Sunday, September 7, 2014

When Food is Art, Art is Yummy

My husband loves sports. I cannot catch a ball.

I love to read. John would rather wait for the movie.

However, we do share at least one common interest: FOOD. We love eating and all things related to food. We love cooking food, watching shows about food and even reminiscing about the best food we've ever eaten. Perhaps our favorite thing to do is visit fun restaurants at which we eat more food.

We consider ourselves foodies, but mostly because "foodie" is a nicer word than "glutton."

Actually, it would be a bit of a stretch to call ourselves foodies since the goal of most of our meals these days is to shovel in as much food as possible before the inevitable spilled drink or dinnertime meltdown. The most exotic thing we've eaten recently is take-out from Mr. Wonton. However, when we're not scraping dried macaroni off the floor or hiding in the pantry with potato chips, we like to envision a future where we can once again frequent fabulous restaurants. Or at least a future where we can roast brussel sprouts without anyone yelling "EW!"

So maybe we are only foodies in our minds. We are faux foodies.

A while ago we were watching a show (about food, obviously) that featured a segment on an avant-garde style of cuisine called molecular gastronomy, in which chefs utilize chemistry and physics to transform the tastes and textures of food, creating a unique and innovative culinary experience.

Basically, you get a dish that looks something like this:
Caviar, egg custard, red onion gelee and brioche foam.
It tasted like the ocean, spread on buttery bread. 

Or this:
Green apple taffy helium balloon: bite the balloon, suck out the helium and enjoy the taffy.

There are only a handful of restaurants in the US that specialize in molecular gastronomy, and one happens to be in Chicago. When we were planning our Chicago trip (and by 'we' I mean me, obviously), we decided that gourmets such as ourselves could not pass up the opportunity to indulge in the ultimate foodie experience. The restaurant, called Alinea, would be a true test of our foodieness.

We arrived on a Thursday evening, not knowing what to expect. It was hard to believe that this unassuming grey building housed a restaurant that books up months in advance. There was no sign, no name prominently displayed, only four silver street numbers to reassure us that we had come to the right place.
This better be good.
We entered and made our way down a long, dark, narrow hallway that seemed to dead-end, when all of a sudden, a silver panel to our left slid open and we walked into the dining area.

The dining room was small, only five tables in all (although there were a few more tables in the floor above). There was no soft background music, no aroma drifting from the kitchen, and the windows were covered so as to let some light in, but block any outside distraction. Clearly, the most minute details had been considered to insure that nothing took away from the main attraction: the food. In fact, the most noticeable feature of the dining room was actual stalks of rhubarb suspended from the ceiling over each table.

I immediately began to document our experience. If we were to become true foodies, we needed to take notes. I think some large kale leaves might look divine hanging from our kitchen chandelier.

Diners are not presented with menus at Alinea (much too conventional), instead the servers bring out one surprise course after another, fifteen in all on this particular night.

One of our first courses came out in the form of a large nest. Our server explained that there was a root vegetable called salsify hidden somewhere within. It was marinated in soy sauce and other flavors and tasted a little like beef jerky, only less chewy.
I should definitely whip up a batch of these for our next preschool playdate. They would be a big hit.
If only I knew where to buy some salsify. 
It became clear very quickly that this was more than a meal. It was meant to be a gastronomic affair. Every ingredient was carefully selected and prepared in a way that highlighted each individual flavor. Every bite was an event. The chefs may have utilized science to create these culinary sculptures, but this was more than chemistry. This was art.
And art was yummy.
One of my favorite courses was a dish called "Hot Potato, Cold Potato," a deconstructed take on potato soup. The dish was placed in the palm of my hand and I could feel the chill of the cold, creamy broth through the tiny bowl. At the same time, I could see steam rising from the piping hot bits of potato, leek and truffle secured on the silver pin. Our server instructed us to swiftly pull the pin, letting the hot vegetables drop in the soup, and rapidly drink the soup in one gulp, like taking a shot.

It was a marvelous sensation of hot and cold combining as they slid down the throat, creating the impression that one had enjoyed an entire bowl of potato soup in just one mouthful.

