the best we can

ranch dressing
I once taught with a man named Paul Raymond.

Oh, Paul Raymond. Paul had survived the Korean War, the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, the 60s, Tricky Dick, all the machinations of Vietnam, Ronald Reagan, and beyond. He taught the human stories that make up 20th-century history at the school in Seattle where I taught before leaving to write full-time. Actually, Paul helped to found the school, and he had been a powerful presence for decades.

Paul wore a different wildly hued silk shirt to school every day. One year, some students organized a Paul Raymond day, and half the students walking downstairs and lounging in hallways were wearing faded silk shirts that billowed out past their waists. (Some of them had bought shirts from Paul’s voluminous collection, apparently.) They also showed up in khaki shorts, thick wool socks, and Teva sandals. Just like Paul did. Every day.

One of my favorite Paul Raymond memories was listening to him give an impassioned polemic on Herbert Hoover’s failed economic policies. “He thought that he’d help Americans with food shortages by sending them broccoli seeds!” Paul bellowed. (Paul bellowed, in a friendly fashion. He had a booming voice, a capacious belly, and the moral authority instilled by dozens of years of teaching, and a lot of living before that. Besides, that was just Paul.) He stepped around the lectern, gingerly — his knees were shot; his diabetes forced him slower — to pause, for effect. He looked down at his feet.
A pair of chunky shoes rested just under the hem of his pants. This was November, after all. Time to retire the shorts until spring.
Paul looked up at everyone in the classroom, and with astonishment in his voice and mischief in his eyes, he shouted, “I’m wearing shoes!“
The entire class burst apart, a sharp clap of laughter in the lecture hall. I leaned forward in my giggling and nearly fell off the stool I was sitting on. We all took a moment to breathe.
That was Paul.

If you haven’t already gathered this, Paul was a bit of a trickster. He loved to take the mickey out of anyone’s pretensions. Even, sometimes, insecure 16-year-olds, some of whom left his office in tears a time or two. But they all came back to thank him later, for expecting so much from them. He had a glint in his eye when he talked, and he expected you to play back. (I think Paul liked me from the first conversation we had, in the back of a bus, going to a staff retreat. I bullshitted with him, back and forth, saying nothing, all sarcasm. He was on my side ever after.) Paul loved nothing so much as a good argument (in a civil fashion), even though he won most of the time.

Paul was a tremendous teacher. When reading student papers in my first year of teaching there, I made notes in the margins, asked questions, and generally wrote more on their papers than they had written themselves. In conferences, little clutches of students would perch on the couch in my office and listen to my advice. However, since it was already written on the page, I was merely rehashing thoughts from the night before. Good work, but not the relaxed action of being in the moment.

And then, when I sat in the office between conferences, marking up more papers, I started listening to Paul in the cubicle next door. He had the students read out their papers. He listened, leaned back in his chair, his hands folded on his belly. Every once in a while, he might ask a question or insert a statement, but mostly he listened. When the student finished, he wanted to know what the others had thought. And when they finished, he laid out his thoughts, in every complexity, about the thesis (or lack thereof), the research, the quality of thinking that shone through in the words. In 45 minutes, those students had a chance to really learn.

He never put a pen to any of their papers.

My first year there, I thought he was lazy. Certainly, he was allowed a pass — in his early 70s, teaching all his life. Why not? But the longer I listened, the more I realized: Paul had it right. It wasn’t about me, my thoughts scribbled on the page in blue ink. What mattered is what the students learned from the process of writing those thesis statements on the Pacific Front of WWII or Nadine Gordimer’s characterization of South Africans. And boy, did they learn.

So did I.

I could tell you about Paul Raymond all day, I am realizing. There are so many stories. Like the story he told some years about watching his best friend, a black man, die beside him in a trench in Korea. And then going back to America and watching other black men, home from the war, having to use separate drinking fountains from whites. (He only told it some years because it was too hard for him to tell it in others.) Or the stories of being a white man from Kansas in the depths of Mississippi during the late 50s, working for civil rights and having doors slammed in his face. Or how Paul took a week off of school every year to fly down to Georgia to protest the School of Americas, with nuns from El Salvador and peace activists from around the world.

