30 November 2009

Post-Racial World My A$$

To those who proclaim we've "moved beyond color"; who point to President Obama as proof that we're all on a level playing field now; who file lawsuits to prove that it is, in fact, white people who are discriminated against today; who think that the Emancipation Proclamation put a definitive end to our country's ugly chapters of racial inequity-

I offer this.

I sometimes hear about "surly black folks". Even typing that makes my skin crawl. As if melatonin predicted behavior, or mood! I haven't yet had the opportunity to point out to the party that utters this loaded phrase that it was a mere generation ago that Black people in Mississippi were fired, evicted, assaulted, shot at - for what audacious, unpardonable, unspeakable act? Registering to vote. That was only one generation ago.

It's rough out there, folks. Let's make an effort to be good to each other, shall we?

Let Us Now Praise Unknown Women

My Aunt Martha sets the domestic arts bar pretty high in our family. This is a woman who has been known to dry and grind her own corn for cornbread, people. She ain't messing around. Every fall she "puts up" (I love that expression) her own applesauce and apple butter. Don't get me wrong, my mom and sister and I are no slouches or anything. We join her in that endeavor whenever we're able, but the trip is a tad far for me to make these days, alas.

Fortunately, for my birthday she gave me a veritable cornucopia of thoughtful things for my kitchen, from hers: a beautiful butternut squash grown in my Uncle's prodigious garden, a Portuguese ceramic casserole dish and some irresistible home made canned goods:

Clockwise from back left: My mom's raspberry jam, Martha's apricot preserves, pickled beets, and apple butter.

Here is a recipe (adapted from Nigella Lawson) to thank her - because I know she's probably up to her ears in butternut squash about now - for a frugal, easy, delicious and what the hey, vegetarian dish.

Butternut Orzotto -- like a risotto, but made with barley instead of rice.

Serves 8-10

1 butternut squash
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp mace
1 onion, chopped
16 oz barley
1/2 cup vermouth or white wine
5 cups hot vegetable stock (and more for reheating)
½ cup creme fraiche
¼ cup pine nuts
1 tsp finely chopped sage

Preheat oven to 425. Halve the butternut, remove seeds and cut into cubes. Don't bother peeling.

Toss butternut cubes in a casserole pan with olive oil and half a teaspoon of the mace. Roast for 40-50 minutes, until tender.

Saute the onion over low heat for 10 minutes.

Add the barley to the onions, stir for about two minutes. Turn heat up to high, add vermouth or wine and let it cook down.

Add hot vegetable stock, put a lid on it and cook gently for about 30 minutes.

Remove squash from oven when tender and put half in a blender with half the creme fraiche. Blend. Add this to the cooked barley and season to taste.

Add remaining creme fraiche with remaining squash cubes and mace. Stir.

Toss the pine nuts in a hot, dry frying pan until golden.

Stir half the pine nuts into the orzotto and garnish top with remaining half and sage.

27 November 2009

Photo Finish Friday: Green Beans R Us

Follow my apron strings to see who is ready for her first taste of green bean casserole...

Here's hoping everyone had many many blessings to count yesterday.


Being More, Buying Less this Holiday Season

Today is Black Friday, the day Americans go bezerk and buy all kinds of marked down junk in the name of saving money on Christmas purchases . I'll admit, part of me would love to have gone to Kohl's at 4 am for their Black Friday sale, mostly because I love making the mundane into an Event. And with a friend, a stop for donuts and a thermos of coffee (like the one my dad used when I was a kid) it could have been fun. But you, my reader, know sleep is a precious commodity these days.

It's just as well, really. Because in my heart of hearts I know better. Our days of shopping as national past time are (for the time being anyway) drawing to a close. In fact, I celebrate the downsizing of the what had become a Roman orgy of conspicuous consumption, the zenith - or nadir, really - of which was the appalling death by stampede at a Wal-Mart last Black Friday.