It was reminiscent of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Violet Beauregarde heedlessly samples Willy Wonka's three-course meal chewing gum. She is delighted at the sensation of enjoying tomato soup, roast beef and baked potato all in one stick of gum. Unfortunately, she turns into a giant blueberry during the dessert course and all the fun is over for her.

Fortunately for us, our fun was just beginning.

Roasted corn atop manchego cheese grits with truffle. THIS I could have eaten all night.

Also, it turns out that the dangling rhubarb was not only for decoration. It doubled as a garnish for the rhubarb and celery root salad.

As different courses arrived at various tables, the diners oohed and ahhed over every morsel. "The dehydrated yogurt rock was divine!" exclaimed one. "Compliments to the chef, my ashed goat cheese paired perfectly with the licorice graffiti!" In fact, while we were on course 9 or so, one patron had just finished his meal. He proceeded to shake the hands of the servers and sommelier as he declared, "Thank you so, so much! This has been a life changing event for me!"

John and I locked eyes across the table. "Is this meal changing your life?" I whispered. He leaned over the table, "Maybe we haven't gotten to that course yet."

At that precise moment our server arrived to whisk away our plates, "And how were the lily bulbs and lychee gelee?" I glanced at my husband and we both knew the other wanted to shout LIFE CHANGING! But neither of us could manage a word, for we were both overcome by a fit of giggles.

"I'll take that as a good sign," replied the waiter.

Dinner at Alinea was a modern art masterpiece. The use of color and texture was dazzling and the medium was new and innovative, but in the back of my mind I couldn't help but be reminded of the story The Emperor's New Clothes. Amid all the euphoric exclamations of praise, there was a small part of me that wanted to channel the boy who spoke plain truth while everyone else played along with the pageantry. I had a tiny urge to stand up and declare to my fellow diners, "You guys! We are eating FLOWER PETALS and BUBBLES! My toddler eats those EVERY DAY FOR FREE!!"

But I didn't, because then everyone would know I was just a faux foodie.

Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful experience. We had SO MUCH FUN. We ate foods we'd never tried in ways we could have never conceived.

For me, it wasn't a life changing event, but it was a once in a lifetime experience.

Besides, I already had my life changing event.

He was sitting right across the table from me the whole night.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scenes From Chicago

Last spring my husband came to me with an idea. "Hey, what do you think about taking a trip to Chicago in August?"

"You mean for our anniversary?!? Honey, that is SO sweet!" He never plans ahead, so I was gleefully shocked to think he was imagining a romantic getaway for us months in the future.

"Oh, err, um, yeah. For our anniversary. And also, the Orioles will be in town."

So last week we jetted out to Chicago to see John's favorite baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, play the Cubs...I mean, for a romantic anniversary weekend.

Either way, I was excited because it was our first big trip together in 7 years and our first time away from all three kids EVER. At this point I would be happy to go on a date to our local Chili's if it meant I could remain seated for the entire meal and not listen to a squeaky voice yell "BITE! BITE! BITE!" every time I lift my fork to my mouth (even though she has the exact same thing cut up in tiny pieces in front of her), so I was ecstatic to be able to eat meals and sleep in a bed in an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT STATE.

As I mentioned, John is not much of a planner, but lucky for him, I AM. I researched, asked friends, read blogs, made reservations and bought tickets. I typed up a color-coded itinerary for us. And printed out copies. On second thought, it's amazing he agreed to travel with me at all.

I planned your typical Chicago-tourist type things like a show at Second City and an evening at the 95th floor of the John Hancock building to take in the spectacular city view.
At the Signature Room: the dining experience was ok, the views were unparalleled. 

I planned some not-so-typical things like a restaurant where we ate dinner from a nest...
"Um, what do you mean my dinner is 'in here somewhere'?

...and a charred stump.
I believe this experience merits it's own blog post. (see here)

Some of my plans did not pan out so well, which can often be the case when you're somewhere new and unfamiliar. However, my husband (the man who never plans ahead and is never on time) is blessed with what seems to be this innate streak of good luck that causes things to naturally work out for him even better than if he followed a color-coded itinerary.