Or how Paul sat down at his desk at school and wrote a postcard to his daughter in college every single day.

(I’ve started writing daily to Little Bean too, inspired by Paul, again.)

I can only imagine how she treasures those postcards now. Paul died in the spring of 2007, the year after I left the school.

The hole is enormous.

***

Of everything Paul Raymond taught me, what has stayed with me most is one sentence.

He began every year with it, chanted it to students when they grew nervous during tests, and became so famous for it that little slips of laminated paper with the sentence printed on them were passed out at his memorial service. (I still have mine.)

The sentence?

“Do the best you can in the time available to you.”

Take a moment to chew on that.

I find it maddeningly easy to grow overwhelmed, with work, the clutter in the living room, and mostly my expectations of what a productive day should be. With an active (and now healthy) baby, a writing career, a husband I love, a new community, a garden that needs watering, friends’ birthdays, laundry to be done, and 473 emails I probably should have answered already? I can go a little batty. Sometimes I feel lousy about myself as a person.

And cooking has changed, since Little Bean arrived. There are no longer hours to roast and sauté, to play with new ingredients and contemplate flavor pairings. Sometimes. But not every day. Last night, I intended to make charred leeks with romesco sauce, arugula salads with a black pepper-Parmesan vinaigrette, and a basil roasted chicken. But the baby bucked against sleeping, for three hours, with the wilting heat we’re having, and she needed me to hold her in her terrible, mischievous exhaustion. I didn’t step foot in the kitchen until she finally went to sleep, just as the darkness gathered outside. Ten minutes before Danny arrived home.

I grew frustrated. I had wanted those three hours to be different. But then I remembered: she was doing the best she could too. Do you remember being a kid and fighting sleep when it was still light outside and you wanted to play? And besides, she’s here. That little smirk as she stood up in her crib was hard to resist.

Danny listened to me be frustrated. He held me. About 11 pm, he threw some Skagit River ground beef on the grill. I dumped some greens out of a bag and threw on some of our ranch dressing. The burgers were juicy, far tastier than I had remembered. And we told stories as we ate those salads, remembering again what it felt like to be a kid.

When life threatens to boil over, like a pot too full of water, I do three things. Tickle Little Bean and watch her giggle. Look down at my wrist at the yes in blue ink, to remind myself to say yes to this moment too. And I think of Paul Raymond, who led a full, imperfect life, and gave me this gift:

Do the best you can in the time available to you.

And when I remember that we are all doing this (even when we’re scrambling), that we’re all just trying our best (even the people who annoy me), everything in life tastes better.

I have a feeling we’ll be saying this to Little Bean often, as she grows up. Do the best you can in the time available to you, sweetie. It’s all we can do, after all.

Thank you, Paul Raymond. Again.

salad with ranch dressing

Buttermilk Ranch Dressing, thanks to Cookiecrumb

For the past few years of playing with my food, I’ve had this feeling that I should be eating something more refined than ranch dressing. After all, bottled ranch is what I ate on iceberg lettuce salads as a kid. Surely I’ve grown past it?

Really, buttermilk ranch dressing made from scratch? What the heck was I thinking was wrong with that? We’re a little bit obsessed with this at the moment.

It all started on Twitter (as so much does, these days). I mentioned something about ranch, and the inimitable Cookiecrumb sent me this:

“Mix equal parts yogurt, mayo and buttermilk. Add dried garlic, dill and oregano. Dried! To taste. Let it burgeon. Trust me.

Well, really, do you need the recipe? There it is.

Oh, all right. I’ll write it out. But really, you know now. Easy. Takes five minutes. And with fresh buttermilk (as fresh as you can find it), homemade mayonnaise, and good full-fat yogurt, this is about the best salad dressing I’ve ever found.

