how to cook like a poet

beans and rice and rice and beans

Okay, okay, maybe I’m stretching the poetry angle here a bit. But the idea for this post came out of a Facebook conversation yesterday with fellow poets and parents after I posted this as my status:

Discovered last week that even if I don’t try to write, and just do mom/house stuff all the time I still can’t get it all done. Very freeing! The fantasy evaporates! Ever onward with my new motto: write first, do the “musts,” lower standards for all else.

There were several commiserating and hilarious comments from other poets and parents (some of which included socks, applesauce, legal pads, and fervent declarations of belief), and then the wise and excellent Molly Fisk weighed in with this:

Most women’s daily lists have three days-worth of tasks on them… Write. Feed your family real food. The rest is pretty much up in the air on a rotating basis…

Having read that, I decided to revise my motto. Motto 2.0: “Write. Feed your family real food. The rest is pretty much up in the air on a rotating basis.”

See, the thing is, the “real food” part of Motto 2.0 is actually really important to me. Sometimes I feel like a throwback, but I think one of my crucial jobs as a parent is to feed my kids healthy food and, of course, to teach them how to plan and prepare healthy meals so they know how to do it someday for their own families. I confess, I have an apron and wear it every day. I confess, I made Sister’s birthday cupcakes, which seemed to almost horrify some of the other parents. Them: “You cook? Do you cook every day? How did you learn to cook?” Me: “mumblingsomethingaboutbeingfromthemidwest.”

But back to cooking like a poet. One things parents and poets often have in common is that money can be scarce. Don’t get me wrong, our family is very fortunate, especially in this economy, to have a good income that covers all of our necessities and sometimes a few extras. Still, we do everything we can to live frugally, and one way to live frugally is to cook frugally (think “concisely”), but with care and attention. You know, like a poet. So, here’s my handy-dandy guide on how to cook like a poet:

1. eat seasonally  I grew up in Michigan where fruits and veggies roll out of the fields from May to October. We marked the year by what was in season: first asparagus, then strawberries in June, moving on through cherries mid-July, blueberries in time for my mom’s birthday, then the bounty of August: peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn, cukes, plums and apricots, the peaches, the earliest apples. Well, you get the idea. Here’s the thing: eating what’s in season costs less. When strawberries are $5.99 a carton, it’s because they’re out of season, and they taste like cardboard anyway. When they’re $5.99 for half-a-flat, they’re in season and completely delish. You can save lots of money and eat better produce by eating what’s in season.

2. plan ahead  I know, I know, this is the worst part. You actually have to sit down and figure out what you’re going to feed everyone all week. I hate it, too. But what I’ve found is that if I plan, I spend less money at the store and the whole week goes more smoothly. I’ve found it convenient to have a standard menu starting place, for example:

Monday – pasta
Tuesday – chicken
Wednesday – hearty soup, green salad, bread
Thursday – leftovers if any; if not, something vegetarian
Friday – pizza (often ordered in if budget allows)
Saturday – scrounge (my favorite night!)
Sunday – something on the grill

Having this backbone helps me fill in the week with recipes I know well (helpful hint: well-known recipes go most quickly, therefore maximizing your writing time!).

Also in the planning ahead department are two corollaries (say that the British way — it’s more fun): a. double and freeze: That’s right, make a double batch of spaghetti sauce and freeze half for next time. And b. parallel process: If your’re cooking on Monday night, prep Tuesday’s dinner right alongside. Both corollaries get you — you guessed it — more writing time! I’ll often start three meals on Monday afternoon. I figure I might as well cook while I’m cooking and free up some time later in the week. Not only that, but I find that if I cook a couple of nights a week, I very often have leftovers for later in the week. Oh, look, there’s another corollary: Cooking like a poet definitely involves serving c. leftovers whenever possible.

3. cook it yourself I know, I’m sorry, I sound like such a bore. Plan ahead. Double and freeze. Cook it yourself. But it really is cheaper and healthier. Of course, there are nights for everyone when cooking it yourself just won’t work. But if you can get into a routine of cooking it yourself most of the time, it becomes a habit and doesn’t (usually) seem hard anymore, unless you have children under the age of 3, in which case getting any meal on the table is nothing short of a miracle. And don’t forget to involve all members of the household in cooking it yourself, once they’re of an age when they’re more help than hindrance in the kitchen. This seems to be around ages 7 to 9, depending on the child.

