When reports started percolating that the blizzard of the century was going to descend Monday evening, I knew I wanted to make soup. I saw myself cuddled up on the couch watching snowflakes fall, then building a snowman and coming home to a bowl of soup.
I had red lentils in the house and stocked up on carrots, celery, onions, coriander and lemon because I never met a lentil soup that isn’t friends with fresh coriander and lemon.
Melissa Clark’s recipe for lentil soup that appeared in The New York Times about six years ago has been my go-to recipe since I first encountered it. It is delicious, simple and the perfect introduction to lentils, especially if they are a legume that never crossed your radar screen. But, when I woke up Tuesday morning, prepared and psyched for stockpiled snow, I discovered the blizzard hadn’t quite materialized in Manhattan. There was a mere dusting on the streets which meant there was really no reason not to go to work. But before resuming regular weekday mode, I wanted to make my soup and in line with the blizzard’s mood, I had no interest in following instructions.
Instead I wanted my soup to reflect happenstance: whatever I felt like throwing in the pot. That’s the advantage of lentils, they can adapt to almost any conglomeration of spices, herbs, and vegetables.
I chopped up a red onion, 4 carrots, 3 stalks of celery, fresh coriander and rinsed the lentils. Prepping is key when cooking in a 4×4′ kitchen that has approximately 12 inches of workable counter space. After all my little bowls were laid out, I poured olive oil into the pot, along with salt and pepper and added 3 crushed cloves of garlic and the onions. I stirred while the onions morphed to translucency.
Then I perused the spice rack and took out the cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, ginger, and red pepper flakes. I sprinkled what amounted to 1/2 teaspoon of each spice into the palm of my hands, rubbed them together and let the spice float into the pot. I read once that that technique releases the flavor. I stirred it all together over a low flame, but I admit I was not bowled over by the flavor wafting into the air.
In went the carrots, celery, lentils and fresh coriander. I stirred some more and thought a squirt or two of tomato paste might be of assistance.
I poured in two 14 ounce cans of chicken broth. It didn’t look like there was enough liquid so I added water until my eyeballs said “Yes that will yield five healthy bowls of soup”. I brought the concoction to a boil, turned the heat to low and let it simmer partially covered for another 45 minutes and then went after it with the immersion blender.
Twenty-five years ago when we first bought our house in Bradley Beach, a dingy wooden boardwalk ran the length of the town. It extended 20 feet out over the beach, suspended 12 feet above the sand on greasy, precarious-looking pilings. It was anchored on the inland side to a creosote-covered bulkhead built into the natural rise of the land, and, despite its tackiness, it seemed to be a permanent beachfront fixture.
During the dog days you could camp out under the shady boardwalk, provided you were willing to tolerate the tarry smell of the bulkhead and the spilled soda or cigarette butt that occasionally rained down from overhead. On hot nights they had music — a brass band, or a DJ spinning dance tunes — in the concrete bandshell just off the boardwalk at the foot of our street. Lost in a summer evening, we’d stand by the splintery railing and watch the waves foaming white at the waterline as the band marched through a Sousa medley.
Then in the ’90s a nasty nor’easter clawed up the whole thing, tossing its slats inland like tinder. It swept away a playground, swings and slides and all, and filled the town’s beachfront pool with sandy sludge and jagged shipwrecked sections of what once was the boardwalk. The bandshell had disintegrated overnight into a jumble of whitewashed rocks.
The town got smart after that. They permanently filled in the slimy hole that had been the pool and laid out a 25-foot wide brick promenade just west of the bulkhead. So apart from the broad wooden stairs that extended down from the bulkhead to the beach every couple of blocks, our boardwalk was entirely boardless.
And they made our first dunes.
First they built a 10-foot wide corridor of hurricane fencing on the sand about 50 feet east of the brick promenade. The wired-together wooden slats, a rickety shadow of the former boardwalk, ran the entire length of the town’s beach. Inside the hurricane fencing they laid all the discarded Christmas trees from that season, filling it to the top with fragrant evergreens going brown.
The trees formed a natural barrier that trapped blowing sand. Over the next decade, the trees disappeared under slowly-growing mounds that grew into dunes 15 feet high and wide, sprouting grass and small shrubs. The hurricane fencing was mostly gobbled up, and the scrabbly dune edges were now punctuated with metal signs warning everyone to “KEEP OFF.”
Then came Sandy, a storm whose remarkable ferocity made the nor’easter’s of the ’90s seem like mild squalls. In the space of 24 hours, Sandy completely dismantled the entire mile of dunes in Bradley Beach. Ten years’ worth of foliage, and the fencing, and the signs, were rudely stripped away. Then the storm literally pushed thousands of tons of sand 50 feet inland, flush against the bulkhead.