But if, like us sometimes, you are doing the best you can in the time available to you, bottled Hidden Valley ranch dressing is gluten-free. And it’s still pretty darned good.

1 cup buttermilk
1 cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
1 cup full-fat yogurt
1 teaspoon each dried dill, oregano, and garlic
juice 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon each kosher salt and cracked black pepper.

Mix everything together. Taste. The dressing might taste a bit more muted than you want, but beware of adding too much more seasoning. As Cookiecrumb said, let it burgeon.

Allow the dressing to sit for a day. Taste. Yeah, that’s it.

Use in any fashion you wish.

Serves 8 to 10. Or fewer. Or more. Depending. (Really, it makes 3 cups.)

52 comments on “the best we can

  1. cookiecrumb

    Well, smack my ass and call me Silly!
    To think that you — and the Chef! — like this concoction. I am honored.
    I make it different now and then, but always… the best I can.
    xoxo

  2. Jessica

    Wow, I have been having one of the worst weeks ever and the phrase totally resonates right now. I love how much perspective can be gained from one simple phrase.

  3. Laura

    This is my mantra for this spring/summer. I am not accomplishing most of what I hoped, but I’m doing the best I can, and what I can, and that’s good enough for me. There’s nothing wrong with living in the moment, with letting simple food take over, with making other priorities. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself as I hit Costco for butchering day snacks and enjoy a hot dog for dinner tonight.

    I’m so making this dressing. Soon, I swear.

  4. Jeanne

    OMG, that is so funny. I was just going to do a post on the Ranch-style dressing we’ve been making over here. Great minds thinks alike! :)

    Yours looks yummy!

  5. La Niña

    “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself”
    - Miles Davis

    I stumbled over this quote this morning and said, “YES” out loud. Sometimes I feel like I’m not myself, or I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing enough. But really, you… and Paul… hit the nail on the head.

    We can only do what we do with what we have in the time we have. And we can be oh so happy for it, and happy for those who point it out to us.

  6. danamccauley

    Lovely, lovely post. I really enjoyed it and should (I promise I’ll try) take those words to heart myself.

    If you know how to get in touch with Paul’s daughter you should send her a copy of this post. I think she and her family would really treasure it.

  7. Girl Gone Domestic

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post! I have been feeling more than a little overwhelmed this past week, I needed to read this. And the dressing recipe…well, that just topped it off perfectly! ;)

  8. Melissa G

    Thank you for the sentence. It’s going on my bulletin board as I work towards comps. And what an amazing tribute to a lion of a teacher.

  9. Swiss

    eI was wishing today I had a homemade ranch recipe. You mentioned it in your last post. I made the part homemade kind with a packaged spice mix I can’t have because of the dextrose but the grand kids liked it better than from the bottle I was wondering what combo of herbs to use –and my wish came true — thanks I will make this version next.

    My life is stretched –often pulled beyond the possible; work, and living with the Grandkids during the week, coming home to my own home, sister, son, and garden during the weekends.

    Yes, that is one for me too– do the best you can in the time you have. Thanks for sharing the story of a memorable teacher and his life wisdom.

  10. gfe--gluten free easily

    Such a lovely tribute to your friend and mentor, and thanks so much for sharing his message. How true it is, but often get caught up in expectations and forgot. Thanks so much for the reminder. It’s very reassuring, but I think we really always naturally do the best we can in the time available. It’s nice to know that’s enough.

    Thanks, Shauna, for always sharing what you’ve learned, ;-)

    Shirley

  11. Tara

    Oh my. I was reading along and enjoying this post enormously, and then you wrote about the frustration of having your carefully-planned-out time taken away from you by Little Bean, and suddenly I was choked up and almost crying. I totally get that feeling, as I have been experiencing it often these days (my second is a month younger than LB). Thank you so much for the perspective and the quote from Paul Raymond. It’s so hard to give ourselves (and those around us) permission to just do the best we can, yet doing so goes so far towards creating peace and happiness in our lives. Thank you again, Shauna, for writing exactly what I needed to read tonight.

