Dinner Diaries: January 20, 2021

My first challah.

My husband cooked last week and again this week. We’ve had green shakshuka, zaatar chicken pitas, Singapore noodles, sweet potato tacos, and many more vegetarian meals. Tonight it’s vegetable paella, complete with bomba rice from Spain.

Over the weekend I attempted this challah. It looked, smelled, and tasted amazing, but the texture was incredibly dense. A friend told me that using at least 50% bread flour instead of 100% all-purpose can help the bread get a better rise, so that’s going to be part of my next attempt. Despite the texture, we finished the entire loaf in two days. Once toasted it was delicious.

My oldest child turned four last Sunday and requested takeout hamburgers for his dinner. We ordered from Rodeo Goat and I had one of the best burgers of my life: their turkey patty with tomato, onion, hydroponic sprouts, cranberry Boursin, and grilled jalapeños. Easily the best non-beef burger I’ve ever tasted.

One of my favorite parts of being the kitchen cleaner rather than the cook for a week or two is that I get to sit on the couch watching TV while my husband makes dinner, from around 7pm to 8pm. It gives me a chance to catch up on Coronation Street, the only current show I watch. I never thought I would be a “soap” person, but I only had to watch one episode to become totally hooked on this insane drama. It’s even more insane than you think if you delve into CorriePedia and figure out what happened to all of the characters before you “met” them.

Dinner Diaries: January 6, 2021

A renewed effort to get writing again. It seems like a good idea to tie it together with the one thing I always feel like writing about: food.

As it always does, January brings with it an inevitable effort to exercise more, eat better, and drink less. This year’s iteration on the theme includes preparing only vegetarian meals every other week, drinking alcohol only on weekends, and continued use of the exercise bike. I don’t have trouble with exercise, but resisting overindulgence in food and drink is much more difficult.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve downloaded the Peloton app–free for two months–and I’ve really been enjoying it. The RPMs are much more realistic for me than they are in videos from GCN, and the music is great. So yeah, I’m BASIC.

Alex and I trade sets of weeks as far as dinner-making: I do two weeks (one vegetarian and one not), and then he does two weeks. Last week my best menu item was this salad:

  • roasted cauliflower
  • sliced endives
  • kidney beans
  • sliced red onion
  • toasted walnuts
  • artichoke hearts
  • feta cheese
  • vinaigrette
  • parsley

A great combination served warm, inspired by this similar salad from Smitten Kitchen. This was the first time I included endive in any version I’ve made, and I’ll definitely buy them every time from now on. At Central Market they’re sold by weight, so two pretty large ones were barely $1, and they have a unique texture that adds a lot to this salad.

Last night was traditional shrimp & grits, and tonight I’ll be making this Ottolenghi salad, but with dates and feta cheese instead of figs and goat’s cheese. I’m crossing my fingers that the sweet potatoes I bought are decent, because if you get mealy ones, the salad is ruined.

Despite the bike and Peloton app, I’ve actually been doing a lot more walking lately than I was, say, two months ago. I figure I should make my exercise seasonal, the way some people can their eating, and do it outdoors as much as possible before the Texas summer heat is back.

Life Update, November 2020

Although it feels like the rest of Texas has “gone back to normal” in the past couple of months, we have not. I continue to work from home. My husband teaches only half of his classes in-person, and those are reduced, distanced, and masked. All performances are outdoor. Our children won’t be going back to childcare until May or June 2021–we’re lucky enough to have family to help us, and lucky enough to have kids too small for school.

It’s very difficult. Everyone is bored, everyone longs to socialize, everyone conversely longs for time when they aren’t with other people. The paradox of the pandemic, for us, is that although we’re isolated socially, we’re always with family, and that wears on you in its own way.

There was a lot of backyard water play in the summer. Halloween was actually fantastic–our neighborhood did a great job of making it safe and fun. Thanksgiving, which is tomorrow, should be nice. My father drove here from Florida after isolating for over a week (he is quite isolated anyway, but he didn’t even go on his usual weekend bike ride with his best friend). My father and brother will be here for Christmas, all without flying.