If you had stepped off the brick promenade toward the ocean the day before the storm, you would have fallen 12 feet to the beach below. But the day after Sandy, you could step eastward off the brick promenade onto smooth, solid sand. The tops of the dunes above that level had been neatly sliced off by the storm and deposited in drifts, like newly-fallen snow, across the width of Ocean Avenue another twenty yards inland.
Although the dunes were gone, much of the storm’s fury had been spent destroying them. As a result, Bradley Beach was spared the widespread damage to homes and businesses that befell neighboring towns without that protection.
So I’m happy to report that now, more than two years later, they’re at it again. On a frigid day on the beach two weeks ago, a guy in a front loader was picking up discarded Christmas trees from a pile and depositing them into a hurricane fence enclosure that’ll grow into our next sand dune. As long as Mother Nature gives us a few years’ head start before the inevitable next killer storm, the town should have a fighting chance.
Purpose: To transport the king and his worldly possessions across the heavens in his afterlife.
Dimensions: 143 feet long and 19.5 feet wide.
Discovered: In 1954 at the foot of the Great Pyramid in Giza. It was broken into 1224 carefully laid out pieces that made it possible to be reassembled into a fully intact ship.
Material: Lebanon cedar
Prediction: If placed in water, it could sail today.
Location: The Solar Boat Museum in Giza, Egypt.
This time of year as I venture outside I often think of the old song:
All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
California dreamin` on such a winter’s day
The older I get, the more I dread winter. Since my heart attack more than a decade ago I have been excused from any heavy-duty snow shoveling. I still operate the snow blower from time to time, but even that chore is now often handled for me by others. So snow removal is not the issue. Driving in snow is still bothersome, but it’s not such a big deal because I need only drive two miles to my bus every morning.
No, the real issue is the cold. I can’t take it as well as I used to. Maybe I can blame it on losing 40 pounds of fat since last winter. Or maybe my heart medications have irrevocably thinned my blood. But after a week of sub-freezing temperatures I’m ready to move south. But since I still need to work for a living and work is in the windy, concrete canyon that is Manhattan, the best I can do is make a hot cup of coffee and look at pictures of warm places.
In that vein, I was looking recently at some pictures I took of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona last year. I was reading that during the winter months, from November to April, the daytime temperatures in the Sonoran Desert range from 70°F to 90°F. That sounds extremely cozy for a January day. I wish I was there.
As I mentioned, I visited the Arizona portion of the Sonoran Desert last year. This year, I plan to visit the California portion, which includes Palm Springs. While desert living used to be only for the extremely hardy, air-conditioning has opened up these areas to a lifestyle that is Nirvana to a cold New Yorker. Of course snow is not an issue except on the top of mountains. The fact that it rains only a few days a year means almost constant sunshine. Having a dreary winter day in the Northeast? Just dial up a webcam in the desert and you can almost feel the dry heat.
The other thing I do to conjure up the desert is to look at my pictures of Saguaro cactus. These are the large, iconic cacti that grow only in the Sonoran Desert.They live to be as much as 150-200 years old I found them really beautiful and surprisingly hard to the touch. Before I went to Arizona, I had always thought that these cacti were soft, but the Saguaro Cactus has a hard wood-like feel similar to a tree. And in fact, I was told that dead Saguaro cacti are often used as wood for construction of roofs and fences in Arizona.
So as I endure yet another New York winter, my eye is on the calendar. Spring training begins in mid-February and the first pre-season Yankees game is March 4. After that, it’s a hop, skip and a jump until the first day of spring. Until then, I can huddle over a cup of hot something or other, look at pictures and think of the warm desert. California Dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
Is it not a great and guilty pleasure to stand in the kitchen and stuff your face with leftovers without worrying about calories or manners?
On nights when Steve’s out, I love emptying the fridge of teflon containers and plastic-wrapped bowls and pouring myself a glass of wine for my kitchen counter feast. It’s so wonderfully decadent. And because the rule is no holds barred, I am so grossed out by my excessiveness that sticking to a game plan of fastidious gym attendance and low carb entrees is a piece of cake, until the next urge to splurge descends with a vengeance.
My pig-out leftovers don’t make it to the “teflon containers and plastic-wrapped bowls.” I do like to stand, though. The best pig-outs for me are after a party. Once the party is over, I walk amongst the ravaged, scooped-out platters and taste everything. Just a fork-full. Unless there is an open bag of potato chips. That I need to sit down for. I can eat them until the corners of my mouth are sore and split from the salt and sharp edges — until I roll on the floor, content, but with stomach curdling, and arms and legs splayed out in a gluttonous tribute to the joy of just letting go.
I have been cleaning up and cleaning out the back room. It is the master bedroom of my apartment, but has always functioned as a studio — a place where I had my easel and oils and drawing books and pastels and thread and canvas and stretcher bars and papier-maché and beads.
But I am starting to move stuff out. The house in New Jersey has an attic and the attic is to become a working space of mine. I am organizing and gathering and chucking, and between the dust bunnies and crap, I found a cache of memories.