  12. Heather Pelczar

    “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” Paul sounds like a true friend. Willing to wound those he loved to see them improve where they could. Willing to allow for humor and personality. Laughing at things unchangeable. Lightening heavy hearts.Would that more of us made such faithful friends ourselves. I enjoy your blog and love how you can make food such a different experience each time you write about it. Thank you.

  13. Pille

    Shauna, I was browsing foodblogs for a Ranch Dressing recipes just last week and found almost none. I was confused, as I read somewhere that this is one of the two most popular dressings in the US, yet there was no recipe.
    It was then that I realised that most of you buy it :)
    If I replace the dried herbs with fresh ones — would it still count as a ranch dressing, or are dried ones more suitable? I’ve never used dried garlic, and don’t think I’d like to buy it either..

  14. The Fenner Family

    It’s amazing how hard it can be to allow the best we can, to be enough.

    As always, thank you for so eloquently sharing your special relationship with Paul and the impact that he continues to have on you and allowing his words to remind you to be gentle to yourself.

  15. Mama EZ

    thanks, it’s now up on my mirror, and I’m getting offline, to go do something in this time, maybe sleep, that would be nice…;)

  16. Jennifer

    I’m just echoing what everyone else has said, but thank you for Paul’s words of wisdom. They could not have come at a better moment in my life. And I’m always on the lookout for a homemade ranch dressing!

  17. mambo#5

    how in the world did you just do that? wow and thanks for gently shaking me awake with your writing…

    I’m off to work and then to enjoy the company of impish nephews. Hope you and LB have some quality bare-foot-under-a-tree kind of time today.

  18. Britt

    Thank you for sharing this story. I think that one line speaks to so much. It’s become our culture to lose ourselves in work, in the chaos of daily overload, and then wear the exhaustion as a badge of honor. I’ve been learning and working on being more in the moment and I think we could all benefit from remembering that we only have so much time and need to do the best with it that we can. Again, thank you for sharing!

  19. Allison

    Amen to all of that! There are days (yesterday happened to be one) when I nearly throw up my hands. You’ve loaded up your plate pretty high and there’s bound to be stuff that’ll slip off the side.

    I remember all too well how it felt to set expectations for myself and have them blown completely away by the needs of my darling boy when he was a wee tyke. This age especially, ages one (or near enough) moving into two, are full of wild fluctuations in abilities and temperament and can really keep you on your toes. Dropping the second nap, cutting eyeteeth and molars, launching into the intense phase of separation anxiety, and taking all the huge first steps towards physical separation and autonomy that can feel so exciting to baby one moment and in the next leave her grasping for momma like her life depended on it.

    Trying to put the baby on the floor to make dinner (or whatever) while the baby is in that frame of mind just didn’t happen. (I chose not to ignore his crying) The sling was an essential accessory for me, since he was instantly fine while up and on the scene, but I also trimmed all the fat I could out of my day because sometimes all I could handle were the barest essentials.

    I know I repeat myself here, but another mantra that served me well when I had reached the end of my rope was that this too shall pass. In the frazzled moment it seems they’ll never grow out of this phase, but suddenly they’re four and a half years old and the baby phase is long gone history. It can be hard in the moment and a lot of stuff gets shoved to the back burner to simmer, but suddenly the baby isn’t a baby any more and it all opens up again. Good luck to you as you travel this precious and fleeting road! :-)

  20. Laura

    I’ve been reading for just a couple days, catching up on things here. This Paul Raymond post made me cry.

  21. GREEN KEY

    Lovely post — I’m a little teary-eyed.
    I’ll try the dressing too!
    Thanks so much.