We had tickets for a riverboat architecture tour, which was cancelled. A heavy rainstorm the night before had caused the water levels to rise, making it impossible for the boat to pass under some of the bridges. Who knew?

Instead, John suggested we make our way down to Navy Pier.

Navy Pier is Chicago's number one tourist attraction and I had read reports that it can be an overly-crowded, overly-commercialized tourist trap. But, for whatever reason, on our visit that morning there were no lines, no crowds, and a delightful breeze blowing in from the harbor to cool down the August heat. Maybe the rainy forecast had discouraged other travelers from exploring the pier that morning. Or maybe it was just my husband's dang lucky streak that made it all fall into place.

Ferris wheel selfie!

I was also DETERMINED to try a Chicago-style hot dog while we were in town. I'm convinced that really good hot dogs are one of life's greatest pleasures, ranking right up there with fresh pasta and nachos. If I were on a deserted island and could only eat one food for the rest of my life, I would readily choose bun-sized, all-beef hot dogs as long as I had a grill and a variety of fresh toppings.

In Chicago, they serve their hot dogs on a poppyseed bun with mustard, onions, relish, sliced tomatoes, a pickle spear and spicy sport peppers.

Naturally, a Chicago dog is a MUST while in Chicago, and I decided that if I was going to eat a Chicago dog, it might as well be the BEST hot dog in Chicago.  All my research pointed me to a little place in the north side of Chicago called Hot Doug's. Reviewers raved about the "foie gras dog" and the "duck fat fries." "Without exaggeration, the best hot dog restaurant in the world!" one exclaimed. Hot Doug's even has a quote emblazoned on a large, hot dog-shaped sign that reads, "There are no two finer words in the English language than 'encased meats,' my friend." I would have to agree.

The reviewers mentioned there would be a line. Unfortunately, they neglected to mention exactly how long that line would be.
I had to swipe this photo off Instagram since I was too distraught at the time to document my disappointment.

By the time we arrived at 11:30am, the line was already 3 hours long. See the itsy-bitsy red awning in the photo above? That's Hot Doug's. From where we were in line, you could not even see the awning. People brought LAWN CHAIRS and COOLERS with them to wait in line. An ice cream truck circled by to sell frozen treats to sweaty customers as they waited. I'm surprised no one whipped out a grill to tailgate before the main event. I don't know what makes people willing to spend half a day waiting for a hot dog, but Doug must have hired the Angels themselves to grind the meat and add spices from Heaven.

Sadly, I don't know what the word's best hot dog tastes like, because we couldn't wait for 3 hours. We had a baseball game to get to.

And the best part of the game for me? My husband bought me a big ol' Chicago-style hot dog.
Verdict: fresh, spicy, sweet. It's no Carolina dog, but I'd eat another. Especially if it happened to be made by meat-grinding angels.

For some reason, John was quite frustrated I kept calling this place "Wrigley's Stadium," so I must inform you that it is actually named WRIGLEY FIELD and it is a national historic treasure or something like that.
They had some cute t-shirts for sale with little bears on them, but John wouldn't let me buy one.
Other highlights included fresh pasta from Eataly; part restaurant, part gourmet grocery, part bookstore, part kitchen store. It reminded me of the marketplaces in Florence, only a LOT cleaner and without exclamations of Ciao, Bella! every 10 steps. Eataly: cheesy name, amazing place. Check it out.

We also had dinner with my sister, Katie, (a Chicago resident) at award-winning restaurant and dessertery Mindy's Hot Chocolate. The food was so good we forgot to take pictures.
But we did manage one fuzzy snapshot for our mom. You're welcome, Mom!
Finally, we did managed to snag a ride on a riverboat architecture cruise right before leaving for the airport. If you do one thing while in Chicago, this is it.

We had a wonderful time. It wasn't all romance and rose petals, we went to 2 baseball games, after all. There was even the occasional argument, like when we almost missed our departing flight. Twice. (It was John's fault.) But I attribute the success of our trip to 5 things:

1. My excellent planning
2. John's knack for winging it when my plans go awry
3. Yummy food
4. Occasionally making out
5. Appreciating the moments together, particularly those spontaneous and unplanned

Come to think of it, those are the things that make our marriage work too.

