There were so many reasons to celebrate, yesterday.
On August 26th of last year, I was offered the book deal. I can’t believe, now, that I wrote an entire book in four months. And that I edited it down, rapid-fire, on sheer gumption and force of faith, in two weeks. Or that in about a month, I will hold the first hardcover copies of the book in my hands. (I anticipate weeping.) This has all happened so fast, this whirligig rush of learning how to proofread and test recipes and select photographs. I exude gratitude.
Most of the time, our lives glide from one day to the next, a continuous stream of images and sensations, easing into another age without fully realizing how much we have changed. But in this past year, everything shifted, into sharper focus, into a new way of being. That date is the pivot point for everything that happened after.
I like celebrating this life.
Yesterday was also our 16-month anniversary. Talk about a pivot point. Yes, as one of our friends teased us yesterday, we still mark the months as one does with a newborn. We’re toddling along together, no longer as new as babies just beginning to open their eyes. But we can’t help it. Every 26th, we turn to each other and say, “Happy Anniversary, sweetie.” (We still celebrate every Wednesday. Just after midnight, we both race to be the first to say to the other, “Happy Wednesday.” That’s the day of the week we met, you see. And yes, we are saps. Proud of it.) Some people like to claim we will change, grow jaded. We’re going to work against it, by celebrating.
You never know when it all might end.
And it has been six weeks since our wedding. Since we hadn’t seen most of our friends since that glorious, hilarious day — and both the Chef and I had celebrated birthdays in between then and now — we decided to throw another party, smaller this time. We invited folks over for apple crisp and lemonade.
We had one other reason to celebrate. This week is the one-year anniversary of the Chef quitting smoking.
I haven’t talked about this here before. It was his private struggle, at first. When I first met the Chef, I didn’t know he smoked. He waited to smoke until after our dates, ducking around a corner after kissing me at the bus stop, and lighting up a cigarette as soon as he could.
He started smoking when he was 20, and in culinary school. He smoked a pack and a half a day until just after he met me. Almost everyone in restaurants smokes. For him, it seemed the only way to step outside and take a break. As my friend Becky said, it is — perversely — the only way that chefs find a way to take a breath. Of course, he wanted to quit, a hundred dozen times. But it never lasted.
Not until I came along.
On the first night we spent together, I lay with my head on his chest, sighing with pleasure. And then I heard a little wheeze in his lungs. Immediately — as a girl who grew up in smog and suffered with pneumonia six times before she turned 20 — I lifted my head and said, “Are you okay?” He nodded. I lay back down, and then bolted up. “Wait a second, you don’t smoke, do you?”
Embarrassed, he admitted that he did.
I never in my life imagined that I’d fall in love with a smoker. I swore I would never even date one. The acrid smell of stale smoke makes me a little nauseous. I cough when I pass cars with hands held outside the window, a trail of smoke blowing toward me. That habit never made sense to me.
But rules are meant to be broken. He was not merely a smoker. He was already my love.
What could I do but offer my support? And encourage him to quit.
He did, fairly quickly. I never nagged him. I knew I didn’t have the right. I just told him, repeatedly, “I want to grow old with you. I want you to be alive as long as you can. And I want you to quit.
He did quit, for a month. It was a struggle, and he wore the patch. But he was valiant, and sweated through it, and worked hard to please me. And then I went away to Alaska for two weeks, without him. There went the patch. Out came the cigarettes. He says he missed me too much, only six weeks after we met and already knowing we would be married. It was all too much.
When I came home, and we proposed to each other, he vowed to try again. It took him several false starts and stops. I sighed each time I saw him leave the house in the morning to round the corner and light up a cigarette. It made me a little sick to my stomach. But I knew he had to do it in his own time. He had to do it for himself.
A year ago this week, we went to the ocean for a weekend. He had only been four times in his life. Something about the expanse and the roar of the waves, and my hand in his, changed his mind. He threw away the last pack, and he bought the patch.
He hasn’t smoked a cigarette since.
I’m so proud of him.