  22. Anonymous

    Kids are great for two things: constant chaos and a reminder that the present is now. Life could not be more chaotic once you have even one child, but at the same time, at least in my experience, I’ve never been more aware of the present moment. At times, when I am able to just hold my kids, I can actually feel how eternal that present moment can be. There will never be enough time for anything, and I’m lucky if I can get any one thing that I want done accomplished in any given day, yet I’ve never been more aware of how important and trivial life can be. And it makes me very aware that we can only do the best we can in the time given and try to let go of the rest.

    And I love ranch dressing, especially on romaine lettuce and cucumbers!

    Juliet

  23. Sara

    Your post made me cry. I had a teacher very much like Paul — only he wore outdated wool blazers with equally silly turtlenecks :) — he’s still with us, but he just retired and I know how much I learned from him and how future classes are going to miss out.

    It didn’t hurt that I feel I’m going through many of the same hurdles you are, and that I too feel I’m a lousy person for not doing enough dishes/laundry/dusting/writing. Working for yourself is HARD. I’m just doing the best I can too. Keep up the good work — I very much enjoy your writing :)

  24. Monkey Momma

    I love this blog post. I’ve been terribly overwhelmed since my son was born 21 months ago. And now we’re 6 weeks away from #2. My heart is in my throat on most days when I contemplate how far behind I am on EVERYTHING!!! So I am following that special advice:

    “Do the best you can in the time available to you.”

    Sometimes that “best” means my kid gets dinner and not a bath. Or that we have story time while the dishes pile for yet another day. Or that I get a “backyard patio date” with my husband that consists of frozen leftover meatloaf instead of the yummy gourmet GF meal I’d been dreaming of all week.

    I have an amazing husband. A beautiful child, another on the way. We’re out of debt, have a roof over our heads, food in the pantry, and for the moment, decent paying jobs that provide us healthcare insurance.

    Perspective, right?

  25. tallmisto

    I adore ranch dressing, and I adored this post. I used to think to myself “Ranch, common, grow up.” But homemade ranch is a thing of beauty. And I don’t want to grow up, ever.

    I love your sentence, Paul’s sentence. I will carry that around awhile too.

  26. cottagesweet

    This is a good story — again. And, I love the new photo of you both. You’re looking good.

  27. Lynn

    I just ordered a Measure,Mix & Pour container from Pampered Chef along with a Herb Keeper in the hope of making dressing v.s. bottled this summer. That being said Hidden Valley Ranch would do in a pinch for some things.

  28. Allyson

    As a celiac I read your post to feed myself your delicious food but more often then not I find your posts feeding my soul… Thank you for both!

  29. denise

    excellent! just in time for some fresh greens i just toted home and must dress. thanks!

  30. Dana

    I constantly feel like I am not doing enough. Not being a good enough mom, not being a good enough cook, not being a good enough wife, not keeping a clean enough house. This is a terrific and heartfelt reminder to just appreciate the best that I can do. Thank you.

  31. fernweh1

    Wow. Thank you for that post. I just sent my 100 seniors off into the world yesterday, I teach high school English, and I wish I’d had that line to give them. I also love how you tell of how Paul conferenced with them instead of marking up their papers, as all English teachers feel the need to do, that is where the real learning takes place, in the talking. That goes for all things in our live.

  32. Katya Kosiv

    Thanks for that entry. I’m prepping for an exam right now in medical school in the middle of the ocean (no buttermilk in sight!), but your thoughts are inspirational.

    In the spirit of your entry I’d like to add, sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other.

    Hmmm, maybe I can find some hidden valley on my island.

    PS– I love to dip potato chips in buttermilk. Something my grandfather did and everyone outside my family thought was strange, but its delicious.

  33. Amy Jo

    Thank you so much. I too have a little one and find it difficult to balance my expectations and the reality of my day. At the end of the day, though, I look over at little Ossley and it is clear that it is all worth it.