I’ve thought a lot over the past several months about how lucky we are to be financially well-off, to have a nice house with a safe yard, to live in a safe and beautiful neighborhood, to have our own transportation. All of that has enabled us not only to stay safe, but to stay relatively happy.

Now I’m going to move on to some more trivial things: what I’ve been doing for entertainment when I’m not working, parenting, or sleeping.

Doing

A few weeks ago now, I bought an exercise bike (no, not the ubiquitous Peloton). We aren’t returning to OrangeTheory any time soon, and running so regularly was starting to affect my knees. Both of my parents have had knee surgery, so I decided to back off and do what my dad did: start spinning.

I love the bike. I do a Global Cycling Network workout 5-6 days per week, weight training 1 day per week, and take 1 day off to just walk or do nothing. No knee pain and I find it easier to push myself on the bike than while running.

Watching

I’ve watched a lot of “comfort TV” recently, which for me means British detective shows like Midsomer Murders, Morse, and Cracker. But I’ve also got into Coronation Street, an excellent British soap that updates in almost real time on BritBox. Highly recommended for some engaging but easy-to-watch TV.

Because my oldest son is obsessed with bikes, we started watching the Tour de France when it began in August, and this has evolved into a near-daily habit of watching cycling. Because of the pandemic, the season was heavily condensed, so for the past few months there has nearly always been an event to watch in the mornings, or to catch up on the following morning. To my surprise, I’ve become very invested in cycling and have been following it very closely. I’ve always loved watching the Tour–since 2010 when I worked at a bike shop–but this is the first year I’ve really followed all of the road events.

Reading

In that same vein, I’ve been reading cycling books. First The Secret Race, then The First Tour de France, then Slaying the Badger, and now The Beautiful Race. All great.

I also finally read Portnoy’s Complaint.

Listening

Cycling podcasts. Food podcasts. True crime podcasts. And I’ve been rediscovering a lot of older Bob Dylan albums after listening obsessively to Rough & Rowdy Ways for a while.

Vicarious Living Through Anders Timell

I’ve followed Anders Timell on Instagram for years now, since sometime in 2017. He and his partner’s first baby was born just a few weeks before my first child, and some algorithmic vagary led me to his account. I was enthralled, as a prospective and then as a first-time mother, by the differences in our babies’ daily lives. While my son slept in a barren crib with a thin, tightly fitted sheet, Timell’s daughter slept amongst bow-tied bumpers, frilly pillows, plush blankets, and stuffed animals. While my son was neurotically monitored every moment of his waking life and during much of his sleep, baby Timell was sometimes left to nap in her stroller outdoors. While my house was baby-proofed and toddler-safe, Timell’s fashionable city apartment stayed chic as hell and included enviable touches like a loaded bar cart, a roaring wood-burning fireplace, and huge vases of flowers pouring over the edges of coffee tables and window sills. Timell also has a twenty-something son from a previous marriage or relationship, frequently pictured drinking and smoking openly in company with his father.

These aren’t parenting failures–Timell’s adorable daughter is fine and will soon be joined by another sibling–but cultural differences. You see, Anders Timell is Swedish. I don’t speak the language, so you’ll have to forgive me for misconstruing any of his biographical details. He’s not a celebrity with any cachet in America despite his apparent ubiquity in Stockholm, particularly at the gorgeous and popular restaurant Taverna Brillo where he works in some indeterminate professional capacity (owner? co-owner? promoter?). The vast majority of information available about him has to be passed through the sausage machine that is Google Translate, rendering it unreliable at best, but from this I’ve gathered that Timell is a “presenter and restauranteur”; that he appeared on the Swedish television show Let’s Dance; that he is involved in some way with professional golf; that his brother Martin used to host a popular home improvement television show; that Martin was acquitted of sexual assault allegations in 2018; and that the brothers sometimes appear in Swedish tabloids including the fabulously named Stoppa Pressarna! (A recent article’s title translates, “Martin and Anders Timell’s New Giant Bang.”) The Timells’ social standing is difficult for an English-only speaker to determine, but they certainly appear to be living well.