Snowy Ponderosa pines courtesy sfu.ca

My motto? Create more, consume less. My policy regarding holiday decorations, for instance, has long been "Only the Ephemeral". To avoid A) spending tons and B)stuffing my house full of unnecessary plastic, decorations must either be used up - candles, decorated sugar cookies - or tossed out. That means pine branches, mistletoe and holly sprigs at Christmas. If I get really ambitious, I might make my own menorah out of some natural material. What could be more appropriate at Halloween and Thanksgiving than pumpkins and gourds? Or lilies, tulips and dyed eggs at Easter? I've always been happier focusing on the seasonal element of the holidays. We don't get much of that here in perma-sunny Southern California, so I have to do what I can to make the most of what little seasonal variation we get. Most of the ephemeral elements are the most ancient anyway; what our progenitors would have used long ago to mark special occasions. Call me old fashioned, but I'm kinda into that.

Don't get me wrong - I'd love to be able to buy two for one cashmere sweaters or a set of vintage light-up snowmen for the front lawn. I'm in a constant battle to fight my own acquisitive nature. (It really is an affliction, this love of pretty, pretty things.) But when money is tight, not buying is the only choice. Even in good economic times, making instead of buying makes sense. The best birthday I gave Mr. S was the year he woke up to find eucalytpus branches (his favorite smell) garlanded around our four-poster bed. One Valentines Day I created a tent on our side porch out of thrift-store-found sheets dyed pink. I hung candle-lit lanterns we and reclined on a bed of cushions, where I fed him roast lamb while his favorite albums played. Whatever gifts we exchanged those years didn't make it into my permanent memory bank. But the tent and eucalyptus are impossible to forget.

There exists another motivation for this: Be more and buy less. If you saw the recent Oprah episode, you know that the Danes are considered the happiest people on the planet. ("They've got the answers to the things we don't even have questions for yet!" my friend who recently returned form Denmark exclaimed.) People in Denmark, it seems, chose professions not by the corresponding status or income, but by what work will bring them satisfaction. They may be taxed a lot more, but with their health care and education provided for by the state, they needn't worry. They may make less, but they don't need as much as we seem to. As a result, they tend to have less junk in their homes (and lives) to manage. And more time to do whatever brings them joy - like spend time with family, or create art.

All the more reason why this year, now that we're a single income family, Mr. Sybarite may not be getting the latest piece of electronic wizardry, as in years past (sorry, honey.) Instead, I've got a little something homemade up my sleeve I think might please him just as much. Stay tuned - I'll tell later but don't want to spoil the surprise for him yet!

Perhaps the pendulum has finally, happily, swung: from our rampant collective case of affluenza to an appreciation of the simple, the homemade, the smart and resourceful. I kinda wish I could take a Home Ec class to learn the basics every household once utilized - like how to freeze, can, and other old-fashioned methods to create more and consume less. Or how about a handy person course, where I could learn my way around a saw, a drill and other basic tools? Why shouldn't our status be measured by how self-sufficient we can be, instead of by what sits in our driveway?

Now that I've got a daughter, I'm trying to make the conscious choice to make the holidays meaningful. I endeavor to teach her that Christmas is not about Stuff, either buying it, or getting it (Season's Greedings!) Instead I look forward to creating our own family traditions revolving around food (my own personal national past time) and the people we love. I'd like to teach her that people matter more than things, a lesson I'm still learning myself.

25 November 2009

Bean There, Done That

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was spelled G-r-a-n-d-m-a-'s H-o-u-s-e. We weren't big on culinary innovations there - the menu may as well have been carved into the cement driveway leading up to her laundry room door, where kith and kin entered (the front door being strictly for Company). As a result, the smells and tastes of that exact meal left their indelible mark on me, and are what I crave each November.

My mother moved back to her Midwestern hometown the same year my Grandmother died, forever upsetting my family's center of gravity. It's taken me a few years to get used to celebrating holidays without my family. But the ex-pats I run with have softened the blow. One of the occupational hazards of emigrating is finding oneself orphaned on holidays. Friends fill the vacuum of missing family, and sometimes are actually more fun. I've learned to cope.

Which brings me to the dish I've volunteered to bring to tomorrow's pot luck for 30 orphans:
Green bean casserole.

I'm guessing that my mother's version of green bean casserole was installed into our Thanksgiving canon somewhere in the neighborhood of 1962, judging by the racy inclusion of ... wait for it ... canned water chestnut. Whose charms were always lost on me. Even without that touch of the "exotic", GBC was a non-starter on my plate. Swallowed up by a mountain of mashed potatoes and drenched in gravy, it was benign enough. But now that I'm focusing all my attention on this one dish, it simply doesn't withstand scrutiny.

