There’s something heartbreaking about September light in Seattle. The trees are filled with light, liquid and soft as baby’s hair.
I love the fall. By the calendar, January is the beginning of the year. All that grey and cold hardly feels like a fresh start, however. If we throw away the calendars and look at the world around us, certainly May marks the start of the year. Everything blooming. Fruit back in the markets. But I’m hard-wired this way: September is really the start of it all.
September means new pencils with blunt ends, thick notebooks with the pages not yet besmirched with words, clothes still crinkly from never being worn. As a student, which for me meant nearly thirty years, the start of school meant cracking open the spine of a fat textbook for the first time. Even if it was for an economics class, the inky smell of those glossy pages thrilled me. (I still remember the purple words and nose-biting odor of the mimeograph machine, fondly.) And as a teacher, which was another decade for me, September meant an entire ocean of new faces, stories to tell, classrooms to pace, the chance to do it better this time.
That’s what’s appealing about schools, and teaching in them in particular. Even if June ended in tears, September meant coming back to the place you knew before, but wiser this time. Every year, I taught One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and lessons on indefinite pronouns and the word ineffable the first day of classes. Even though the students were new to me, the classrooms a blank space, I knew the rhythms of my year before I went in.
Teaching school was the safest fresh start I ever had.
But this September? Everything has been blown wide open. Any notions I had of schedule? They’re gone, replaced instead by a crying baby whom I pat and shush, jiggle and kiss. The hours of the day are measured out in the light falling through the living room window, as we sit together on the end of the couch. I have never learned so much, so fast, as I have these six weeks. And this knowledge? It won’t end up in textbooks, or be written about in The New York Times. Now, I know how to rub my daughter’s back like I am smoothing out air bubbles from badly laid wallpaper, in order to relieve her of gas. I know the sound of her voice, a little chirrup, when she talks to the black-and-white stuffed orca that lies on her playmat on the floor. I know the sound of her cries, insistent and bleating, at 3:30 in the morning, and I can tell within twenty seconds if she needs food or if she’s merely bored.
Next September, I won’t start again with another newborn. I’ll just keep learning her instead. I don’t have a lesson plan here. There is no attendance to take, no state mandates to fulfill, and no test that shows my competency level. (There’s also no merit raise being offered.) Nothing here is safe, in a way.
I love this September most of all. The light. Oh, the light.
September sunlight is heartbreaking because the beauty is ephemeral. The green leaves filled with light will fade and fall within a few weeks. It’s easy to take summer for granted. These weeks insist on a different kind of attention.
Everyone has told me how quickly these days and years go, these moments of being with a child and holding her. I believe them now. Little Bean is six weeks old. Within a few days, she’ll be seven weeks. She has changed so much from those frail days in the hospital. Today, she is robust and booming, highly alive. She gained 2 1/2 pounds in the last three weeks. The Chef and I both swear we can watch her grow bigger on the changing table beneath our hands.
She smiled at me last week. Every late night was worth it, after that.
Right now, as I write, I can feel her breathing on my chest, as she sits curled up in the carrier attached to my body. And I had to pause from writing to lean down and kiss the top of her head.
I can’t imagine life ever feeling staid again.
But here’s the deal. There’s fear in these wide-open spaces. Where do you go when you can go anywhere?
Before Little Bean arrived, I swore to myself, and wrote here, that this would not become a mommy blog. Hundreds of other women have written those before me, and they have done such a hilarious, helpful job that I can’t imagine the world needs one more. And this is, at its heart, a site about food. How food connects me with the people I love. Kitchen disasters. Unexpected tastes that zing on my tongue. Recipes that don’t work. Saying yes to life by forgetting everything and simply tasting my life.
Oh, and some gluten-free food.
How does a baby fit in with that?
For the past few weeks, I’ve been struggling with what to write here when I return. How can I just go back to telling stories about food and offering recipes as though my life has not been split open, along with my heart? How can I not tell the hilarious stories about this darling baby, like the fact that she calms down and grows fascinated when we put her in a basket on the kitchen floor next to the dishwasher running? And the fact that she hates the loud clatter of dishes being loaded into the machine, and cries every time, so I rarely have the chance to put her next to her favorite spot? How could I not tell the harrowing stories of the ICU, and pull at everyone’s heartstrings, and process the most terrifying days of my life through the words I write here?
I don’t want to go there.
The truth is, I haven’t known what to write. You see, food has changed for me, and for the Chef, since this sweet, feisty creature entered our lives. In the hospital, we lived on cold hash browns and styrofoam cups full of Dr. Pepper from the cafeteria. Since we have been home, I have been grabbing handfuls of food I could reach before the baby woke up. Bananas. Walnuts. Tuna straight from the can. And sometimes, corn chips gone stale with salsa from a jar. Garbanzo beans with lemon juice and olive oil feels like an elaborate meal when you are learning how to be with a newborn.