As our children grew, I kept watching Anders’ account because we share a keen interest in food. He regularly uses his Instagram Stories to depict the time he spends in restaurants, most notably the aforementioned Taverna Brillo, where he puts in a daily or twice-daily appearance to show off chilled bottles of wine, pizzas topped with caviar, and the consistently beautiful diners. He also eats in or picks up sushi at a particular spot more than once each week, and is a near-daily regular at a high-street coffee shop apparently staffed by a rotating collection of Europe’s most attractive young people. His Instagram posts often depict him sitting down to a lovely solo meal, captioned either “Kämpa Anders!” (Fight Anders–whether this is a provocation to the reader or an encouragement for himself is unclear) or “Ensamlunch nu!” (Alone lunch now!). This isn’t even to mention the meals Timell prepares for his family and guests: a steady stream of tomahawk steaks, all manner of fresh seafoods, salads doused in homemade dressings, and potatoes cooked in all styles, always with appropriate drinks.

Anders’ lifestyle, like his country, is foreign to me. He works, but his work doesn’t seem to exert much control over his schedule or interfere with his clearly deep enjoyment of food, friends, and family. He has children, but neither he nor his partner ever seem stressed about what they’re eating, when they’re going to bed, or whether they’re learning enough. He exudes a combination of relaxation and high energy that is addictive to watch. I love following the laid-back yet stimulating rhythm of his world: stops by the restaurants he must hold some stake in; parties alongside his beautiful now-wife; games of golf and squash with male friends so well dressed that they would put Ina Garten’s luncheon guests to shame; regular trips to a beachside cottage in Flaxenvik and sometimes farther afield to Dubai or Portugal; long midday jaunts through parks with his young daughter; visits to salons and spas for cuts, shaves, and facial treatments; sunsets viewed from the beautiful bay windows of his downtown Stockholm abode.

I feel no jealousy when it comes to Timell’s apparent wealth, but I often feel envious of his carefree attitude. I would love to enjoy the sunset on a dock with my toddler and not feel an undercurrent of anxiety over the child falling into the dark water and drowning. I would love to indulge in a lavish weeknight dinner party with no thought of the incipient hangover. I would love to ride a bike through trafficked streets, helmetless and laughing into the camera, not fearing death by speeding bus at any second. Timell seems to expect the best at every turn, and what’s more, he seems to get it.

Being a relatively optimistic person myself, the contrast between Timell’s life and my own didn’t strike me as too painfully stark until the coronavirus pandemic kicked off this past March and April. I watched on Instagram as I always did, checking my Stories in the intervals between conference calls for work or while stirring risotto for dinner in the evening. Every day I expected to see some mark of These Unprecedented Times on Anders’ life–after all, a significant portion of his leisure time and presumably his work is to do with restaurants, and they were having to shift their operations to accommodate the pandemic. But as the weeks went on, Timell seemed immune not only to COVID-19 but also to its bummer side-effects.

You may have seen Sweden in the news recently. Coronavirus reached them, but they never shut down, and now there’s some debate over whether this strategy was brilliant or disastrous. At the very least, they’ve suffered much less economically than America and the rest of Europe. And from the view of Sweden that Anders provides, everything seems… fine. Even at the height of the virus panic in April, the only sign of a change in Timell’s Stockholm was a few outdoor dining areas taped off to create more social distance; but those may have been for some unrelated purpose, because diners still poured into Taverna Brillo for their glasses of rosé and plates of shellfish pasta at tables that didn’t seem to have been rearranged at all. So far, the only visible change in Anders’ life is the location of his summer vacation. Since I began following him, he has typically gone abroad for a while each summer, while this year he’s spent his time on Sweden’s beaches instead. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from hosting and attending some of the most beautiful summertime dinner parties you’ve ever seen, living it up at Midsommar, golfing constantly, and careening around adorable seaside villages on bikes with his son.