The dish doesn't exactly arrive with sterling pedigree. It was originally created to lure Campbell soup cans off the shelf back in the 1950's. The looming threat of nuclear annhiliation must have made processed foods seem like a good idea. The casserole's creator's name was Dorcas, for crying out loud. Would you trust your palate to someone named Dorcas? Surely, a better version exists out there in cyberlandia.

Epicurious.com, my go to for all things culinary, had but one lonely Nigella Lawson recipe for green bean casserole, a casserole in name only thanks to the dish she recommends serving it in.

The Joy of Cooking,"revised for the first time since 1974 for today's lifestyle", has no love for the GBC, and not even a single listing under cassserole! Better Homes and Gardens circa 1996 offered the typical cream of mushroom variety, but I think I might be morally opposed to ever using cream of mushroom soup.

Back on the internet I did a general search and decided slumming it on FoodNetwork.com might not be the death of me. But Paula Deen, Alton Brown and even the non-celebrichef recipes were all variations on the cream of mushroom version

When I volunteered to make this dish, I'd envisioned elevating it out of the realm of (I'm just gonna say it) white trash cuisine. I've never made bechamel sauce, but I was willing. Now I feel to remove the cream of gelatinous beige plop might rob the dish of it's very essence, if not it's raison d'etre.

Does anyone out there have a better way to make this dish?

20 November 2009

Photo Finish Friday: Turkey Count Down T-minus 6 Days

2006, Thanksgiving, Chez les Sybarites.

19 November 2009

Serious Style for Shut-Ins

During the thirty-five minutes Ms. Baby napped this morning, I decided to try and gussy up. Not that I have plans to go anywhere or see anyone, apart from her, the cat and my husband (but then, some would consider gussying up for him de rigeur).

I started with my outfit. Black leggings, a long tunic, and.... what will we have today? Gladiator sandals? Nah. Too Summer '09. Clogs? Oh no no no. Gold ballet flats, ladies and gentlemen. To cheer me up.

As I hadn't felt like risking the time to take a shower (oh, two and half hour naps, we hardly knew ye!), I teased my dirty hair (neeener-neeener, dirty hair!) then pulled it up into a non-chalant, intentionally unintentional ponytail. There.

And yet. Hmmm. I sez to myself in the mirror. How to feel better about not showering? Think.


Zut alors! I'll just pretend I'm French! When I lived in France, it wigged me out for all of a demi-second to notice that people wore the same outfit two, even three days in a row. Then I got right on board that train. So. French it is. A twist of the pony, insert one bobby pin, et voila! A french twist. Hey, Oscar Blandi says women should only wash their hair once a week. Maybe he's just trying to sell dry shampoo, but it does make styling a lot easier.

Somewhere my French inspiration got swirled up with my recent viewing of My Fair Lady Tuesday, so I decided to take a mild left turn - I was already half way there with the ballet flats and leggings - into Audrey Hepburn Land.
On went the strong eyebrow. Yes to the heavy dark doe-eye liner.
Does anyone else think this much about what they are going to wear, at home - more or less alone - all day? Because the thinking didn't stop there.

I decided: it is a good time, sartorial-ly speaking, to be a new mom, thanks to the legging. If you're going to buy one new piece this season - and who can afford much more than that, really, with Christmas looming, and jobs scarce and universal health care still a dream? - it may as well be the legging. (Ever notice that fashion-speak always amputates every plural into the singular? To wit: a "smoky eye", the "red lip", a "chocolate suede boot"; as if I only found one boot at the thrift store, but it was a Christian Louboutin, brand new, in my size, and so gorgeous I decided to buy and wear it anyway, by itself - the other foot bare. I never understood that.)

So without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons to stop hating on Lindsay Lohan and Embrace the Legging!

1. Think Price Point
The $12 charge on your Target receipt is easily hidden amongst less discretionary purchases.

2. Think Comfort
What else is warm enough to keep away the chill on those nippy early morning walks, but cool enough after you've pushed the stroller up four hills and downed your first Extra-Hot Venti Latte?

3. Think Camouflage
In black, under something long, it hides any recent matronly shape you may not have rid or reconciled yourself to yet.

4. Think Practical
I can bend over, sit on the floor cross legged, hitch myself over a baby gate and squat tub-side with nary a thought.

