

We must plan ahead to preserve the things we love.

Rough-cut the fennel, potatoes and carrots into large chunks. They should all be the same size. Arrange them around the chicken in the dish, nestling them firmly against the wings to keep them next to the body. If you have leftover butter, drizzle it over the vegetables. Put into the oven, and forget about it for at least an hour.

Just step away and let it happen. You’ve done everything you should have.

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Remove the chicken from the roasting pan after at least an hour. The skin should be uniformly brown, the legs should move easily, and the liquid should run clear when you stick a knife between the drumstick and the body. Cover the chicken with foil and let rest for twenty minutes. Turn the oven up to 425, toss the veggies in the pan to cover them in liquid, and put the pan back in the oven for the twenty minutes the chicken is resting to caramelize veggies, unless they are already pretty brown.

Enjoy the meat and veggies with the broth. There will be plenty of it.

chicken 10 You should eat this with a salad.  Dark, leafy greens like spinach and arugula.  They are so good for you.  Dress it simply — olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt.

chicken 7You should also drink white wine with this, something full and rich, with oak and a hint of mustard.  Because — I’m just being honest here — wine is good.

And you should also have dessert.  I have some very good dessert recipes.   But that’s another letter.

Very much love to each of you three (you will never now how much),


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