Since coronavirus hit, Anders’ Instagram account hasn’t just been a series of beautiful images of a laid-back life. It has become a glimpse into another world, an alternate reality where no one is worried about school, work, illness, or the economy, where no one is lonely or isolated, where life has gone on without either heightened anxiety or downtrodden resignation. I have to acknowledge of course that this glimpse is narrow, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt the combination of refreshment and disorientation that I feel when I look down at my phone and see Anders panning live over a table full of laughing, drinking people in a lovely setting without a mask in sight. Friends hold each others’ babies, clink their champagne glasses together, and gather in restaurants, living rooms, back gardens, and on boats. Women walk down the streets together in elbow-to-elbow groups, dropping their children off at creche, buying groceries, meeting for coffees. Men hit the gym to lift weights, wander around golf courses carousing while playing, and drink beers at clubhouses.

And far from feeling outraged by their carefree days and nights, I feel hopeful and uplifted. I don’t know if Anders’, and his country’s, approach to COVID-19 is right or wrong. I have no idea how problematic, or not, the Timells might be in Sweden. Anders’ life might be one of unmitigated privilege. But I can’t help loving him and the alternate universe he shows me through his phone.

Kämpa, Anders! You do my mental health a power of good.

Home 24/7, April 2020

I vacillate between wanting to keep this blog purely professional, and thinking that, especially right now, attempting to separate the personal from the professional is both harmful and impossible. I don’t know if I’ll continue with more personal posts here forever, but I’m plowing ahead with this one.

My first day at my new job with CrowdANALYTIX was Wednesday March 25th. On Sunday March 15th, my father-in-law left our house for California after a 5-day visit, and that night my mother arrived from Florida for what was planned as a 2-week visit. It felt like the next couple of days, March 16th and 17th, were when the coronavirus reality really hit us in Texas. First, spring break was extended. Then restaurants and bars closed. Then schools officially closed, along with our daycare/preschool. It became clear that not only would it not be a good idea for my mother to leave yet, we also needed her to stay, at least long enough for me to start my new job and for us to establish some sort of work-from-home-while-caring-for-two-kids routine.

For now, my mom takes care of the boys most of the day because my husband and I are both working full-time from home. We’re hoping that she will stay until mid-May, when my husband’s semester of teaching ends and he can become a stay-at-home dad for a few months.

But even with someone here full-time helping out… this is hard. I hate to even say that, because most parents are having to cope with a lot less help than we have. Lots of people no longer have two incomes, or even one. Many families don’t have a house with a fenced back yard to play in, or a nice neighborhood to take walks in. They don’t have a playhouse and a few new toys and DoorDash delivery and a piano. Part of my feels like this should be easy for us. But on the other hand, nothing is easy about your whole life changing for a frightening reason.

I’ve been working from home for months now, but it’s very different with my husband and both kids here too. I haven’t had more than a few minutes alone or in total quiet since the first week of March. It’s much harder to concentrate with everyone in the house, and it’s also confusing for the kids, because they don’t quite understand why we can’t come play with them just like we do on the weekends. Our three-year-old especially misses his friends and his daycare/preschool routine. He loves his teachers and is now old enough to have specific friends he plays with; he mentions someone he misses almost every day. He’s a very social kid, and for his sake I hope that this doesn’t last too long.

For my part, here are the things I’m missing:

  • The ability to run out to the store for a missing ingredient, a snack, or a special lunch I’ve been craving.
  • Bars and pubs. Even though we don’t go out often, decompressing for an hour in the company of strangers, even ones I don’t speak to, is important to me. There’s something soothing about just existing in a shared space like that, where everyone is relaxing over a beer, together but separate.
  • The library. I’m still using an app to check out my own books, but kids’ books are really not the same on a Kindle. I used to take my older child to the library on the weekend every couple of weeks.
  • The pool and/or rec center. Around this time of year, we’d normally start taking the kids swimming on the weekends, and signing them up for swim lessons at the rec center. None of that is happening right now.
  • Restaurants. We were in a routine of taking the whole family out for lunch on one weekend day, and the boys were getting better and better at behaving properly in restaurants. We’re still getting takeout once a week, but there are no social skills involved in that.

I think the hardest part of all of this, for me, is the “never being alone” aspect. I don’t even have a brief drive in my car by myself, much less a whole workday spent alone without the sounds of four other people nearby. There is something uniquely difficult about that.