poppies

“Have you ever looked at a poppy seed?” I asked my 146 Instagram followers — after some inspiration (instaspiration?) while prepping a cult classic dish of my mom’s, entitled Poppy Chicken — and before a single follower saw it, double-clicked, or cared, I began to blog about it.

If you’ve never looked at a poppy seed, I will describe the experience to you.

First, you see a pile of poppy seeds and your impression is Black. Then, No, blue. And the closer you look, the more variegated the pile becomes, until you begin to see tiny, textured, kidney shaped seeds, each its own color: light gray, charcoal, blue, yellow, cream, brown, pink. It’s delightful, and I highly recommend the exercise.

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(best viewed on a phone)

 

Welcome to my first recipe post, which is also probably my last.


Poppy Chicken
(most likely brought to you by a 1980s Ritz box)

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 8 oz. sour cream (or Greek yogurt, I’ve found, to reduce some of the dairy for my lactose-sensitive partner)
  • 10 oz. frozen peas (sometimes I parboil some broccoli and add that, too)
  • 2 cans condensed cream of chicken soup (or equivalent homemade – chicken broth, milk, flour, seasoning; can’t really escape the dairy here. That’s what Lactaid is for.)
  • 1 T. poppy seeds
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 2 sleeves of Ritz, crumbled

Directions

  1. Cook chicken for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees Farenheit.
  2. While the chicken cooks, mix everything else except the butter and Ritz together in a bowl.
  3. Once the chicken finishes cooking, remove from oven (but keep the oven on!), let cool enough to handle, and chop into bite-sized pieces. I like to do a fairly small dice; it saves on chewing energy later.
  4. Combine chicken with soup/sour cream/pea/poppy mixture and transfer to a 9×13″ casserole dish.
  5. Mix the Ritz crumbles and melted butter until combined. Yes, you will need to use your hands. Distribute over the top of the casserole. Don’t forget the corners and edges!
  6. Bake for 30 minutes at 350, until bubbly and golden brown on top. Serve!
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fears

I lay awake in bed at three o’clock this morning and listened to the wind gusts that left many of my northern friends and family without power today. I could feel a draft swirling through the apartment and hoped the old pecan tree outside wouldn’t disrobe its branches on my frightened little car below.

As a young child, I was convinced the dead tree outside my window would fall onto my room with the slightest provocation of nighttime wind. When I got older and upgraded to the bedroom on the second floor, I dreaded the same thing, but with the ash tree on the other side of the house. In every scenario, the trees, violated by the wind, would crush me in my bed. Sometimes I would die, although more often I would be trapped or my legs would be broken, but the trees never missed. Sometimes I would pull the covers over my head for protection from these scenarios, sometimes for protection from the draft.

I didn’t fear the wind nearly as much during the day. A tall pine that lived behind the stone wall would creak and visibly sway in the wind, but I felt more interested in it than afraid. That’s because the daytime wind has a friendlier sort of wildness, especially when it’s warm and wet and dampens the hair at the base of your head into humid ringlets. Cold wind makes the top layer of snow dance and blows it in your eyes. Though rough, it’s playful. But the wind at night has a wildness that filled me with dread.

Nighttime wind sneaks into the edges of your house, slides under your door, seeps through your window panes. It’s inky and violent. It doesn’t want to play. It wants to fell trees and crush you (and your car) in your sleep.

The weeping willow, which loomed over the back yard, shook wildly in the wind, dropping leaves, whips, and catkins in its wake. When daytime gusts would become too strong for me to continue playing outside, I would race back towards the house, in playful earnest, until I determined I was out of range of the willow tree, were it to get blown over. I knew the day I didn’t make this hustle would be the day the tree crushed me, and I wasn’t about to let my guard down.

However, I was wrong. We were all inside the day the willow tree fell.

In this story, weeping willow is an apt name. When you have a dear friend who is a tree, it is okay to cry when it dies, even if you are fourteen years old and in high school. It had likely been dying for years, as evinced by the shelf mushrooms and spongy wood we found running all the way through its massive trunk; but a tree as anthropomorphized as Grandmother Willow dies the day she falls.

