Monday, January 23, 2012

Party Planner

One month ago, Ada's birthday party was easy: she'd have an exact replica of her older sister's fifth birthday party. Oops: our favorite clown is in Hawaii this week. But that's OK, she had another idea, anyway. "I want an Alton Brown party!" Oops: this TV celebrity doesn't know you as well as you know him. But two weeks ago, Ada's birthday party was still easy: we'd go to Whole Foods for one of their cooking parties and I wouldn't even have to clean my house. Oops: Whole Foods had a massive kids' event last Saturday and no birthday parties were held all weekend. This is when things got a little complicated.

Alton Brown hosts a science-themed cooking show on The Food Network called Good Eats. He's also the host/food historian/scientist/commentator for Iron Chef America, but Ada doesn't watch that show. (Good Eats is a show we occasionally watch together while I nurse her baby brother.) It turns out that not only does Alton Brown not regularly perform at children's birthday parties halfway across the country, but also he's not a popular children's party theme. There are no canned party-in-a-box options to purchase. There aren't even Alton Brown-themed party hats. What to do? Here's Ada's 5th Birthday Alton Brown Party, for your amusement.

We decided on a Saturday morning party from 9-11, at which guests could wear pajamas (so that Ada could wear her favorite footie pjs). First came the homemade invitations (since I couldn't exactly order Good Eats invites):

Could you tell that's supposed to be an egg with bacon?

Ada was turning 5, so allowed 5 guests plus herself and her sister (4 guests came, for a total of 6 little girls). As they arrived, we greeted them with homemade name tags so that all the adults would know the children's names - the girls are now old enough that not all the parents needed to stay! A first. The girls went into the dining room and began decorating colorful aprons that would also serve as party favors.

When they'd finished their aprons they washed hands and divided themselves into two groups (by the color of their nametags). The Red Team stood on stools at the kitchen counter with Paul, making vanilla cupcakes. The Purple Team sat at the dining room table with me, making monkey bread.

As the projects baked, Ada opened her presents. Then all the girls sat in the family room to watch me standing behind the kitchen counter making a fool of myself demonstrating yeast and gluten while baking bread. (Thanks to Kristy for taking pictures. Thanks to my sister-in-law for the loaner lab coat and glasses!)

We secretly had three loaves of bread going so that the girls could see the mixing/kneading stage, the risen stage, and the baked stage in short order. After scraping dough from their hands, the girls divided back into their baking teams. The purple team decorated freshly baked cupcakes at the kitchen table while the red team made fruit kabobs in the dining room. The teams then switched stations, and when everyone was done the kids sat down together to eat at the dining room table.

Between activities there was time for free play in Ada and Ellie's room or taking turns flying Paul's remote controlled helicopter. I think it all went remarkably well! THANKS to Paul for co-leading and for making so many of my ideas come to life (including the cupcake toppers and laundry basket of gluten). Many, many thanks to my parents for making the 300 mile drives (separately!) through ice and white-out conditions to be here and to take care of Teddy during the party.

Today was Ada's birthday proper and she got to pick all the food: doughnuts for breakfast, mac and cheese for lunch, and tacos with re-fried beans for supper. Then more presents and it's all over for another 364 days! (Here she's opening a cookbook from her sister.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How Embarrassing

Tonight's dinner: Cod en Papillote, Brussells sprouts with bacon.

Between last week's MASSIVE trip to Whole Foods and this week's trip, I took a cheater trip to our local chain grocery, Schnucks, for Diet Coke, cupcake decorating supplies, etc.

But Whole Paycheck drew me right back in this week with its promise of organic, sustainably, ethically farmed everything. Well, that and the story time with a guy from the local Little Gym that got the kids involved and active. Since I was already in the store . . . might as well shop! And I did so well this trip! Almost everything I purchased was from the outer rim of the market: produce and cooler sections. I only needed three items from the aisles: oatmeal, couscous, and chickpeas. (See above re: cheater trip to Schnucks.) I was also shopping for fewer meals since we'll be eating out a couple times this week. But I "only" spent $206 this time, so: win.

Back to that trip to Schnucks for a moment. I went with Teddy and Ellie on a Saturday afternoon and the place was hopping. As I entertained my kids and tried to help load my cart, the cashier next to "my" cashier called over with a question.

"Hey, this lady can't buy HER ALCOHOL with her FOOD STAMPS, can she? No, I didn't think so. I'd better look that up!" And she proceeded to make her whole line wait while she pulled out a three ring binder and perused it for a while.

I busied myself with my children, not looking up, horrified. At first I thought it had to be a joke. No way the (familiar, long-time) cashier could possibly have been so rude, callous, horrible? Oh, but yes, she certainly could. My jaw literally hung open for a while.

As I walked out of the store a few minutes later, I passed a woman talking to the manager. The woman was nicely dressed and looked like she might have just come from work with her black slacks and black-and-white blouse. She was about my age, had no children with her, and defied just about every stereotype you might have heard about people on food stamps (which incidentally, is supposed to be a relatively private matter. as I understand it, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - SNAP - is now administered via a debit-like card, so other customers need never know who's receiving benefits and who is not).

I was very glad to hear her explaining the situation to the manager and how she'd never felt so degraded, so humiliated in her life. I marveled at her composure. I'd have been a red-faced, shaking-voiced, emotional wreck. I hope some good (and, at the very least, staff retraining) came from such a painful experience.

All this threw my nutrition-rich but COSTLY trips to Whole Foods into sharper relief.

15 Years Ago Tonight...

Fifteen years is a long time, especially when you're still a "young adult," like me. (I wonder if I will ever begin to feel like a "real" grown-up? Perhaps when I learn to consistently do my dishes immediately instead of leaving them on the counter to cure for a while first. Surely that's a sign of adulthood.)