  34. Laura

    Shauna, I think this is the first time I post a comment on your blog I have followed for years. Your wonderful tribute to this beloved teacher made me cry. I have had many moments when I felt utterly overwhelmed, two kids, a full time job, a house, a husband. One time I thought I had reached the lowest in my life as a mother when I fed cereal for dinner to my children. How I wished now to have had this phrase to tell myself: “Do your best in the time available to you”. My best was to feed my children cereal for dinner, I wish I had made it sweeter with a smile of my face instead of my exhausted self pity and sense of hopelessness. I will remember this, so many thanks to you!

  35. Laura

    This was the perfect post to read as I finish my first year of teaching high school.… as I struggle with figuring out where I have been and where I am going and how do I relate to these beautiful adolescents who both give so much and need so much.…

    And there is ALWAYS more I could do, I think.…. but the year clocks out after a finite number of days… and my kids leave the nest regardless of whether I think they’re ready or not.…

    I love the idea of having kids read their papers aloud instead of writing all over them. I’m going to try that next year.

    Thank you for yet another inspiring post.

  36. Paige Orloff

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post. This is the wisest advice for all of us: we are all overwhelmed, it seems, all trying to do the best we can for the people we love, for our own fulfillment, to be good citizens of our world–and it IS overwhelming, frustrating, exasperating. But to laugh in love, remind yourself to say “yes” to your own life, and to do the best you can in the time available? If these aren’t keys to happiness, I don’t what are. Thank you, sweet wise Shauna :-)

  37. Sarah

    Thank you for the beautiful post and for the that wonderful reminder that we are all just doing the nest we can! Sounds like an amzing person to know– thank you for sharing part of his story with us!
    oh– yes, and thank you for the amazing recipe– It is the one I have been searchng for– and SO simple!!!

  38. Sho

    It sounds like Paul was a great mentor! I used to be a business/special ed teacher, and I remember a couple of mentors well.

    On a side note, I have a question that you may not have time to answer/address in a post. What is the difference between guar gum and xantham gum? Why do some recipes call for a little of each one?

    Now, if only I could follow advice like Paul’s, rather than just give it out…

    Take care,

    Shoshannah

    Take care,

  39. MsJess

    Lately I’ve been attempting to make my own salad dressings and it’s been a lot of fun and the results always taste far better than the store bought stuff. In fact I had a moment of food snobbery becuaase I couldn’t stand eating Paul newman balsamic vinnegar becuase I know my mom’s recipe blows his out of the water.

    But when you are less busy could you and the chef do a video on making homemade mayo? I tried to make some the other week and two attempts later I was left with some oily eggy mixture that wouldn’t emulsify. Very annoying.

  40. Janel

    Can’t wait to give this recipe for ranch dressing a whirl!

    Got a friend coming over for dinner and I’m thinking that your recipe is as good an excuse as any to make it. I’m thinking baked salmon, fresh yellow asperagus, and salad.

  41. Cate O'Malley

    A wonderful timely reminder for us all. The Husband and I separated a few months ago, and dinnertime is definitely the most challenging. The baby is wide awake and rarin’ to go, Nick is full of energy and I’m trying to make dinner for us, a healthy one at that, and have no peace to do so. But I do the best I can and will continue to do so, and remember that that’s always enough. For we have each other.

  42. Farmgirl Susan

    What a wonderful post, Shauna. Thank you. It’s so easy to get frustrated when you’re already feeling overwhelmed by everything you need/want to do, have the next few hours all planned out, and then look out the window and see a donkey standing in the front yard (I still have no idea how she got in there yesterday) or the neighbor’s cows in the hayfield. : )

    I’ve already copied Paul’s words of wisdom onto a spot where I’ll see them often.

    And leave it to that Cookiecrumb to come up with such a simple — and comforting — salad dressing. Shame on me for turning to bottled (and pricey!) Ranch dressing as of late. I just need to start buying buttermilk instead. : )