And a big, giant THANK YOU to all the grandparents who made this trip possible! Although we are currently in the throws of some serious DETOX, it was well worth it. ;)

Note: Because some have asked, all photos were taken with my iPhone and most were edited with the apps Snapseed or VSCO Cam.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

NINE: When You've Been Married as Long as Your Age Gap

I was 18 years old, still in high school and waiting tables for extra cash. He was 27, back in college, and working at the same restaurant.

With our 9 year age difference, we weren’t exactly an obvious couple. In fact, some were a bit scandalized when we started seeing each other. What could you possibly have in common? You grew up in completely different decades! Anna, he’s, like, A MAN!

Maybe it was the way he always insisted on carrying my cumbersome food trays for me. Or the time I convinced one of his tables he was actually Ben Affleck researching a movie role. Or the evening he tenderly leaned over and whispered in my ear, You have something green in your teeth!

But somehow, what started out as late night chats closing down the restaurant turned into a 4 year journey that culminated at the end of an aisle in front of our friends and family.

Still, I think some had their concerns.

My maid of honor, however, did a fabulous job of laying all worries to rest with her reassuring reception speech:

"...It seems like nothing matters when you're in love. Through good times, bad times, through all the times, the only thing that matters is that you share them together. Age becomes nothing more then a number.

BUT, just for fun, let’s look at the numbers:

When Anna was 1 year old, John was 10. Talk about robbing the cradle!

When Anna was 5 years old, John was 14. She was starting Kindergarten and he was going into high school.

When Anna was 6, John was 15. They both had bad hair; she in sponge curlers, he had a mullet.

When Anna was 7, John was 16. He was getting his license. She was just learning to cross the street by herself.

When Anna was 9, John was 18. He was working out at the gym. Anna could be found at the jungle gym.

When Anna was 12, John was 21. Anna wasn’t a teen. Neither was he.

When Anna was 16, John was 25. Anna had just gotten her first beat-up old car. John was
still driving his beat-up old car.

When Anna was 21, John was 30. She could have a drink because she was finally legal. He needed a drink because, let’s face it, he’s gettin’ on up there!"

Today is our 9th anniversary. Today we have been married for as long as our age difference.

If we were looking at the numbers of our marriage today, just for fun, it might go something like this…

NINE: the number of anniversaries we've celebrated

EIGHT: the number of times he's forgiven me for hitting something with the car

SEVEN: the number of spills we clean up each day

SIX: the number of times we put the kids to bed every night

FIVE: the number of job changes we've had

FOUR: the number of addresses we've shared

THREE: the number of times he held my hand as we welcomed our sweet babies into the world

TWO: the couple that is more committed to each other today than we were nine years ago

ONE: the beautifully messy, perfectly ordinary, deeply satisfying life we have created together

After nine years our age difference is practically negligible. In fact, last year at a Christmas party, someone asked us who was younger and I almost choked on my cocktail (um, ME!). 

The truth is, I'm glad that the more the years go by, the less the numbers seem to matter. 

I'm glad we don't keep track of the number of hurtful words that slip out too hastily or the countless arguments over such monumental issues as to which number to set the thermostat or the proper way to fold a bath towel. I'm embarrassed at the number of times I've added more tallies under my name on the parenting ledger and made myself the martyr, instead of taking the time to acknowledge all the things he's done for me, for us, each day. 

I'm glad that the pettiness is gradually eclipsed by the mountain of I love yous that accumulate day after day, month after month, year after year. I'm thankful that there is no way to count the innumerable good-night kisses or comforting hugs or the sweet moments of simply being together. 

After nine years we've added to our romantic notions of love with the lessons that love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous, and love does not keep score. We cling to the promise that this kind of love never fails. 

After nine years he still helps carry my heavy loads. And I still kinda think he looks like Ben Affleck. 

This may work out after all.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

So What Do You Do All Day?

A pair of big blue eyes peek over the side of the bed at me. Disheveled tufts of blond hair poke in all directions. "Mommy. I want pancakes. And dip."

It's how my day usually starts, normally around 7:30am. After hearing some horror stories from friends about their 5am risers, I am grateful we seemed to pass on the sleep-in gene to our children. Because anytime after 7am is definitely sleeping in for the preschool set.