5. Versatility
Repeat after me: goes with almost everything. It can freshen up those long empire-waisted maternity tops - unless like me you were so sick of looking at them you all but burned them post-partum.

I know what you're thinking, if you're anything like me: but I wore leggings the first time around! Yes, but that was in 1992, with a triple-XL Gap chambray shirt that looked like you stole it from the laundry room at San Quentin, and those weird sawed-off cowboy bootie-things. This is different. This is today. This is easy.

If only getting Bunni to nap were so easy.

16 November 2009

Faux-to Finish Friday

El Dorado Hills, CA Oct. 31, 2009

A day late and a dollar short, perhaps. Nevertheless, here's your photo to finish off the Friday the 13th we all just survived.

Return of the Riot: Part Two

In my last installment your hostess was knee deep in prayer for sleep. Those bags under my eyes? Too big to carry on. FAA Guidelines required me to check those bad boys. Mama was tye-uhrd. So tired that I actually considered a 14-hour train ride back home alone with an infant. It would have given me a few days extra after Mr. Sybarite had to drive home, which meant Bunni's baby-friendly auntie, grandma, grandpa, uncle and cousins could lighten my baby-caring load a bit. But fourteen hours folks, without anyone to spell me.

Yeah, fatigue-induced delirium.

Anyway, the morning of Mr. S's impending departure, Bunny Bu woke up - as per usual - at the hairy butt crack of dawn with one very full diaper. Changing her did little to ready her for more sleep. That's when her daddy took pity on me and decided to try to get her to fall back to sleep the only way she knew how: by bouncing her on a yoga ball. Within seconds I gratefully fell back into a deep slumber; only to wake to a terrifying thud, and howling.

The ball had burst. Literally. As in, out from under Mr. S and baby Bu. Dumping them onto the cold, hard floor. The ball had burst figuratively, too. It was now time for two things: to go home, and to get our little girl to learn how to sleep.

But how? If I told you the answer would be found at a truck stop off Interstate 5, would you believe me?

Until the next installment: 10-4 good buddies. Over and out.

Return of the Riot Part Three: In which our heroine finds religion.

Sutter Creek, California. 2009

Okay, not really. But when you're as tired as I was, solutions feel an awful lot like miracles.

Continuing on from Part Two...

With our collective bubble burst, we packed our things and headed back for home. But not before the Mister was kind enough to babysit whilst I made a visit to the best lil' thrift store in El Dorado County, where, Eureka! I struck gold in the form of a black Gap down jacket, midnight blue patent leather Ecco flats, and 12 Williams Sonoma napkins - each of one of the 12 days of Christmas. As the thrifting high faded to fumes in my system, we departed. Let me just say, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the long journey, the long sleepless night, or the very long days ahead of us without a full extended family as support.

At a gas station off the 5 we stopped for coffee and spied a couple with a babe about Bunni's age. Leery of the imminent tantrum putting her back in her car seat was sure to provoke, we walked over to introduce the babies.

The other couple and ourselves engaged in one of those new parent conversations that inevitably led to the topic of sleep. The attractive, well-groomed mother stated matter of factly, "our baby sleeps 12 hours a night. And takes two 2 hours naps every day".

How very nice for you.

I was too filled with roiling envy and hatred to hear anything else she said, but Mr. S paid better attention to the rest - something to do with a book about sleep training. Ha! Sleep training! How barbaric! How uncivilized! What an atrocious thing to subject one's offspring to. Children are not dogs, one does not train them.

Back in the car, Ms. BunBun bagan to cry, setting off air raid sirens of panic shrieking in my head. Sensing my anxiety, the Mister delcared that if she was still crying in an hour's time we would pull over. She'd never cry that long! I thought to myself.

Somewhere up on his lightening-flash-lit cloud throne, God sniggered.

Sixty minutes later, my nerves frayed to wisps, my jaw clenched tighter than a pit bull's and my hands asleep from sitting on them to keep from peeling the face off my skull, she was still crying. She's never cried this long in her entire life! Surely we're inflicting ireperable harm on the poor defenseless child. We're horrible parents and she'll never trust us again. Because of us she'll probably become a prescription drug addict and a tax evader and one of those people that bumps their grocery cart into yours without even looking up let alone say "Sorry", and it's all our fault.