4. one word: legumes  Legumes, such as beans and lentils, are very nourishing, very healthy, and very cheap. My older brother’s favorite money-saving advice is, “Beans and rice and rice and beans!” You can buy a bag of dry beans for a dollar. A little time and effort and you’ve got a meal for 11 cents a serving (I actually did this calculation once on the black beans and rice I make every week or two; it really did cost 11 cents a serving). We eat a lot of legumes in this family: lentils and pasta, beans and rice, lentil soup, navy bean soup, etc. They’re good, good for you, and nice on the budget.

5. two words: hot cereal  Do you want to know why your mother made you eat oatmeal on those cold winter mornings? Do you think it was because she wanted  you to have a nice, warm meal in your belly before you faced the blast of winter wind outside the door? Well, I have news for you: She made you eat oatmeal because she was broke! Hot cereal is one-bazillion times cheaper than cold cereal. It also allows you to determine how much sugar goes in the cereal bowl (unless you have a child like my middle child who is a sugar stealth bomber). We eat cold cereal, too, on days when there’s no time for anything else. But folding hot cereal into your breakfast rotation is a money saver. And it’s really yummy, especially with brown sugar and cream. Don’t skimp on the cream. One must sustain oneself, you know.

6. no guilt  I know you’ve been waiting for this one. We all do our best. Sometimes our best is homemade lentil soup, a loaf of bread, and a green salad. Sometimes it’s a peanut butter sandwich on paper plates. Sometimes we buy local, organic produce, sometimes we grab whatever’s closest and easiest, organic-orgshmanic. Food is such a gift, and having enough of it is such a gift. I try to avoid guilt around food — it tarnishes the sheen on the blessing.

*BONUS* One side benefit to cooking like a poet if you actually are a poet, is that, at least for me, working and dwelling in one’s body can loosen thoughts, words, and ideas from the depths of the subconscious. I am often seen dashing toward my desk in my apron, one hand covered in a potholder, and the pasta timer ringing, as I furiously scribble down a scrap of a poem or an idea for something I’m working on. Agatha Christie said: “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” She just might be right.

Bon apetit, Reader! And don’t forget:

Motto 2.0

we interrupt our regular programming to bring you spring break

A storm of rapid star births in Galaxy Centaurus A. Public domain from wikimedia.

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you Spring Break in the Peninsula Town (which should not be confused with November Break or Holiday Break or MLK Break or Winter Break or End-of-quarter Break or a week’s worth Minimum Day for conferences. Ahem.).

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you, no, not a trip to Maui, but instead several trips to The Container Store, the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the public library.

We interrupt last week’s warm-and-70 weather to bring you two days of non-stop rain.

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you one poet-mother working furiously in the pre-dawn hours and three early wakers.

We bring you many requests — one always different from another — for hot breakfasts, hot cocoa, hot tea, hot water bottles, Hot Tamales, and Hot Wheels.

We interrupt intentional revision to bring you revision-on-the-fly-oh-s&%T!-my-class-starts-in-an-hour-and-the-children-haven’t-been-fed.

We interrupt intentional meal planning and grocery shopping for the headlong, record-breaking fast trip for eggsmilkOJbreadTPstrawberriespears. We interrupt wholesome, homemade, real food, for the Thursday cave-in to corn dogs for lunch.

We interrupt environmental consciousness for the particular strand of guilt that accompanies paper plate use.

We interrupt long stretches of quiet with one thousand questions on the problem of suffering, life in other galaxies, and the existence of God. Not to mention human reproduction.

We bring you one mother who is trying to measure the interior of the closets in the new house, and three children talking to her all the while. We bring you many, many measurements taken twice or thrice, which may or may not be accurate.

We interrupt the reign of peace and calm with occasional losses of temper and, it’s true, this utterance: Don’t. Talk. To. Me. Right. Now.

We interrupt a part-time position as Deputy Ambassador (hours 3 – 8 p.m.) to the Republic of Siblinghood, with a full-time Ambassador position and the charge to negotiate a peace 72 times a day.

We interrupt a mother’s grand (or not so grand) plans with the not-so-subtle reminder that the point of being a parent is not to get your kids to do what you want them to do. Right now.

We bring you morning cuddles with lots of blankets. We bring you books read aloud, art projects, tennis games, playing Art Store. We bring you classic movies in the afternoons and favorite dinners.

We interrupt the usual routine with yelps of joy and fun, piles of wrestling children, filthy, and I mean filthy feet, and overheard conversations: “What does e pluribus unum mean?” “Oh, that’s Sacajawea’s boyfriend.” We bring you hours of children Nose-in-Book. We interrupt the usual flow of conversation to sing everything to the tune of “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top.” Y’know… just for fun.

