magical

It’s Mardi Gras weekend and the city is alive and humming with visitors who might walk away understanding what Mardi Gras really is or who might walk away with nothing more than a headache, some plastic beads, five extra pounds and a few fun memories. Mardi Gras, for those who live in New Orleans and the surrounds suburbs and cities, presents a much richer heritage and tradition than simply consuming large quantities of alcohol. The intoxication from this season is far more varied than if it solely emanated from the obvious source. And I would venture to say that the people of this city could attest to the veracity of this with reflections upon traditions of family and friends, the attachment to community and place that this season forges, the food…so much food…, the stories of Mardi Gras past, the music, and more. Sure revelry plays a role, I’m not sanctifying the holiday or anything. It’s just that, as with anything, Mardi Gras is more than its label–it’s layered, textured, vibrant.

My family’s Mardi Gras traditions when I was growing up fostered some of my favorite childhood memories. Beyond the stress of where to park and where to find a bathroom when you needed one, there was family, there was joy, there was delight, there was Andy Gibb, whose face was emblazoned on a pink t-shirt I wore religiously as a little kid, riding on a float right in front of me. There was the Monday night parade, Hercules, that passed by my grandmother’s house where my family gathered pre-parade–cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles…all of us–to eat Mimi’s meatballs and spaghetti and garlic bread that was so toasty I would accidentally inhale the powdery crumbs and choke a bit before going back for more. Homework would get finished at the table before we could go out to the parade and inevitably, Vanna White was turning letters on the television. There were the death defying moments of riding on my dad’s shoulder’s to garner more throws only to have him swoop down to pick up a doubloon (his favorite-a prized commodity)–he knew I wasn’t going to fall…I, on the other hand, remained less than confident. There were the costumes and the face paint that decorated us on Mardi Gras day. We masked as a family and my mom made our costumes every year (face paint was all my dad though). One year, we went as the band KISS (I was maybe 3 or 4?)…another year as characters from Strawberry Shortcake…each year presented a new opportunity to get dressed up for a day and go have fun-together, as a family. There were parades where we were so cold it didn’t feel worth it, only to be greeted by hot food when we got home. There is all of the junk we carted home that felt necessary, vital even, in the moment and suddenly worthless when exposed by the harsh fluorescent light of the living room. There is a lifetime of memories that sing a harmony far sweeter than if this were really just a holiday about drunken debauchery.

Tomorrow, we will take our kids to one of the famous super-krewes, Endymion. We will pack sandwiches and snacks, and we will wait on the parade route for hours (though some have been there for days). We will probably throw the football and hopefully be able to walk to where they line up the Clydesdales. We will listen to our kids whine “how much longer till the parade gets here???” because this is what you do! And we will sit back in delight and watch the eyes of our children light up as they are dazzled by the magic that is Mardi Gras.

Because, when we allow it, magic is exactly what Mardi Gras creates.

(Day 55–four blogs away from king cake!)

comfort

So, you know it has been a hard day when I have a fridge full of healthy meal prepped food and I opt to make gluten free blueberry pancakes for dinner instead. I spent hours on Saturday and Sunday working in my kitchen so that I would not make quick unhealthy (read that: fun) choices during the week. Yet, here I am, on a Tuesday (that I have titled Second Monday) finding ways to justify my choice to make and eat blueberry pancakes for dinner instead: “Well, I mean all of that food will freeze so well and will make other weeks easier to prep for…Well, I mean, your jaw has been hurting and pancakes are so easy to eat (ignoring the fact that one of my healthy options was a pureed squash soup)…Well, I mean, you did have a terrible day…”

Evidently, based on my carry through with this pancake plan, I am a very convincing person. I also find myself wondering where the voice is inside of me that wants to be healthier, you know the one who is eternally frustrated over how hard it has been to reclaim fitness since the inner ear debacle devolved into 7 months of slow debilitation followed by surgery and several more months of recovery? I’m just thinking that voice comes from the same brain as the other one and should be pretty convincing too—right? So, where is it?

I feel it is probably important to note here that aside from poetry, one of my most consistent comforts in this life has been food. I’m sure there are healthier habits to have, but food has always been the warm fuzzy blanket to my cold winter’s day (if that even makes sense outside of my own head). This should come as no real surprise, though. I’m a New Orleans girl who was raised in a city and by a family where food is always a topic for discussion in the best possible way. At breakfast we are talking about what we will eat for lunch and at lunch we are mapping out dinner. Food has always been something to look forward to and to savor; a form of communion, as a meal shared with family or friends becomes an almost sacred encounter. Food has always been a bit of nostalgia for me (there is not a grilled cheese that I make today that doesn’t remind me of the grilled cheese sandwiches my mom made for me when I would come home from college). Food has always been a means of communication, of communicating love; standing next to my mom learning how to make her red beans because there was no way to write the recipe–it simply had to be witnessed and then enacted step by step.

When I got married, my husband’s grandmother, who has been my grandmother essentially for the last 22 years now, gave me a recipe book with all of her most prized recipes in it—handwritten. Now, she may have left out some of the secrets that make these recipes quintessentially hers, but that book is physical evidence to me of the importance of food in a family and its role in communicating love from one generation to the next. Every time I see those painstakingly handwritten recipes, I see her heart written across the pages. I see her desire to be remembered by the things she cooked and I think, you know, if people only remembered me for the things I cooked, I would really be pretty okay with that.

I mean, I’ve never been above using food to win someone’s heart or to brighten their day (I do, after all, keep a giant jar of seasonal Hershey’s Kisses in my office because I know if there is chocolate, students will stop by and say hello…and take some chocolate). I don’t think it is a coincidence that the man asked me out on our first date all those years ago on the same night I made him a batch of Rolo cookies (literally, dark chocolate cookie dough wrapped around a Rolo and baked so that the caramel melts in the middle–totally date worthy!). I don’t think it is a coincidence that my sister always felt like my sandwiches tasted better than hers because when someone else makes you food, it does taste better. You feel loved and cared for in the unselfish moment of the gift. And we gift each other food all of the time–when I had my surgery my sister and my mom nursed me back to health again with homemade deliciousness that took the sting out of bedrest away and only made me feel wrapped in warmth and affection.

So, yeah, I made blueberry pancakes for my dinner tonight. So what? They were delicious and my kids sat at the counter and cheered me on…I think in part because it meant they wouldn’t have to smell my lentil soup warming up, but also because they knew that small creature comfort, that small bit of self care, was a bit of grace I could extend to myself and I think there are worse examples to set.

And because a food poem seems appropriate, here you go!

Pot Roast by Mark Strand (See the excerpt below…but also, read the whole thing!)

“These days when there is little
to love or to praise
one could do worse
than yield
to the power of food.
So I bend

to inhale
the steam that rises
from my plate, and I think
of the first time
I tasted a roast
like this.”

(Day 10…done!)