We heard a loud crack, and then a thud. That word thud conjures not only the sound she made on impact, but also a feeling in the pit of my stomach, whenever I remember. Thud has come to mean a dull, heavy sound, but it’s related to an old word that meant “violent wind”. That afternoon the wind had a violent, nighttime streak and knocked down the best tree I ever had the honor of knowing. With a thud, the wind performed a sacrifice that was not its to make.

I still fear the destruction of body and property that a strong wind can bring. At night it still sounds occult, like a wandering poltergeist with a thirst for havoc. The wind in its chaos makes the things you most fear happen when you least expect them to: All those nights of expecting to be crushed by a tree could not prepare me for the thud of Grandmother Willow, bowing under the pressure of the wind one last time.

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RIP Grandmother Willow, October 2006

collection

The driveway to my house growing up was made up of small rocks. Not gravel or pebbles, but rocks maybe one to two inches in diameter. In the winter, this made the driveway a nightmare to shovel; and in the spring, we would have to pick out and put back all the rocks that had been shoveled into the lawn throughout the winter.

Unsurprisingly, as I originate from the Granite State, most of those rocks were granite. There were, however, a fair number of quartz ones, and ones with sparkly mica throughout, and these I collected. Any time I found an interesting or appealing rock, I would remove it from the driveway and pile on the outdoor fireplace. Perhaps it’s needless to say that, by the end of my childhood, our driveway was practically bare.

This interest extended into the greater world, too: I distinctly remember a library day in elementary school when I took out (and then renewed) the Smithsonian’s Rock and Gem Book, just to pore over the brightly colored jewels and minerals photographed. (There was even a rock that looked like what we would later know as the poop emoji.)

I collected other things, too. During the autumns when my sisters were away at school but I was still too young, my mom and I would take nature walks and collect the brightest fallen leaves we could find. We “laminated” them with packing tape onto a large roll of paper. We kept that for years.

But my biggest and longest-lasting collection is stickers. I can’t tell you how many times during college that I kicked myself for not having brought my sticker collection with me to school. I finally righted that wrong senior year, and it has not left my side since. It’s always there for me in a time of need, which in recent years has primarily meant my nephews’ birthdays.

I keep them all in a small, red, plastic briefcase that has the words “Sticker Treasure Kit” emblazoned on it in sparkles with twenty-seven sparkly smileys beneath. The hinge was taped back together long ago.

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A trove of untold treasures

As I worked on my nephew’s belated birthday card this afternoon, I pulled out the ol’ kit in a hurry and flipped through its contents to find what I needed. Letter stickers. I knew I had many pages of different kinds of lettering, but what were the odds that I would still possess the correct letters for a birthday message? I always used them sparingly, but of course there would not be an “L” to be found. (It is, after all, the greatest letter in the alphabet.) Miracle of miracles, I dug up enough of the same style lettering to write “HAPPY 8th B*DAY ARI” in curly, yellow letters. The remainder of the card I littered with other stickers, among which were a great cat from Disney’s Tarzan, a sun wearing nerdy glasses, a bee, and some planets.

My collection is extensive. Stickers intended to be used as the nail-art of a nine-year-old. Braille letter stickers from a code kit I got as a present. An unimaginable number of ladybug stickers from my grandmother, because she called me her Ladybug. Smiley face stickers of every shape, size, and color. Psychedelic dancing beans (?). Creepy snowmen. A lot of fruity scratch-and-sniff stickers that have long since lost their scent.

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Miscellaneous wonders
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Only some of the ladybugs

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From a Scholastic Book Fair book I bought that totally also came with a Magic School Bus fanny pack. Choose your books wisely, kids.

To some I realize this might make me seem like a hoarder. (I promise, it’s a very small box.) But I know you can picture the way a kid’s face lights up when you offer them a sticker. Even a toddler who can’t speak yet brightens up at a sticker, and a spark of intelligence passes over their eyes because they already know, as I do, that stickers are awesome.

So, even if this collection of mine brings some criticism my way, who’s the one standing here today with four pristine condition, vintage Lisa Frank stickers, hmm?

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Seeing is believing

horseweed

We all know the old saying. Money doesn’t grow on trees. But when my sister and I were kids, money grew on weeds.