I’m not cooking much, these days. I miss it. I know it will come back. But there’s no time — and I have subsisted on too little sleep for weeks on end — to set up a mise en place or create new dishes by flourishing flavors. Certainly, I don’t feel like the younger woman who started this site, who wrote every day, voluminously, about food history and new grains. There’s spit-up on my shirt more often than salt.
But in these surreal, beautiful days, food has meant more to me than ever before. While the Chef and I huddled in a hospital room, a pint of blueberries, brought to us by a friend, sustained us for hours one afternoon. Within the sterile air and beeping machines, the coolness against our lips and the smell of loamy earth lifted us out of that place.
When Little Bean was a few weeks old, we tucked her in the carrier and walked her around the farmers’ market on a late Saturday morning. The smell of Red Haven peaches was enough to make us giddy. But more so, we met friends, and ran into fans of this site, and talked to our favorite farmers about how having children shoves us into a different world. We both left grinning through our exhaustion.
And at nearly 5 pm one day a few weeks ago, after the baby had needed to be cuddled for hours on the couch, I stumbled into the kitchen. Knowing she would slumber in her swing for at least an hour, I fired up the stove. Pasta water bubbling, goat cheese smearing on my fingers, and tomatoes from the garden releasing their acrid smell — these all felt like celebrations. And so, as the evening began, I finally ate my lunch, on the couch, next to a burp cloth, a binky, and my cell phone. I needed it close by, to answer it immediately, in case the sing-songy ring tone woke her up. It didn’t. That pasta tasted like victory.
Mostly, though, I look down at Little Bean eating, her mouth gulping in great swallows. She looks up at me with her blue-grey eyes, and I realize I don’t need anything more. This is food at its most elemental, without any adjectives.
Food is how we live, and grow.
And so, I don’t know what I’ll be writing here. I just know that I’ll be writing. September this year means a return to writing. Aside from taking notes on some days about the baby and her funny habits (believe me, most from the first week are incoherent), I have not written anything finished since those urgent postings when we lived in the hospital. I don’t know where I’m going, but I have to go there now. I could easily allow the days to slip through my fingers, focusing only on her.
But I don’t want my daughter to have a mama who doesn’t do the work she loves.
So I guess I’ll figure out my new voice as I lay words down on this white space. I know, as always, that I want to focus on the light. And the food, in whatever form it arrives.
I had no idea what life would be like before our daughter arrived, yelling out her song. I didn’t know what I would write when I sat down this evening to fill this space.
Here I am.
On the days the Chef works at the restaurant, food is somewhat haphazard around here. Whatever I can grab and hold in my hand while feeding a baby, or patting her down to sleep, satisfies me. In the evenings, he has been bringing food home from the restaurant. Last night, we had braised balsamic rabbit for dinner while watching Jon Stewart.
I know. I appreciate that not everyone with a newborn has such a gift as this.
But on the days he does not work, we tag team taking care of the baby. Papas are just as important as mamas, after all. And we work in the kitchen when she sleeps, putting together foods that can last me all week. Like this pan of lasagna he made for us last weekend.
There are a thousand ways to make lasagna. Some of us like a splash of red wine vinegar in the sauce, or honey. Nutmeg adds an extra zing. A pat of butter can make a sauce as smooth as the sun slipping down behind the horizon.
But this sauce, this lasagna, is fairly straightforward. And to my surprise, that’s why I like it even more than the fancy pans I have eaten before. The sauce tasted light, with each component part singing out, instead of stifled into one taste.
Of course, you can add or subtract whatever you want. This is a start. Everything is starting now. Do with it what you will.
I can tell you, however, that this lasagna — cold — makes a damn fine lunch with a baby.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground beef (don’t go for extra lean)
1 pound ground pork (or veal)
1 ½ onions, medium dice
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoons basil, chiffonade
2 teaspoons oregano, chopped
6 tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 medium can crushed tomatoes (28 ounces)
salt and pepper
1 package lasagna noodles
3 large balls fresh mozzarella
2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 425°.
Brown off the meat with 2 tablespoons of the oil in a hot pan, on medium to high heat. When it is evenly browned, drain the meat. Set aside.
Pour the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil into the pan. Toss in the onions and garlic. Sautee over medium heat until the onions and garlic are translucent. Next come the herbs. Sauté until fragrant.
Scoop in the fresh tomatoes first, and sauté them for three to four moments. Slide in the canned tomatoes. Add ¼ can of water. Simmer for 25 minutes over medium heat.
When the sauce has reduced and begun to thicken, put ¾ of the sauce in a blender and puree it. Return the pureed sauce to the pan and fold into the chunky sauce. Spoon in the browned meats. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes.
Find your favorite gluten-free lasagna sheets (we used Ener-G foods in this case, but Tinkyada is great too). Cook them according to the package directions, minus a few minutes. (Most pasta companies direct you to overcook the pasta!)
Spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of a large casserole pan. Add a layer of lasagna noodles, then mozzarella cheese, freshly grated parmesan cheese, and then sauce. Repeat until the pan is filled. Make sure the last layer is cheese.
Bake at 425° for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the lasagna is golden brown and the cheese is bubbly on top.