A few years ago, I had wanted to write a cookbook for drunk mothers. At that time, I had regular dinner parties at home in the Bay Area, or at our second home in Tahoe. My friends and I would be cooking for a crowd and simultaneously drinking wine. Sometimes mixed drinks, but mostly wine.
These two activities are mostly incompatible as there are many pitfalls to engineering a meal that will likely be served on your second cocktail.
Of course, you don’t have to be a mother to throw a disastrous dinner party. This was evidenced by my hipster co-workers who were mixing cocktails while executing a complicated and expensive recipe for Cioppino, a crab and lobster fish stew, for their girlfriends. Needless to say, the entirety was eventually fed to the garbage can, and Chinese takeout predictably ordered.
I would hear of these escapades on Monday, over lunch, and then another dinner would be planned for the following weekend, again to disastrous results. I finally pulled out a pen and wrote a simple menu on the back of my napkin.
Drunk men should not be making pizza at home for guests. Pizza burns when unattended. Yes, it’s true. If you put a pizza in the oven at 400 degrees it will be black by the time you notice the kitchen filled with smoke.
I was very motivated to solve this paradox as dinner is my favorite meal of the day, and I personally can not drink alcohol unless I’m well nourished. Plus, I wanted to enjoy my friends and not be the distracted cook and dishwasher at these events.
Over the years, I’ve devised many strategic recipes to get dinner on the table with a party in full swing. We entertained so frequently that I became an expert in this area.
In the early years, it was tempting to forget dinner and just serve heavy appetizers, but as the little ones arrived this was not an option.
It was no easy task to execute dinner for twelve with six screaming kids, music playing and my best friend telling me a funny story, all of this with a delicious chilled glass of Chardonnay in hand.
There were also those long summer evenings with the toddlers when my husband worked late, or took friends to a Giants game, or played a round of golf. After a full day with the little ones and the housework, (I’m not complaining I cherish those days) I needed a respite to recharge. It was then that I would pour myself a water glass size margarita and go outside to water the lawn and flowers while the cartoons played on.
As necessity is the mother of invention, I devised very clever ways to get dinner to turn out perfectly with the minimum amount of attention.
More to come on this project, but in the meantime, I’m putting my finishing touches on my book about grief and the year following the sudden death of my husband. It was a transformative time, but I miss my good humor and playfulness. It is this part of my character that I now wish to embrace moving forward.
Because of the healing properties in chicken soup, I always make a version of one of many recipes when someone is ill.
I even made it for my dog Polly. She cut her paw open on a piece of glass walking through the creek with the kids when she was a puppy, and it refused to heal and became infected. She then had an adverse reaction to the anitibotics, so taking matters into my own hands, I fed her homemade chicken and brown rice soup and vanilla Greek yogurt.
Sometimes, I make my own noodles and you can do this with a simple pasta recipe, a rolling pin and a knife. This was fun for the kids when they were small, as making and handling dough is always high entertainment for children. Then, you simply cook the fresh pasta in the broth and vegetables. Or, I use orzo, or any kind of rice.
For myself, I like rice, tarragon, and lemon when I’m feeling under the weather. If I’m just hungry, I like to add bourbon and cream (see my recipe for Chicken, Whiskey and Wild Rice Soup here).
My daughter wanted egg noodles and just carrots, so that’s what I made. I usually make my own broth, and this is obviously better, but time was limited, so I used this quick recipe instead.
It’s no secret that you can now buy excellent organic broth and pre-roasted organic chicken in most grocery stores, and although not made with fresh herbs from my own garden, they are not as bad as they once were.
QuickChicken Noodle Soup
2 cups shredded cooked organic chicken from Whole Foods
32 oz. organic chicken broth
1 cup diced carrots
1 package egg noodles
Sprig of thyme
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and white pepper to taste
Add diced carrots and broth and bring to a rolling boil to cook carrots.
Reduce heat, add noodles, and cook per package directions.
Remove from heat, add thyme, lemon zest and season to taste.
On Friday, I got the big guns out, after my daughter who recently had knee surgery refused to eat anything but, donuts and candy. My chicken noodle soup could not compete, so I had to get creative.
I made her favorite soup (recipe to follow), which she enjoyed for two seconds, and then went back to the pounds of candy delivered by friends. Being desperate to get her to eat something more nutritious I made her favorite pizza.
Making pizza is fast and easy, but you do have to stay close to the kitchen, and keep an eye on it as it cooks. I had enough dough for two, so while they were baking I made her a white lasagna (recipe to follow).