"That's it. Enough. Pull over," I demanded.

I scrambled out of my seat and into the back to unleash her from her tortuous bonds. The moment Bunni was freed from her car seat straps, the most beatific smile spread across her face. As if nothing in the entire world was wrong, was ever wrong, or could ever be wrong. She was fine.

And I had learned that crying is not the end of the world.

As we started back up again and her crying commenced (mercifully dying down after she fell asleep a few minutes later) I downloaded the sleep training book in question and whisper-read it to Mr. S the whole way home.

Two nights later, to my utter shock and glee, without warning or discussion, my husband (my hero!) began the training. He was now officially in charge of waking up at night to get her back to sleep. Euphoria washed over me as I lay in bed knowing I would not be getting out of bed every hour that night.

And you know what foks? It worked. By golly, it actually worked.

So you could call the couple at the gas station messengers from God, or Allah, the Universe, or whatever you want to call the Powers That Be. Trust me folks, I never intended this to be a pulpit or a blog about faith. But two weeks of consistent 7 hour nights of sleep has me almost converted. In honor of Thanksgiving tomorrow, thank you, nameless couple on the 5. And thank you Whomever is in Charge for hearing my prayers.

Return of the Riot: Part One

Wow. Yeah. So this is a little awkward.

It's been a while.

How have you, uh, been?

I've been thinking of you, reader. I really have. But things took sort of a turn.

See, when I started this blog, my darling baby daughter was on a beautiful sleeping streak. Which meant I was sleeping fairly decently, too. I woke up feeling pretty good. Most nights I was even assured a glass of wine, a leisurely dinner with my beloved, and most importantly to you - time to write. But then things got hairy.

Sleeping Beauty left the building. In other words, the Bunni's periods of sleep got shorter and shorter, until she was sleeping only two hours at a stretch. Factor in that after picking her up, nursing her, and waiting for her to fall asleep beside me, one hour later I was up again to put her back in her crib. Then an hour later - "Hey Mom! I'm awake! Here I am! Feed me, already!"

Multiply that little scenario by 4 or five times each night and you can imagine how I felt come morning.

Now, I never intended for this to be a blog about being a mom. There are other writers out there doing a bang-up job of that already (see JJ, mama::millieu, Willow and Sweet Jane, to name just a few). But somewhere in the last month or two, the mom part of my life unceremoniously swallowed everything else whole.

I was wrecked. Even after two whole weeks up north with my family - where Mr. Sybarite and I were spoiled for help with the Bunni girl - I felt like I was drowning. I just didn't have the energy to do anything but hang on.

In all honesty readers, I didn't want to write about that (this is supposed to be about joy, after all). Even if I could have. Which I couldn't.

To illustrate just how desperate I was, I'll reveal something pretty private (which, for someone who blogs, I'm surprisingly reluctant to do).

I started praying.

Me, the lapsed Bible Bunny, who had something of a falling out with the Powers That Be about a decade or two ago. But I didn't know what else to do.

Here's a re-enactment of a typical prayer last week, around 3:30 am, in the pitch dark of my sister's guest room, with a writhing bundle of non-sleeping Bunni in my arms:

Hi, God.
Its me.

Wow. Yeah. So this is a little awkward.

It's been a while.

How have you, uh, been? I know - its been a long time. And I know you've got a lot on your plate. I hate to bug you, especially when there are women and girls being brutalized in the Congo, with global warming wiping out subsistence farmers in the third world, with Americans losing their jobs, falling into foreclosure and bankruptcy because they can't afford basic health care. But if you could just see to it that this babygirl will actually stay asleep when I lay her down this time, and not pop up and open her eyes like the last 4 times I tried to put her down - I'd be really, really grateful. Because I'm pretty tired down here.

Um, thank you.

You know what's crazy? Most times these prayer-things I wove together out of limp strands of depseration and exhaustion, scraggily anxiety and hope, and a fair amount of sheepishness - they actually worked.

But I hear La Bu stirring in the nursery, which means Mama Syb is back on duty, which means, dear reader, I must sign off for the time being. Just to ensure my return (and to entice yours, too) I'm serializing. A little something to look forward to, if you will.

Next installment: the bubble bursts.

And hey, thanks for sticking around.