There are notebooks filled with slides of paintings, and drawing books filled with collages. I have photograph books that hold the two-dimensional representation of my three-dimensional papier-mache sculptures that took over my living room in my old apartment. It was so sad because they were too big to come with me when I moved to this apartment. Rediscovering my stash of work reminded me of the years when I would wake up and paint and come home from work and paint and in-between draw, sew, take classes, make collages, and paint.
I pored through my photograph albums and found forgotten gems like this one:
I just cracked up. What a poem! What a poet!
I found a two-page photo spread of a 1996 ski trip to Vermont which included pics of Lo and her toddler sons, a dirty sink, a pot of fondue and a kitchen floor carpeted in bubbles. For some reason I have no recollection of that trip, probably because I don’t ski. I tumble and fumble. Best to forget those embarrassing experiences. But Lola had instant recall. She remembered who made the fondue, how the sink got completely clogged and that someone put liquid soap into the dishwasher, thereby leading to a bubble explosion.
So amidst the dreaded chore of cleaning, vacuuming and dusting, I got to “review” some ephemera of my life at this ripe old age of young middle age. (We are only young middle age, still, right?) I am sure when I again look back, the glow of the past will have an even more burnished lustre, but no doubt that, just like this time, I will be enthralled remembering how much fun I’ve had and how many fabulous people I have known and loved for these many years.
I’ve had a persistent low-grade ache in my right thigh for over a year now. I wrote it off to too much running and not enough stretching, but lately the pain has gotten worse. So I started getting regular massages, switched from the treadmill to the elliptical trainer, and did flexibility exercises hoping to erase the problem, but nothing changed.
Then, like Ebenezer Scrooge, I had a Christmas Eve miracle and revelation.
Every year we host an elaborate Christmas Eve feast featuring all sorts of seafood as well as fresh, crisp-crust bread and exquisite pastries from the local bakery. But to get any of those goodies without waiting on line for an hour, you have to get to the bakery as soon as they open on Christmas Eve morning. My over-50 body forces me to toddle out of bed every night in the wee hours to use the bathroom, so I’m the natural for that crack of dawn bakery run.
When I got there at 5:50 the lights in the main serving area weren’t on yet, but I saw activity inside. My right leg tends to stiffen up if I’m sitting still for a while, so rather than leaping out of the car and running across the street as I would have years ago, I carefully eased out of the driver’s seat and stood for a second to gauge the pain and let the stiffness dissipate. Not too bad – after a couple of seconds it felt fine, and I walked into the bakery with only a slight hitch in my step.
Incredibly, there were already three people on line, waiting in semi-darkness for the women bustling behind the counter to recognize the start of business. By the time I had my three dozen rolls and box of pastries ten minutes later, there were eight people behind me on a line, growing by the minute, that was snaking out the door. I’d dodged the bullet.
When I got home, because of my achy leg and partly out of just plain laziness, I decided I’d carry everything (including my convenience store coffee and newspapers) in one trip.
That took some planning: first I put the coffee on the hood of the car, leaving the house keys hanging from my left pinky. Then I put my left arm around the bulging bag of warm rolls, and with my right hand folded the newspapers under my left arm. I slid my right index finger under the red and white twine on the pastries so the box dangled below my hand, then carefully kicked the door shut using my pain-free left leg.
My left hand was still free (except for the keys on my pinky), so I used that to awkwardly reach down and grab the coffee cup from the hood while still hugging the bag of rolls and squeezing my armpit on the newspapers. I figured once I got up the steps, I could put the pastry box on the side table by the door, take the keys from my left pinky with my right hand, and unlock the door. Mission accomplished!
But my hip had other plans.
I began to climb the steps, but because of the pain I failed to raise my right foot above the riser, and tripped. Because I was walking so slowly, I fell in slow motion. The box of pastries rocked, my finger released the string, and the heavy box slid away across the step, unharmed, as my right hand came down to break my fall.
As my left side came down, I somehow placed the tall Styrofoam cup of coffee onto the porch without spilling a drop. Simultaneously, my arm splayed out and the bag of rolls plopped onto the step ahead of me – remaining upright and jostling, but not dislodging, any of the rolls sticking out of the top. Even the newspapers had fallen from under my arm onto the step in a neatly folded stack.
I stood there, feeling foolish, with the house keys waggling on my pinky.
The Christmas Eve miracle: I’d spilled nothing and was unhurt. The revelation: I’d fallen climbing my own front steps, and could have been badly injured. So I made an appointment with my doctor, got an x-ray, and a week ago was diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the right hip. So now I’m officially old, with an old person’s chronic ailment, an old person limp, and maybe a need for an old person remedy: a new hip. We’ll see.
But it’s all good. Like Scrooge, I’m thrilled to be alive — even if it means hobbling around like Tiny Tim.