Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Mom, Don't Even Pretend You Cook!"

I wrote this story as part of a collection of stories to be published in support of Women's International Leadership Institute (WILI), a nonprofit started by a good family friend. WILI promotes the leadership potential, employment and economic self-sufficiency of women from low-income backgrounds through educational programming, skill-building and charitable acts.

My mom and I on a trip to SF last year when I was pregnant

Mom, Don't Even Pretend You Cook

As a teenager, my brother used to joke, “Mom, don’t even pretend you cook.” This seemed funny to us as kids, and my mom never professed to be a great chef, but looking back now I realize not only how hurtful it was, but how factually untrue it was.  My mom cooked dinner for us just about every night growing up; we rarely went out to eat, only on special occasions, and only ordered take out pizza or Peter’s Chinese every so often.  So this means that she, with help from my dad when she was out of town or running late, cooked dinner almost every night for 25 years, from the time my brother and I were born through high school.  Sure, were some of our friend’s mother’s “better” cooks, making more adventurous meals and spending a lot more time in the kitchen? Yes, but many of them were stay-at-home moms, having more time to devote to their culinary abilities. And there were other mothers who actually didn’t even pretend to cook, they would just order in or take us all out to restaurants instead.
At the age of 12, I decided to make her life even harder by declaring myself a vegetarian and only eating fish for the next four years and adding chicken back in the mix for the following 10, and she somehow managed to keep finding ways make me dinner, getting really creative with shrimp and fish.  When I was a freshman in high school, she took a year-long position at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, DC and spent the year going back and forth from Denver to DC.  My dad, who took over much of the cooking that year, says that he could do almost anything with frozen shrimp and tilapia, although some of it was questionable.  We also ate a lot more pizza that year.
We joked about my mom’s cooking abilities because she was a working mom, spending more time running her own company than thinking about recipes or housework.  Yet, she would get home from work and somehow whip together a nutritious dinner, always, she made sure, with a salad or vegetables on the side, often with lettuce, spinach, peas, carrots, squash and other veggies fresh from her garden. 
While her cooking skills are maybe not world-renowned, her baking skills are pretty legendary.  She is the go-to pie maker for all holidays and other events in our circle of family and friends.  She even makes her own crusts, which, if you’ve ever tried to make a crust, is pretty impressive.  Growing up she’d make delicious bittersweet rhubarb pies using rhubarb from a crazy overgrown plant in our backyard garden.  One of the benefits of being able to make a pie crust is that, as she recently told me, you can put almost anything in it.  I asked her how she learned to make quiche, was it something that her mom had taught her?  But she said no, that she’d put her crust making skills to use and created another Jeanie go-to recipe, a cheese quiche.  This was a particularly crucial meal during my vegetarian years.
My mom grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in a fairly traditional household in the mid-west with a mother who did spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking for her three daughters and her husband and entertaining the other women and families of the very small town of Kewanee, Illinois, which proudly declares itself the hog capital of the world.  Her father was an engineer who ran his own factory making parts for John Deere tractors. She recalls going to the factory as a young girl and being fascinated with the machines and tools. But when she told her father she wanted to become an engineer like him, she was told that it wasn’t an appropriate profession for women and was discouraged from pursuing it; more a sign of the times than the judgment of a mean father.  She did not become an engineer, but she did leave her small town at the age of 14 to go to boarding school in Washington, DC and then on to get her PhD in sociology and to running her own research company, first out of our house when my brother and I were little, and later out of an office. Any lack of cooking skills on my mother’s part was a purposeful break from the traditional female roles she grew up with leading a new generation of women in the workforce and re-defining the role of motherhood.

My mom and brother in the hospital soon after I was born

Now as a new working mom myself, I can hardly comprehend how she managed it all. I have asked her more than a few times over the past year since my son was born how she did it, sometimes genuinely trying to understand as I bumbling figure this new life out and other times just as a pure statement of awe. How did she finish her PhD with a newborn baby, taking only 2 weeks off for maternity leave before being back teaching university classes, then later, work from home with a 7 year old and a second baby with no additional childcare other than help from my father either time?  I know for a fact that there were a lot of really early mornings; I remember them well as a child, knowing no matter how early I got up, my mom would already be awake downstairs with her cup of coffee sitting in front of her computer.  
I truly believe that my brother and I benefited much more from watching her as an independent, successful career woman than from having gourmet meals served to us at dinnertime. So thank you, Mom!
I use her quiche and apple pie recipes often now.  The quiche is a really great, quick weeknight meal and I often bring an apple pie to holidays at my in-laws or friends houses. Although, I don’t even pretend to make a crust, I just buy one. 