I constantly scold myself that I should get up an hour or so before the kids, to shower, make preparations for the day or just to soak in some quiet solitude. I should get up, but in the battle between shower and sleep, sleep ALWAYS wins.

So I usually begin my day already feeling a tad bit behind.

When I quit my job to stay home with my first child, I had a friend ask me about my new life as a stay-at-home-mom. "So, what do you do all day?" she curiously asked.

She wasn't being rude and I wasn't offended. She was a working mom with a full-time job and I often wondered how she managed to cram all of her responsibilites in a 24 hour period.

So one day this summer, inspired by other bloggers' "Day in the Life" posts, I documented our day with my iPhone.

This is what I do all day.

Spoiler alert: It's not glamorous. It's not even exciting. But it's never dull. And it's always a bit messy.
Day in the Life: Summer 2014
Jack (almost 5)
Henry (2.5)
Elise (16 months)

On this particular morning, John took our 4-year-old out for some "Daddy/Jack time." They went to McDonald's for breakfast (Jack's choice) and our son was quite disappointed to discover that they do not serve chicken nuggets at 8:00am. He cheered up when John pointed out that they do serve Sprite.

And I wonder why they think Daddy is the fun one.

I bet you'll never guess their favorite baseball team.
John has a job that requires him to work long hours, mostly evenings. He is usually around in the mornings though and he always makes the best of the time he has with us.

We didn't have any pressing errands to run that morning, so I straightened up one room while Henry and Elise destroyed another. And then we switched.

After getting the kids ready, I attempted to take my bi-weekly shower. Ok, ok, I take more than 2 showers a week. Sometimes I take 3.
And now I'm really cursing my self for not doing this before she woke up!

I finally managed to distract Elise with some toys. And by "toys" I mean all my hair accessories under my sink.


I finally wrangled the kids outside to avoid any other mishaps. Jack and Daddy returned from their morning adventure and John headed off to work.

I forgot to take pictures at lunch, but it went something like this:

Me: What do you guys want for lunch? (BIG MISTAKE)



Elise: GAH BAH GAH!!

Me: Oh, actually, all we have is peanut butter.


Me: What if I cut the peanut butter sandwich into chicken nugget shapes?

Kids: OK!!

Then, naptime. Glorious naptime.
Yes, there is an actual child in that crib. No, I did not put him to bed like that.

Shortly after naptime THIS happened. NAIL POLISH. EVERYWHERE.

OH...MY...I JUST...I CAN'T...I DON'T EVEN...!!!

Elise knocked a bottle of nail polish off the bathroom sink and it shattered on the tile. So much for my bath mats. So much for my bathROOM.

I wiped up what I could, but quick-dry polish is NO JOKE. Nail polish remover was not even making a dent. This mess was going to take HOURS to clean up. So I did the only thing I could think of...

I took a picture and stuck it on Facebook. My favorite caption suggestion: COVER(your floor)GIRL. (Thanks +Stephanie Wheeler !)

COVER(your floor)GIRL

Then I left the mess, threw the kids in the car and picked up some take-out.

We opted for a picnic on the front lawn because it's summer and you're supposed to have picnics in summer. And also because our house smelled a little like a nail salon.

Upside of a picnic: easy clean-up. 
Downside: instead of getting up from the kitchen table 19 times, I run in and out of the house 19 times. 

And then, after baths and jammies, Daddy came home.
I put the baby to bed around 8:00pm and began BATHROOM CLEAN-UP 2014

I think I may have found the one task that is even more frustrating than putting the boys to bed.

I could hear John in the next room, attempting to tuck the boys in for the night.
"Daddy, I want water. Cold water. With ice."
"Daddy, you forgot to say prayers!"
"Daddy, I want MOOOOMMY!"
"Daddy, why is pee pee yellow? I wish mine was orange."

Finally, FINALLY, as midnight approached, our floor was white again. As long as you don't look too close.

And I was finally, FINALLY off to bed. 

I needed to get some rest.

I had another perfectly messy, beautifully ordinary day ahead of me tomorrow.