Of course, as he likes to say, he’s not a non-smoker. He’s just on hold until he turns 90. I’ve promised to buy him a carton myself, on his 90th birthday. But until then, he has quit. Luckily, it seems to grow easier every day.
And my goodness, his taste and smell have deepened and grown richer without the cigarettes. I do believe he’s a much better chef now. He grows keener every day.
Now those are some darned fine reasons to celebrate. A book deal, an anniversary, two birthdays, and a year without smoking.
So yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, we had a darned fine group of friends in the backyard. Among them, four professional food writers, three professional chefs, a school librarian, a website designer, a sommelier-in-training, mothers, software designer, and a PhD candidate in music composition. Mostly, though, the stars of the show were the little ones, rambunctious, smart-as-whips, hilarious little ones. We all adored them.
The Chef seems to have an invisible magnetic strip within him, one that all children under ten sense instantly. Always, within five minutes, he has little kids at his side, clamoring for piggy-back rides and crossed-eyes faces. Yesterday, he gathered them around him and helped them pick apples from our tree, told them stories, and lay on the ground and allowed himself to be their amusement park ride. They giggled and jostled, enjoying the moment so much that every adult in the yard turned toward them and joined in the laughter.
Every time I see him like this, I grow a little weak in the knees.
Of course, every celebration needs food. I cannot imagine a marking of the moment without a morsel of something memorable. We made apple crisp, with apples that had fallen from our trees. With that many guests, we would have needed four pans, at least. Chef to the rescue again. “Let’s use this one,” he said as he came up from the basement, clutching the enormous baking pan that had held our wedding cake. Why not?
One of my favorite moments of the afternoon: sitting at the picnic table, dispensing gluten-free apple crisp to everyone gathered. The little ones were seated, eating with plastic forks. Everyone else gathered around us, eating in the sudden quiet. I love that quiet, the one that happens because people are enjoying their food so much that no words are spoken.
That’s my kind of celebration.
As the Chef and I drove away from our home in the evening toward a performance of the musical version of Young Frankenstein (oh god, I laughed so hard I have been hoarse all day), he said it best. “I love our friends. That was my kind of party.”
Life changes so quickly. We might never again see days as full and offering such goodness as these, like the apple trees in our backyard that drop tartly sweet red apples onto the green grass below them.
We believe in celebrating.
Lemon Verbena Lemonade with Agave
This celebratory lemonade was inspired by a stroll through the farmers’ market with Tea. After a long talk over paper plates piled high with groundnut stew and braised collard greens, we sauntered through the stalls, admiring the produce. She said, “Where is everyone getting the lemonade?” We saw little glass bottles with milky yellow liquid in every kid’s hands. The stand for Woodring Farms had a blue cooler filled with ice and little bottles. We had to buy one.
I’ve just started experimenting with agave nectar. It’s mild and syrupy, mellower than sugar, and with more layers. In this lemonade, it creates a marvelous taste. Sometimes, lemonade feels a little grating on my tongue, the tartness of the lemons clashing with the cloying grains of bleached white sugar. Agave seems to blend more smoothly, something frothy and unexpected.
A small warning: this recipe makes tart lemonade. We like it that way. The little ones politely demurred after one sip, however. You might want to experiment with more agave, if tart lemonade sounds a little glaring to you.
Celebrations deserves something unexpected, like this lemonade.
¼ agave nectar syrup
1 cup water
10 leaves lemon verbena, slightly crushed in a mortar and pestle
8 large lemons
enough water to make this taste like lemonade for you
Creating the simple syrup. Combine the agave and water to boil in a small saucepan. When the mixture has come to a boil, add the lemon verbena leaves. Turn off the heat and let the syrup sit on the stovetop for half an hour. Refrigerate until cool.
Making the lemonade. Juice the lemons as thoroughly as you can. Add the lemon verbena syrup to the lemon juice. Add water, in small batches, until the lemonade tastes the way you like to drink it.
Serve over ice and garnish with a leaf of lemon verbena.
Feeds four people. (You’re going to want to make multiple batches of this.)