It's soup season

Autumn.  It's my absolute favorite.  I love everything about it.  Every year I find myself begging Autumn to stick around for a while.  I missed fall altogether last year.  I was sweltering in the stagnant heat of Rio de Janeiro, trying to imagine what jeans and a sweater felt like.  My mom sent me a package of fall-scented candles, a journal, and a collection of fall leaves that had consequently molded en route from Chi-town to Rio.  So this year autumn is that much sweeter.

Sometimes autumn catches me by surprise, and I wonder what happened to summer. Then suddenly we are talking about "the holidays."  Stop.  The holidays will be here before you know it so just let live and enjoy all that is October.

I had my first pumpkin spice latte (don't judge me or my addiction) with my dear friend Sam while visiting in Alaska.  And I am taking full advantage of all the lovely fall produce at our farmer's market.  Already indulged in a jug of cider, honeycrisp apples, and there's an acorn squash on the counter begging to be roasted with a sprig of rosemary.

I love autumn harvest.  It is the simple, earthy, and unsophisticated food that is my favorite.  I have begun to live and eat much more in tune with the seasons, and therefore, have learned to love fruits and vegetables within their natural season of growth.  Eating and living this way will change the way you think about food and that first July tomato will be sweeter than ever.  

I went up to my sister's last week on my day off - to catch up and cook together.  We settled on a lovely little French Onion Soup recipe I found in the newspaper that is simple, hearty, and the perfect dish for a crisp fall evening.  We used sweet yellow onions and a Sam Adams Octoberfest beer to deglaze the pan - the beer gives your onions such amazing flavor. Also, we settled on vegetable stock over beef (vegetarian) and it was delicious, but I'm sure beef stock would have even more flavor.  We used a blend of cheeses - a sharp white cheddar and Asiago.  This recipe is easily adaptable for any number of people but beware, once you start caramelizing those onions, your neighbors will come calling!

Makes 1 gallon

3 pounds onions, thinly sliced
2 ounces butter
12 ounces dark beer
1 gallon beef or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Toasted baguette slices
1 1/4 pounds Gruyere or Asiago cheese, grated

In a large stock pot, sweat onions in butter over medium-low heat until they turn golden brown, watching so they don't burn.  This will take some time, but don't rush it, otherwise the onions will be bitter (he's right, it takes some time - don't underestimate the power of properly caramelized onions and allow plenty of time for the onions to do their thing). While your onions are sweating, slice and toast your baguette in the oven for a few minutes.

Deglaze pan with beer, turn up heat and cook until beer is reduced by half.  Add stock, bring soup to simmer and cook until onions are tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper (remember your cheese can be quite salty so easy on the salt).  

Portion soup out into ramekins or other oven-safe bowls.  Garnish each portion with toasted baguette slices.  Top generously with cheese and brown under a broiler.


This Pig Wants to Party

This week I heard a magical interview with Maurice Sendak on NPR's Fresh Air.  You might recognize his name from Where the Wild Things Are, the author's most famous book.  The host of Fresh Air, Terry Gross, interviewed Maurice Sendak on his latest book, Bumble-ardy, about an orphaned pig who wants to party.  

A program that began as an interview about the author's latest work became a tender and intimate exchange, as Maurice Sendak reflected on his 83 years of life - all the death and sadness, the blessings and joys, the creativity and hard work of an artist.

Sendak was caring for his friend and partner of 50 years when he wrote Bumble-ardy, an experience which I think is reflected in the depth and humor of this pig's story.

"When I did Bumble-ardy, I was so intensely aware of death," he says.  "Eugene, my friend and partner, was dying here in the house when I did Bumble-ardy.  I did Bumble-ardy to save myself.  I did not want to die with him.  I wanted to live as any human being does. But there's no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house. ... Bumble-ardy was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own.  And it took a long time.  It took a very long time."

The honesty and intimacy of Sendak's words brought me to tears.  He spoke of a life well-lived, of great fullness and satisfaction.  But he also spoke of loneliness and death with such depth as I've never heard before.  There was something in his voice, in his words, that tugged at the spirit deep within me.  It called out to the artist and personhood in me to live and create just as fully.  I wish there were more people like Maurice Sendak in the world, not more lonely 83 year-old men, just more writers, artists, honest thinking and living people who could speak of their life's work and their relationships in such profound gratitude and sincerity.  I only hope that at 83 years old, by the grace of God, I will be able to speak of life and death with the same integrity of spirit and greatness of soul.  

In turn, I offer you, Mr. Sendak, all the hope that is in me, the confidence with which I believe in a life beyond this one.  A world of wholeness, divine peace, and redemption.  I thank you for your honesty and your wisdom, your dedication to the creative act, for writing whatever came to you - whether it be a poem about a nose or the story of a pig who wants nothing but a party.  I beseech you to embrace all the grace, hope and splendor of this world of wonder as you live out your life.

Now, if you haven't already paused to hear it, go and listen to Maurice Sendak's words:  This Pig Wants to Party: Maurice Sendak's Latest.