Jeanie’s Apple Pie Recipe

2 cups of all-purpose flour
¼  teaspoon salt
½  to 2/3 cup of ice-chilled water
2/3 bar of Crisco

Pie Filling
6-8 peeled, sliced apples
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon butter

1. Fill a small glass with ½ to 2/3 cups of water, add an ice-cube and set to the side
2. Mix flour and salt in large mixing bowl
3. Add Crisco to flour and mix
4. Add in water slowly and mix with a fork until it is a consistency that sticks together
5. Take dough with your hands and roll into two similar sized balls
6. At this point many people would chill the dough, but as my mother told me, “I don’t have time for that”, so you can go ahead and put flower down on a flat surface and on your rolling pin and roll out the bottom part of the crust, stretching to fit the pan you are using
7. Roll out the second ball to make the pie cover; set aside
8.  In a large mixing bowl, mix sugar and cinnamon
9. Add apples to mixing bowl and stir, coating all the slices with the sugar mixture
10. Pour coated apples into the bottom pie crust in the pie pan; spread out evenly
11. Dab small pieces of butter around the top of the apple mixture and then place the pie cover on top, pressing the edges together with your thumbs or a fork, creating a grooved texture
12. Cook for approximately 1 hour at 350 degrees
13. With any left over pie dough, we used to roll it out, add cinnamon and sugar to the top and bake until crispy, making a treat to eat soon after the pie goes in the oven.

*This recipe was pieced together in a phone conversation with my mom as she doesn’t actually use a recipe and neither do I as I learned from her, so the amounts of each ingredient are our best guess

Friday, August 26, 2016

Lesson #9 from Climbing Kilimanjaro: Personal victories are satisfying. Shared victories are sublime

Peter and I at Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro

I was reading a post from Uncornerd Market entitled "Climbing Kilimanjaro: Life Lessons from the Top of Africa" and lesson #9 struck me so deeply I decided to write a blog, something I've never really considered doing before and might not do again. I just felt the need to write my story from climbing Kilimanjaro and why lesson #9 made me burst into a sobbing mess sitting by myself on the couch. So here it is:

I climbed Kilimanjaro with my older brother, Peter, and his best friend, Topher, in July 2001. I had just turned 19, they 26, and they let me tag along on their African summer adventure after my brother had  finished his 2 1/2 year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa. The finale of my 2 month backpacking with them from Cape Town to Kenya was climbing Kili. We did it on the fastest route possible, the Marangu route, because my brother was one of the cheapest people on the planet (and that was before living in a village in Africa for 2 years), so we were up in 3 1/2 days and down in 1 1/2.

We fared pretty well, I'm sure helped by our years growing up in Colorado and hiking on the weekends.  They say if you are raised in Colorado you have bigger lungs -- I have no idea if that's true or not -- and, regardless, I was fine through the last camp which was above 15,000 ft, higher than I had ever been before, even while other climbers were already beginning to show signs of altitude sickness.

We woke up the day of the summit climb at 12am and began hiking in the pitch black. The ascent was so steep we were doing mini-switch backs, one after the other, on what looked like snow, but what I later realized was volcanic ash, for an endless, freezing 6 hours until we finally reached Gilman's Point, the rim of the crater. This was probably the hardest 6 hours of my life up to this point and upon learning that we still had 2 more hours to reach the actual summit of the mountain, I began to sob, which at 18,640 ft., made it even harder to breath and I was just done, physically and emotionally, done.

It was at that point that Peter went into big brother mode and made jokes to make me laugh, platitudes to make me feel better, and also threw in some brotherly tough love that made me get up and let him pull me (I'm only half joking) those last two agonizing hours to the top.

At Gilman's Point: Me, crying and miserable; Peter, with his usual grin

Just three short years later, my big brother died of cancer at the young age of 29. So for me, all that matters now is that we did it together, that it's an amazing adventure that we shared and a memory of him that I cling to. Sublime doesn't even begin to describe it....