I have a lot of feelings about lunch boxes, none of them especially genial. But as this teeny tiny person that I only just recently brought home from the hospital, barely able to utter a “beh” and now able to fill a 2-hour car ride back from a beach house with all the words every uttered (hm, wonder where he gets it) begins kindergarten this week, and will do so with a lunchbox in hand, I’ve realized that the only way to move forward with my grouchy feelings about lunch boxes is to air them here, in this town’s square, and then move on.
The first weeks in a new apartment are always about comparisons: The living room is smaller; the kid’s room is a little bigger. Our room is narrower and contains only one closet that we must share (uh-oh) but also maybe six inches longer, and in those inches, we no longer routinely stub our toes on our dressers while fumbling around in the morning like the old people we’ve unfairly become. The living room gets less natural light, but for the strangest reason: a massive leafy oak tree outside, something I’ve walked by at the sidewalk level for over five years and never noticed. What is this, Brooklyn or something?
Because we did not move this past weekend after all, we ended up with a bit of free time which we used to do some overdue purging. I’m sorry if this shatters your misplaced image of me as some sort of domestic goddess, but my signature move is shoving something into a closet and slamming the door before anything falls out and then willfully ignoring its pleas for mercy — come on, you do it too, right? anyone? Sigh. And so we dug out, removing three giant trash bags of stuff we should have gotten rid of a while ago, two of clothes and one of (shh, please don’t tell on us) toys. Just 10 or 12 move before this apartment is Pinterest-ready! i.e. vast amounts of open space uncluttered by the existence of actual human beings.
There’s nothing worth eating in Texas that Lisa Fain can’t teach you to make better in your own kitchen, from perfect, simple carnitas, kolaches, and chicken-fried steak to breakfast tacos, frito pie and peach buttermilk ice cream, plus two cookbooks worth of wonders (drool break for the buttermilk and bacon fat flour tortillas from her latest) but my favorite recipe of hers uses only three ingredients and is addictive enough to put on everything.
Every summer, I make a note on my Oh My God Good Vegetables Are Finally Here! cooking to-do list (what, you don’t keep one?) to post about how to make classic dill pickles. Every week they’re available, I pick up nearly a bucket of perfect-for-pickling kirby cucumbers from the Greenmarket for my cucumber-junkie family with the greatest intention of finally making good on this promise. And I never, ever do. It might be that the first couple times I tried, many years ago, my always-too-hot kitchen molded both jars, traumatizing me at the end of the jars’ incubation periods. It might be that because I live in NYC, when I want an insanely good sour pickle, I just go to The Pickle Guys on Essex Street or track down some from Guss’. Like bagels, killer soup dumplings, or Halal cart street meat, amazing pickles are in a category of food you have to be extremely driven and possibly cuckoo to make at home in NYC. I mean, I am, but apparently not enough.
New York City is a terrible place to summer. Whereas some water-bound towns have cool breezes rolling in off the ocean all day, we can better rely on the hot exhale of garbage trucks. Offices are set to roughly the same temperature as a polar ice cap, but subway platforms are so unfathomably sweltering that on my first day in NYC 14 years ago, I — adorably, like the wee baby New Yorker I was — uttered the words, “Is this even legal?” It’s a rare day that you don’t walk down the sidewalk and have a window a/c unit drip you-don’t-want-to-know run-off on your head. Flip-flops may cool your feet outside, but you may never recover from seeing the new color of your toes at the end of a day, and it always seems like everyone but me has Summer Fridays. The city tries, it really does, to make things more livable: the 14 beaches are free, there are dozens and dozens of free public pools, something like a zillion sprinkler parks, and you know all those endless photos you see of children frolicking in spraying fire hydrants? Hardly a symbol urban decay, it’s actually legal and encouraged. But the fact is that from July 4th on (and possibly earlier this year), anyone that has the means to be elsewhere is, and the rest of us plebes schvitz it out on the pavement.
Every time I make an Ottolenghi recipe, I become convinced that he has finally lost his mind. Really, turmeric, black sesame seeds and parmesan together? Three tablespoons of fresh oregano? A full half-cup of tahini? And as my anxiety grows — you see, I, too, understand the bubble of time, ingredients and trust that we invest into new recipes, which, when popped, leads to the kind of frustration that can only be righted with a scalding review — I wonder if this will be it, the day I finally make an Ottolenghi recipe that’s just plain off. And, without fail, we sit down to something so spectacular in a way I hadn’t even considered before, I’m in awe of his talent and relieved that I ignored every instinct not to follow his recipe faithfully.