Heck, five years is a long time!

But 15 years ago, Paul and I were 19 and 22 and we had our first date. It didn't go very well, but it went well enough. We knew immediately that we'd never date casually, and we didn't. After that first night - where we had a dinner we didn't enjoy followed by bowling with friends who didn't think we should be together and ending with one of us physically bolting out the door, shoes in hand - it was just the two of us forevermore.

Life is good.  And I'm not just saying that because something happened to our Wii Fit Balance Board so that it registered me as losing 10 pounds since last week. (I'm doing well but not *that* well!)

Tonight we did not celebrate with Chinese food, bowling and ER (the TV show, not a catastrophic hospital visit). Tonight we went out for steak with our three fabulous children, came home and made homemade peanut butter all together, got the kids to bed, and cuddled on the couch like, well, like young adults.

I'm looking forward to the next 15.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

They're Just Lazy Gluttons!

I want to be sure I'm feeding my family healthful foods and not dosing them with massive quantities of pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics. So I went to Whole Foods.

I stuck carefully to my prepared shopping list, which corresponded to my menu for this week:

Breakfast: old-fashioned oatmeal, cutie
Snack: cheese stick
Lunch: Mediterranean Chicken Salad
Snack: hard-boiled egg
Dinner: Spinach-stuffed Salmon Filet, vegetable medley, salad  
Snack: a glass of wine
Breakfast: Berry smoothie
Snack: hard-boiled egg
Lunch: Lemon-couscous chicken
Snack: yogurt
Dinner: Turkey/Oatmeal meatloaf, steamed asparagus, mushrooms sautéed in olive oil, salad
Snack: fruit and unsweetened peanut butter
Breakfast: cereal, berries
Snack: apple and peanut butter
Lunch: Greek salad
Snack: yogurt
Dinner: Logos/leftovers
Snack: pear & peanut butter
Breakfast: scrambled eggs, cheese, spicy fresh salsa
Snack: celery & laughing cow cheese
Lunch: Chef’s salad
Snack: yogurt
Dinner: Herb-marinated chicken, salad, steamed vegetables
Snack: yogurt shake
Breakfast: berry smoothie or half grapefruit
Snack: hard-boiled egg
Lunch: open-face roast beef sandwiches
Snack: yogurt
Dinner: Pizza and salad
Snack: baked apple crisp
Breakfast: egg "muffins"
Snack: yogurt
Lunch: leftovers
Snack: veg and hummus
Dinner: Beef Burrito Bowls
Snack: pudding
Breakfast: fruit/toast/cheese
Snack: cheese stick
Lunch: tomato stuffed with tuna salad
Snack: cheese & tomato
Dinner: out!
Snack: a glass of wine

I spent $335.

And I've spent a lot of time in the kitchen over the past couple of days.

And my children - while they get the added benefit of carbs (a side of bread or pasta for dinner, pretzels for a snack, etc.) are not exactly excited about most of this food.

Contrast this with a dinner at the pizza buffet place, which costs $4.99 for adults, $3.99 for kids, and makes everyone happy (if not healthy). No wait, no prep time, no baby crying in his high chair while Mommy chops veg for salad.

So, yeah, it's easy to see why everyone doesn't eat this way all the time.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan

It took me more than two years to read this book, but don't let that scare you away. I think you should read it, too!

I loved this book. I didn't agree with the author about everything, but I did agree with him about a lot of things and I loved his passion for literature alongside his irreverent take towards it. This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm discussing Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan.

Murnighan "has a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance literature from Duke University. He is the author of The Naughty Bits and Classic Nasty and has written for Esquire, Glamour, and Nerve. He lives in New York City and teaches creative nonfiction at the University of the Arts."

I don't hold all that against him, though. He writes like a hip professor who really really wants to pass along not the IMPORTANT SYMBOLISM or CRITICAL HISTORICAL CONTEXT of classic literature but rather a love of reading great books along with an understanding of how to read "tough" books and why the effort is worthwhile.

The publisher's blurb:
Did anyone tell you that Anna Karenina is a beach read, that Dickens is hilarious, that the Iliad’s battle scenes rival Hollywood’s for gore, or that Joyce is at his best when he’s talking about booze, sex, or organ meats?

Writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s time to give literature another look, but this time you’ll enjoy yourself. With a little help, you’ll see just how great the great books are: how they can make you laugh, moisten your eyes, turn you on, and leave you awestruck and deeply moved. Beowulf on the Beach is your field guide–erudite, witty, and fun-loving–for helping you read and relish fifty of the biggest (and most skipped) classics of all time. For each book, Murnighan reveals how to get the most out of your reading and provides a crib sheet that includes the Buzz, the Best Line, What’s Sexy, and What to Skip.

I found that if I tried to read the book straight through, the chapters and various classics began to bleed together. So I used it as my palate cleanser, reading a chapter or two between other books as I finished them.

And now I intend to start all over, using Beowulf on the Beach as a to-do list to fill in the gaps in my reading of the classics. I'm especially loving the "what to skip" bits, some of which confirm that a book that's supposed to be "great" but I have no interest in might not actually be so wonderful after all. (Murnighan has a theory that people like sets of three and sometimes an author or books is tossed in with two other, far greater works to make a complete set.)

My favorite part of the book is that Murnighan is so completely un-snobby about literature. He tells you everything you need to know about each book in order not to embarrass yourself at a literary cocktail party. And he also tells you what questions to ask to poke holes in the blowhard who quotes famous lines from books he probably hasn't read.

(Fourth Monday Book Club, this book is why we're reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude this month. I hear it's "the greatest novel of our era." And who can resist that?)

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