"Live your life, live your life, live your life."


Into the wild

It's been a while.  I did not intend to follow my post on the battle to write with an extended absence.  But I like to think that all this living I've been doing will inform my writing.  This past week has been filled with nothing but work and recovering from work. Our patisserie hosted a booth at Oak Park's Oaktoberfest this weekend, featuring Bavarian style pretzels and cream puffs with Bavarian cream.  It was a good time.  The weather was perfect - just the right amount of autumn crispness in the air.  Our pretzels and puffs were a hit, and by the end of it we were all sort of stumbling around in an exhaustion-induced stupor. 

Before that, I was away, frolicking around the wild Alaskan frontier.  A good friend of mine lives in Fairbanks, AK and my visit was long overdue.  I left Chicago and after much ado arrived in Fairbanks, a day and a half later, to some of the most beautiful views I've ever seen.  We drove down to Valdez for a few days of camping and fishing.  I couldn't read on our drive down for fear I'd miss a mountain, much less a moose or bear.  Autumn has fully arrived in Alaska, all the tree tops have been doused in shades of gold.  Is it possible to have too many photos of mountains?  Valdez is just how I imagined Alaska - a tiny little fishing village along the coast of Southeast Alaska with the mountains at its back. Fisherman flock to the local bakery for a morning coffee and everyone schlepps around in their Xtra Tufs, the chosen boot of Southeast Alaska.  We braved the cold and constant rain for a few solid hours of salmon fishing - all the salmon are headed up stream to spawn and die.  I caught my first salmon, saw my first moose and imagined what it would be like to hole up in a cabin somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness, one of the toughest and most extreme landscapes I've seen.  En route to Denali National Park we stopped at Stampede Road, and I remembered Chris McCandless' own despairing fate in wild Alaska.  It is a place of great glory, yet far from glamour.

The view from where I sit is rather plain in comparison.  There's not much to be said for mountains in Chicago.  There is no wildlife on my walk to work.  And if I want to fish, I must go to Montrose Harbor, with Lake Michigan as a small stand in for the ocean.  But all my travels have helped me realize the great purpose with which we have been created and placed.  I find joy in knowing that I am where I am for a purpose.  I believe that God desires us to embrace the place in which we find ourselves - whether it be Chicago or the Alaskan frontier.  The amazing thing about this wild ride is that we are like those streams of salmon, ever on the move and working towards a greater realization of our purpose.  

I think a lot about transformation and renewal.  The change of seasons always brings me back to the thought that we are living beings, surrounded by other living things.  We do not grow and grow and grow until we reach a peak where we remain.  Our lives, our bodies, our minds and spirits are forever in motion, caught in this graceful rhythm of life and death. We must simply be awake enough to see it and to embrace it, otherwise like my journey to Valdez, we could finally get "there" (wherever or whatever "there" is) only to have missed all the beauty in our wanderings.


Doing what you love

I have been struggling with my writing lately, not knowing how to organize my thoughts or how to pull together my mess of stories and thoughts into something coherent and readable.  When I don't write, I miss it.  But sometimes when I finally sit down to write, I hardly know where to begin.  I love composing a new post.  I love knowing that people read it.  I love having a collection of writings, a testimony to the life I live.  I am wondering, yet, how it will all come together - if it will come together.  I am encouraged by the work of creative nonficition writers like Molly Wizenburg, Donald Miller and Anne Lamott who somehow manage to make their lives, their stories, into a beautifully cohesive assemblage that so delightfully encapsulates who they are as a writer and a person.  That's what I'm going for.

I am encouraged by Molly Wizenburg's recent blog post on writing and How we do what we do.  I too love Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, her book of instructions on writing and life.  It has been an invaluable tool in my journey as an artist and writer.  I think what I love most about that book is the title.  She tells the story of her 10-year old brother sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by books, brooding over a book report on birds.  Their father so tenderly advises him, "Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird."

Right.  Bird by bird.  I had forgotten.

The enormity of my task, my dream, had gotten the better of me.  The subtitle of Anne Lamott's book is Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  They go together those two, writing and life.  A writer's work will forever be influenced by her life.  And consequently, the life of a writer will swirl around the unending task of writing.  Anne Lamott talks about carrying index cards around wherever she goes so that if a thought, a verse, or an idea comes to mind she can write it down for later.  She tells a story of a particularly hellish time in her writing life when she goes to see her pastor for a bit of guidance.

     "We talked for a while...  I said that I was all over the place, up and down, scattered, high, withdrawing, lost, and in the midst of it all trying to find some elusive sense of serenity.  'The world can't give that serenity,' he said.  'The world can't give us peace.  We can only find it in our hearts.'
     'I hate that,' I said.
     'I know.  But the good news is that by the same token, the world can't take it away.' "

I need to remember that.  I implore you to do the same.  Discover what it is that you love and do that.  And don't ever let it go.  Seek all the peace and serenity your soul has to offer.  And remember to take it bird by bird.