Note: The oven must be well preheated and very hot.
Yesterday was my late husband’s birthday, I met up with my college friends at the Lafayette Art and Wine Festival, we laughed in the way only old friends can, over nothing, like we were nineteen again. After, I came home and let Siena have friends over since she’s on crutches and I want her close. I made dinner, and watched a movie.
This morning, I woke up feeling a little depressed, so I went to church, then grocery shopping. I had that same lonely feeling I often had as a kid, but rarely feel now.
I wondered around the grocery store like a ghost, and came home with ingredients for ten different dinners. Comfort food. Right now, I’m making chicken and wild rice soup, with fresh cream, bourbon and thyme from my garden. I will move onto linguine and prawns in a lemon butter sauce next. After, I’m toasting rosemary focaccia with olive oil and fontina cheese.
It’s my late husband’s birthday today, if things were different, I would be having a party for him tonight and cooking ribs, BBQ chicken and smashed potatoes with bacon and cheddar cheese. He would have a mint chocolate chip ice cream cake with his name on it.
That was the past.
Yesterday, the men’s signature jacket prototype arrived for Ocean SF. Which after a year of development was quite a milestone.
This is the future.
I am on the advisory board for a new nonprofit my friend Nick Firestone started in partnership with Tesla. The organization will bring renewable energy to hurricane impacted communities. So, yesterday I went to the Yacht Club to help with the filming of his video documentary, but on the way, I stopped by the sailing club to give my sailing instructor, Tom Dryja his jacket.
Because Tom and Nick are also friends, Tom came along, and after filming, we had dinner with the video crew. This is not the life I thought I would have, but it’s a very good life nonetheless. I’m grateful to have work I love, inspring people to spend my time with, and countless other blessings.
Later, the girls and I will have a three way call to say a prayer for their father, as we will all be in different places this afternoon.
I’ve finally started to feel grounded again, after a busy few weeks, I thought spending time alone in Tahoe would make me feel better, but it didn’t.
What has helped me has been to come home, water my pink and white flowers, and pots full of impatience, pansies and daisies, tend to my basil plants, and trim my beloved Meyer Lemon tree and cook for my children.
I should have known this, because nothing comforts me more than the fog rolling in and cooling off my creekside home in the summertime. I love the wildlife that thrives in our beautiful town, and the way we are so close to the city, but feel so far away.
There is no better feeling than puttering around barefoot, watering the plants, and making dinner for the kids.
If you read my book, Real Food (Amazon), there are many references to my charmed childhood growing up on a farm in the Willamette Valley, in Oregon, and as with many people, the older I get, the more I appreciate my roots and my life there.
My mother was a complete and total “foodie” twenty years before the term was coined. She was the epitome of fresh, organic and sustainable. All of our food came from our land. I had my first Twinkie in fifth grade.
My mother grew up in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada (below Iceland). It’s tundra, so very little grows there. My father had grown up on a cash crop farm in Illinois, so they were from very different backgrounds and he was 14 years her senior. They met when he was working with the Strategic Air Command (SAC) for the Department of Defense during the cold war. This is how my sister and I got our names as we both have the SAC initials. They were married when she was 23 and he was 37. They moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked for the Pentagon, and then to Nurnberg, Germany where he worked undercover for the CIA (and where I was a born), then he went to Vietnam, after the war they bought our farm and restored the 100 year old farmhouse where we lived.
They raised race horses and my father taught history at the local college and coached the high school football and basketball teams. My mother wore black silk cigarette pants with jeweled velvet slippers and invited the locals over for cocktail hour. It was not unlike the T.V. show Green Acres.
When she wasn’t socializing with the neighboring farmers, my mother gardened, cooked, canned, baked and made jam. She had a massive three acre garden full of tomatoes, lettuces, watermelon, strawberries and everything inbetween. The black angus and lamb that roamed our fields eventually landed in a giant freezer, the size of a coffin, in our kitchen. My father made wine. There were orchards of peaches, apples, cherries and pears, and walnut and hazelnut trees, raspberry bushes and a blanket of mint around our pond. Wisteria and hydrangeas, lilacs and honeysuckle graced the parameters of the historic house we lived in. Our backyard was so big the grass was cut with a tractor. White sheets blew in the breeze on the clothes line. It was all wonderful.
As I watch the food scene evolve it reminds me of skipping through my mother’s garden on the farm and waiting for dinner to be ready. This usually included a large garden salad dressed with just oil and vinegar, a T-bone steak the size of a dinner plate, and little else.