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you the particular magical maddening beautiful exhausting exhilarating chaotic joy that is a house full of children, a storm of rapid star births in our little, blessed galaxy of home.

true confessions of an introverted homebody

Reader, I am an introverted homebody. I am fed by long stretches of silence between conversations, and by the peaceful environment of my home (never mind that this is exactly contrary to the requirements of parenting — that’s another post). I shy away from listening to voicemails. I hate picking up the phone to call people I don’t really know (pizza delivery, doctor’s offices, etc.). The thought of running errands can trigger my fight or flight response. Well, perhaps I exaggerate a bit. But not much. My point is that being an introverted homebody is the perfect recipe for, you guessed it, procrastination.

Procrastination is an interesting word, don’t you think? It’s really long — it almost procrastinates itself. It’s Latinate — so it makes us want to hide anyway (to wit, what sounds more manageable to you: “school’s cancelled because of a blizzard” or “the educational institutions are not operating due to inclement atmospheric conditions”?). It literally means to put things off until tomorrow: pro meaning forward; crastinus meaning belonging to tomorrow.

A little healthy procrastination is one thing, but too much and you can find you’ve suddenly crossed over into the country of Self-sabotage. Reader, my passport is stamped. I’m there.

The good news is that I haven’t been procrastinating in my writing life. Reading, writing, drafting poems — I’ve been doing this all along. Submitting and revising are another story — but just yesterday I did send some poems out into the world.

On the homefront, however, I am shame-faced. There are things I’ve been putting off since July: transferring medical records, making dentist appointments, updating our wills. There are also things I’ve been putting off, not since July, but as long as possible: prescription refills, a trip to the post office (to send out, amongst other things, The Handout), getting groceries. It’s to the point now where the procrastinated things have taken on a life of their own. They seem bigger than they should. They have me in their grip.

This is where it’s good to have friends. Just last night, I had a note from a friend who had also been procrastinating. But she finally pushed through her list and was feeling great. Whatever you’ve been putting off, she said, Just do it! You’ll feel so good after!

So, on this thankful Thursday, I’m grateful for friends, and for little nudges from the Universe that say, Now.

This morning I took a deep breath and called the pharmacy to request refills. Next on the list: the dentist appointments, then letters requesting transfer of medical records. I feel better already, just getting the ball rolling. I shall procrastinate no longer! I may even get groceries tomorrow –. Well, maybe Saturday.

amazon guilt

I confess, I sometimes buy things at amazon.com.

I confess, I feel guilty about this.

(sidebar: I confess, I’m old enough to remember when amazon was pretty much just a big long menu with a jungle-themed black and white banner, are you?)

This morning I wrestled mightily with that serpent-of-guilt. Here’s the story: I’m taking a spring term class through Stanford’s continuing studies department, and I needed to order the required texts. Normally when I buy poetry, I like to buy directly from the press that published the collection, or from the author’s website (I also try to patronize my friendly, neighborhood, independent bookseller whenever I can — usually for non-poetry books). But when I have to buy a whole bunch of books, I don’t want to pay separate shipping fees for each one. My go-to store for big batches of books is Powell’s, an independent bookseller in the Pacific Northwest. Not local, but regional, and independent.

This morning when I visited the Powell’s website and made my selections, the website grouped my books into three shipments, each with a $3.99 shipping charge. Ouch! I guiltily toggled over to amazon to see what their charges would be — what a deal: free shipping! Still, the guilt, the nagging guilt, the suffocating, nagging guilt! I went back over to Powell’s to see if I could find a way to weasel out of all the shipping charges, and what do you know but I found one. If you group your order into one shipment (slower) instead of several (faster), the shipping costs go way down. So, in the end, the Powell’s order ended up being less expensive than the same books would have cost on amazon, despite amazon’s free shipping.

I confess, I’m so glad to have saved myself from amazon guilt.

I also confess that sometimes I still buy things from amazon, especially around the holidays when I’m shipping things all over the country. And also when I’m trying like anything to avoid a trip to the shopping center in the College Town. And I still feel guilty about it.

Why am I writing this post? I guess because I just want to say that, sometimes, if you can wait and if you try hard, you can find away around the behemoth that is amazon.

And also because, I confess: I’m dying to know if other people have amazon guilt, too. Reader, tell me I’m not alone!