In the summers, on the border of our neighbors’ yard and ours, past the swing set, behind the willow tree, and between Threepinederoga and my mom’s garden, tall, bright green weeds grew. The stalks were covered radially with three- or four-inch oblong leaves that were slightly fuzzy, somewhat floppy, and perfect specimens for make-believe currency.

I never knew what they were called; I never cared until I wanted to blog about it. A cursory web search has suggested the terms “marestail” and “horseweed” and Conyza canadensis, although I can’t verify this with my diminishing visual memory of the plant.

What I do remember distinctly about the moneyplant is the smell it would give off when you tore bills from that primitive ATM. The smell was earthy, sharp, and very, very green. It was so delightfully pungent that I used to rip the leaves up after I was done “paying” with them just so I could smell it again.

In case you were wondering, yes, I did regularly tear up different leaves from around the yard to investigate their odor. The moneyplant is just one of many whose properties I discovered. For example, there was a small, feathery weed you could find low in the grass that smelled minty (but wasn’t mint). Did you know that the shredded leaf of a checkerberry plant smells exactly like its berries taste? You’d be surprised at what you find when you dabble in botany.

But I completely forgot about the scent of the moneyplant until I started cooking for myself a few years ago.

It happened when I was chopping parsley. Olfactory memory is strange because you almost never can identify the origin of the nostalgia at first. This is just normal fresh parsley, so why have I been transported to a childhood summer? After wracking my brain I finally remembered the moneyplant. If that weed really was C. canadensis, I can find no indication that it’s related to parsley (although American Indians did use it as an herb and apparently when dried it tastes like tarragon). However, the memory is reawakened every single time I chop parsley, so I figure there might be something to it. I can’t think of another olfactory trigger that affects me like this does or that conjures as specific and unadulterated a memory.

The money of my childhood and the money of my adulthood bear only a few similarities. For one, I used to keep a stash of moneyplant bills, and I still hoard my money today. (What are banks but professionally-tended hoards of money?) The bills are still green, but I wouldn’t recommend tearing them up and huffing the pieces anymore. Adult money’s harder to come by, but worth more. It can make you more comfortable but not more happy. The memory of the moneyplant’s aroma, on the other hand, offers no material comfort whatsoever, but every time I chop parsley, I smile. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but as it turns out, happiness just might.

couch

Two Januaries ago I had a month off classes to write my culminating undergraduate paper. I spent a good chunk of that time sitting on the enormously comfortable sectional couch in my partner and his housemates’ living room, crisscross applesauce, laptop on lap, notebooks and papers balanced precariously on each knee, slowly going insane from focusing on a single subject for weeks on end.

Instead of using this time to travel, I stayed in town and picked up a few extra shifts at work. But that bachelor pad couch became something of my home base: a versatile spot, conducive to both work and relaxation, perfect for writing long papers and for watching hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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The couch holds a special place in my memory for other reasons, too. For one, it was large enough that we could fit pretty much as many friends on it as we wanted. It’s fun to try to guess how many Yuengling Lagers it saw in those days (too many). But it was also the very spot I was when I had an important realization.

*       *       *

I was sitting on the couch one afternoon during my paper writing period, my partner somewhere nearby. It suddenly dawned on me that after five years of companionship I couldn’t envision a life that didn’t have us together, and I knew he felt the same. I looked up from my work and asked him, “Are we engaged?” A look of revelation passed over his eyes as he replied, “Yeah. I think we are!” And that was that, until he officially proposed and we officially announced our engagement just over two years later.

*       *       *

This is not the story that people expect or want to hear when they ask about a couple’s engagement, and it is not a story that I have ever told before. Part of the reason I haven’t told this story is that it’s largely based on the notion that we’re together because we’re comfortable, which is something people often warn about in a relationship. “Don’t just stay together because it’s easier than leaving”; “Don’t get/let him get too comfortable” because the romance will die or because it’s an indication of settling.

While I see the good intentions behind these warnings, I would like to reintroduce the positive side of comfort – one that makes me believe whole-heartedly that comfort is an excellent reason to spend forever with someone.

Comfort goes hand-in-hand with friendship. The friends I feel closest to are the ones who have seen me in pajamas and glasses, pre-coffee and pre-undereye concealer.

Comfort goes hand-in-hand with trust. Enough difficult things happen in life, that being with a person you’re used to becomes an invaluable asset in overcoming or enduring hardship.