If you are in the area stop by the Sideboard Kitchen in Danville, owned by a local couple, their food is fresh and organic and very reminiscent of life on the farm. They will be opening a second location in Lafayette where Squirrels used to be. If not, here is my favorite recipe for Chinese Chicken Salad by the master, Bobby Flay, of the Food Network. I substitute half of the romaine for kale and add cilantro like Sideboard, as pictured above.
Although I’ve been very busy with my entrepreneurial ventures and teaching at Berkeley, I’m still required to cook for my athletic teenage daughters. Cooking for athletes is different than cooking for a normal family as there are serious time constraints and, “food as fuel” is more of a practice than a concept, although I think it should be an extremely high priority for anyone feeding growing children, athletic or otherwise.
My daughter will often swim for an hour and a half. She does this after school, so she has already had a full day and has eaten next to nothing. She’s also prone to anemia, so I am always trying to pack her meals with nutrients, and they need to be iron dense. My other daughter plays soccer and has practices in the evening, so between soccer and swimming there is a tiny slice of time for dinner, and it’s around 5 p.m.
As many mothers know, teenage girls don’t eat much at lunch, which makes them very hungry when they get home from school. This is when the bad snacking is often done. I’ve tried many strategies over the years, but have recently decided to serve a quick dinner at this time when possible. I know how lucky I am to be able to have the flexibility to cook early in the day, but if you don’t, try making a double batch of this to freeze in single serving glass containers, or to serve the next day.
When the kids were little, and I was for the most part a stay-at-home mom, I could spend two hours cooking dinner, but that is no longer possible. Someday, I hope to have time to make homemade ravioli again, but for now this will have to do, and it checks the boxes of the top criteria for me. Fast, easy, hot and nutritious. Plus, they love it, which might be the most important criteria.
Begin cooking gluten free pasta as per package instructions. Then, in a large sauce pan heat the meatballs and sauce until they come to a slight boil, reduce heat and let simmer while the pasta is cooking. Once pasta is done, add to the pan and gently toss while hot. Reheats and freezes well.
In recent months I’ve been thinking and writing about bravery and courage and the hero’s journey (read PacCup Race to Hawaii). I also wrote about how I had been given the gift of being misdiagnosed with a terminal illness only to find that I would eventually fully recover* (read Misdiagnosed).
The summer I thought I was dying was one of the most profound periods of my life and during that time I wrote a collection of short stories, titled NINE. The nine stories are like the spokes of a wheel that touch on the events of that year and how each would define and inform the trajectory of the wheel (e.g.my life).
As luck would have it, a friend of mine was aquatinted with the famous writer, Adair Lara, and I was able to meet with her and have her read my work. Adair was very encouraging, calling my writing “lyrical”, a term that I cherished, since she is friends with Amy Tan who wrote the beautiful novel, The Joy Luck Club and if any work is lyrical it is hers. I worked tirelessly for nine months, but in the end I couldn’t finish the project as it was deeply personal in nature and required things from me that I was not yet ready to give. In many ways I was simply too terrified to put myself out there as a writer, so instead of calling on my courage and doing the fine tuning and hard work necessary to publish this book, I decided to take the safer route. I shelved it, and wrote my cookbook Real Food for Real People (available on Amazon) which includes recipes and stories from the years my children were small.
Then, as I began thinking about my next book, which I hope will be the story of my race to Hawaii, I remembered this work and felt compelled to breath life back into it since this would require an equal amount of bravery.
As you will see, the themes in NINE are quite serious; and after my near death experience I felt compelled to enjoy the light hearted years of my children’s childhood since my own childhood had been very different. But we can never really escape from our roots for it was this farm, where we grew and raised most of the food we ate, that continues to inspire me to be the cook, mother and person that I am today.
Below is the central story, or the hub of the wheel that begins the series of nine stories that rotate around the year that my father died and I lived on a beautiful farm in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
It is with bravery that I put this on my blog as it is so different from my usual topics: the recipes inspired from this farm and childhood.
Once again, thank you to all of you who have helped me along the way and have encouraged me to continue to write and be my authentic self.
* I was eventually diagnosed with Sarcadosis by UCSF and was cured by an acupuncturist and violin maker in Berkeley.
by Sydney Ann Chaney Thomas
I lie in bed with him for hours and he talks to me. He tells me stories about when he was a pilot in the war, he teaches me how to predict the weather by the shape of the clouds. He teaches me their names, cumulus, stratus, cirrus, he tells me these are their Latin names as he lay, slowly dying. I pronounce them as best I can and commit his words to memory.
Transported to and from the hospital in a military helicopter, the police in our small farming community are concerned. They think he is trafficking drugs. My mother laughs at this, but is livid, maybe even beyond livid. She loses much of her good humor in the years my father spends dying.
We pray for him, kneeling in the pews of the Catholic Church, never has there been more futile an activity than this. Nevertheless, we continue this practice every Sunday, the three of us, my mother dressed impeccably, my sister and I with our shiny hair pulled back, matching dresses and black patent leather shoes. Together we kneel, stand and kneel. We cross ourselves with holy water as we leave. My mother holds my hand, white knuckled, through the parking lot.
On our way home, I watch the orchards disappear as we pass: pear, apple and walnut. As the car speeds up they pass in patterns that make me dizzy to watch. We stop in town and my mother buys us each a black berry milk shake. This is our treat for being quiet in church. We sit outside on metal benches in the weak sunshine watching the cars go by. My mother stares at us while she smokes a cigarette. We look back at her and say nothing. There’s not much to say at this point.
My mother begins drinking all of the wine my father has been making from the small vineyard on our property. The barrels sit aging by the back door in our kitchen and my mother siphons the liquid out with a turkey baster, but who can blame her? My sister and I are vacuuming and ironing clothes. The ironing board hits me at the clavicle. I am ironing polyester. I am ironing her polyester muumuu. I am ironing her polyester bedspread. It is slippery and I try to keep it on the board. My mother walks by me without comment. She is losing not only her good humor now, but her judgment as well.
The summer days are cool on the farm, the rains have continued into June and now we await the arrival of my grandmother. My mother spends days cleaning and baking for her mother, she tells us Nana is selfish, but you can tell my mother loves her and seeks her approval. When my grandmother does arrive, she walks around in a purple satin negligee and ignores us. She buys our younger cousins candy, but not my sister and I, she says she just got a little something for the little ones. And my mother, well, she simply goes berserk.
They think it is Agent Orange, a pesticide used in Vietnam to clear the vegetation from the jungle, which is causing my father’s lungs to disintegrate, but they can’t be sure, they just don’t know. There is no cure, no treatment. We can only wait and see what will happen.
Men die on battlefields all the time; soldiers slaughtered, bombs explode, guns are fired – it happens all the time. For thousands of years, more even, men are lost to war.
It took a thousand days for his body to disintegrate, literally. Agent Orange, Vietnam – not everyone survives Vietnam, least of all the frontline of De Nang. If they can kill an entire jungle, how should one man survive? Then again, other men were there who did survive, what of those that didn’t die? It was just one of those things. No ones fault, everyone’s fault, war.
He left Vietnam with the chemicals in his lungs – lodged deep inside, the chemicals that kill jungles can kill men too, it appears, sometimes, but only slowly.
He had volunteered to go there. Volunteered. It seems so hard to understand why someone would do that, but he did.
For a thousand days I watch him die. Later when asked where my father was, I would say, “My father died when I was nine.”
Sometimes, people would say, “Oh, you didn’t know him then,” but the opposite is true, my brain is infused with him because of it.
But, how could I explain? So, I would just stand there and say nothing.
It was clear he was dying; it wasn’t something someone would need to tell you or something that could be withheld. I understood easily by observation, that our days together were numbered, and I took note of them as they passed.
Even now, I can close my eyes and remember what it was like to lay beside his skeletal body at night, watching the horses graze in the moonlight. I remember the white moon in the sky, the dark blue shadows of the horses bodies as they grazed, his fragile thin frame next to mine, still warm. Just thinking this, I can hear my mother’s voice, scolding me, “Don’t be so dramatic,” she would say, a warning not to indulge my sorrow, not to name it or speak of it. I was not allowed that extravagance, it was too big of a luxury then and the same is true now.
One man. One soldier. He is just one casualty of war.
But, I never stop thinking of him as if my growth was stunted, at the age of nine, by loving him. A part of me remains forever nine – living in that house – on that land – in that valley.
Later, I waited patiently for my own daughter to turn nine so I could watch her. I wanted to see what a girl of nine was, both intellectually and emotionally. I wanted to gage that age through her. See how sophisticated she was, how child like, understand what I had been when I had lost everything that was dear to me.
My mother left us at a pig farm the day they put him in the ground. We missed his twenty one gun salute. The hogs were neatly penned in their long open barns, the white house stood alone at the end of the road. I sat watching the gravel drive, waiting for her. The sky turned lavender, and then, the sun went down. It was January. She pulled up and took us back to the farm.