Comfort goes hand-in-hand with affection. I find my partner the most endearing when his guard is down and he’s being himself.

*       *       *

Now, obviously there are ways to abuse the comfort you share with another person, just as there are ways to abuse a couch; e.g., by being a couch potato or by spilling a lot of beer on it. But overall I think that couch is an apt metaphor for our relationship: trusty comrade in both work and play, flexible yet supportive, and comfortable to the max.

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analog

On my parents’ living room wall hangs a large clock made from the highly polished, stained, and glazed cross-section of a cypress tree. The outline of its spidery figure never looked like a tree to me, and it was a very long time before I even knew that’s what it was. Instead, I always thought it was deliberately made to be in the shape of a very squat chef wearing a chef’s hat and oven mitt. I perhaps even experienced some confusion over why the clock’s home was the living room instead of the kitchen.

But there was another layer to what I saw with my child’s eyes – something that my mom to this day can’t really see, but I, on the other hand, cannot unsee.  Inside the clock, where the tree’s rings and clock hands are, lives a dancing Arab man.

Disney’s Aladdin came out the year I was born. I imagine my young life was much influenced by this movie, not least of all because of Robin Williams’s undeniable talent. One of my most beloved piano books was the reduced score of this instant Disney classic, and I played and sang “A Whole New World” (both voice parts, of course!) multiple times, daily, for probably several years. My piano was situated next to the wall with the clock with the dancing Arab man.

He wears a white robe and a white turban that has a long, white feather sticking out the top. His beard is long, dark, and pointed. He appears to be dancing a jig, and far in the background a lady attendant stands, a white scarf draped over her head.

When I was growing up, I thought this curious scene was intentionally put there by the clock maker. That’s how conspicuous the picture was (and is) to my eyes. Even looking at him now, I still have a hard time admitting to myself that the dancing Arab man is naturally occurring, or at the very most brought forward by the wood stain.

For a long time, the clock as a functional timepiece was not very useful to me, as it only has small hashes for most of the hours and Roman numerals for the rest, so when I looked at it I hardly saw a clock at all, although I knew it was one. What I did see was a strange little chef and a strange little Arab man, and I don’t even remember questioning why the two were paired. They just belonged together, living in joyful unity above the piano, listening to the repetitive serenades of a ten-year-old.

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The chef and the dancing Arab

eleven

Sharp scissors scraping
Endlessly to make blazing
Christmas ribbon curls


Christmas at my grandmother’s house was an over-the-top, magical miracle for us grandkids (my adult family would perhaps agree with only the first descriptor). You cannot even dream of the number of Christmas-themed stuffed animals and nutcrackers that littered the house. I have yet to see as many presents addressed to me sitting under a tree as I did for many years as a child, nor have I helped wrap as many.

You see, Nanny loved to cook and decorate and shop for her family, securing a line of brilliant hostesses behind her, but she tended to take on more than she could carry. So, she would employ her young granddaughters in the wrapping of all the gifts she hadn’t quite gotten to by the time Christmas night rolled around. We would sit together on the big bed in the Red Bedroom (so called after the solid scarlet hue of the 70s-style full carpeting in those quarters), surrounded by gifts, paper, and ribbons, and we would get to work.

It occurs to me now that this must have been a thought-through strategy. I’m pretty sure she always wrapped our presents first, so that when she ran out of time for wrapping, only the boys’ gifts were left, and we could finish the job without spoiling our own surprises.

Nanny’s big claim to fame is ribbon curls. Each present had dozens and dozens of ribbon curls, and there were dozens and dozens of presents, so you do the math. She taught us at a very early age how to do it, carefully tying many ribbon pieces of different colors in a crisscross pattern, and then one-by-one sliding the blade of a pair of scissors along the bottom of each piece, until you were left with an explosion of shiny, colorful curlicues – often dwarfing the present underneath.

With so many beautifully wrapped presents (and, let’s be honest, some badly wrapped ones done by a few eight year olds), perhaps the most striking thing about the whole event was not the sheer number of packages, but the love, beauty, and detail put into the wrapping itself.

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A present for me, beautifully wrapped by my father – although, according to Nanny’s standards, still lacking in the bow department?