Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Queen of Time

It is 4:15. I sit at a long, polished dining table, a teenager by my side, thinking about Odysseus. My trusty text splays open on the table, its wings loose from use, its pages covered in notes layered atop one another in blue, black, red, a record of understandings deposited year after year like layers in sedimentary rock. His text is practically unmarked, its spine tight; it's all I can do not to reach over and bend it back, circle stuff, dog-ear pages. We puzzle over the teacher's questions. I have ideas about the best answers but try to help him arrive at his own. Sometimes there are long silences. This is good practice for me.

Why does Odysseus remain on Circe's island for so long? What does this reveal about his character?

Silence. I wait, fight the urge to let my words fill the air. Usually if I remain mute just beyond the point where I think I might erupt, he will speak, tentatively releasing an idea into the space where before there was nothing but the boring certainty of my ability to supply an answer.

So, why is this book so famous?

Now it's my turn to pause. I can conjure a boilerplate answer for this one, but I don't want to, because it's his question, not his teacher's.

Well, it's one of the oldest stories in existence. I guess the fact that it is still around must mean that it has been important enough, over time, for people to want to pass it on. It's about a person who is lost and needs to get back home. He has to wait and endure and overcome great obstacles, his own ego included, before he can rest and see his family again.

One thing about getting older: talking like this makes me choke up. I cough to cover the unexpected surge of emotion. Later I will ponder why Odysseus, Master of Landways and Seaways, leaves me verklempt. I will realize that it's not Odysseus at all. It's that I've made space for my student. I've let him in a little, not with any personal confessions but by giving the moment over to him, by slowing down and letting him control time for a while. I don't do this enough.


It is 9:00 and we are late for school as usual. Gabe has discovered a big, branch-like stick by the front walk. The stick is fascinating, overwhelmingly so, and he is deeply given to the moment, to the designs he is making in the dirt just outside the car, where Owie sits patiently, still tractable (though that clock is ticking fast), already strapped into his car seat. I pause, say nothing, breathe, noticing tension in my chest as I restrain the impulse to clutch his arm and sternly insist that it is time to get into the car Now or we will be Late.


Alex and I keep working through the study questions. My usual practice has been to end a session at exactly an hour, whether or not my student has finished the assignment. For some reason, I don't feel like doing this anymore. If the hour is up and the work is not done, I stay. It's 5:45 when I stand up to leave, gathering a scarf around my neck.

I never saw it this way before. I read the pages, but I didn't think about any of this stuff. Thank you.


After I half-sincerely admire the designs he has traced with his stick, Gabe agrees to put it down and get into the car.

Mommy, maybe when we get back, we can see if the stick is still there.
Sure, honeybun.


Maybe what I'm reading is helping me loosen the reins a bit. In An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler assures me that it's okay to let foods just be themselves, to let their natural flavors speak. Adler is a proponent of simply boiling food, among other things, and reminds us, in an age of Top Chef and Iron Chef America, that cooking is nothing more than applying heat to food.

It is 6:30 and I am in the kitchen, staring into the fridge. I grab a container full of the weekend's slow-cooker pork and a packet of queso fresco we bought two weeks ago for a recipe we never made. I reach into the vegetable drawer and rip off a few handfuls of kale, slide tortillas from their top-shelf hideout. Salted water boils in a pot on the stove. I plunk cubes of sweet potato into it. When they're tender, I'll remove them with a slotted spoon, tear the kale leaves from their thick stems, and toss them into the still-boiling water. I'll mash the sweet potatoes, squeeze out the kale and chop it, and shred the pork. I smear sweet potato on a tortilla, crumble cheese on top, sprinkle on some kale and pork, grind on some sea salt and pepper, and add a bit more cheese before covering it all with a second tortilla. I transfer this package onto a hot skillet slicked with olive oil, where three minutes or so on each side produces a golden, crispy tortilla surrounding warm, softened, slightly gooey filling.

This meal is like teaching, and parenting, and writing. And probably lots of other things. If I just set my agenda aside for more than a moment, be quiet, and allow my subjects to express themselves, what results is eminently more fulfilling than what I can force if I try to be the Queen of Time.

In the kitchen, it's easier to give the moment over to the ingredients when you actually have good ingredients on hand. Instead of cooking discrete meals each night, Adler spends Sunday roasting and boiling whatever veggies and meats look good at the market. During the week, she mines this already-cooked bounty, parking poached eggs on top of one combination, tossing another into pasta or a frittata, or serving some of her already-cooked, ready-to-use ingredients on toast or in a salad. When everything's looking tired at the end of the week, she throws the remainders together in a soup.

I've done some limited testing of this technique, and I love it. Not only does it encourage me to be a more creative cook, but it also means that dinner is mostly made by the time I get around to donning my apron. Best of all, it requires less brain, more hands.

And that means more time for my creative endeavors. Here's a little something I've been working on:

Sing in me, Muse, of the quesadilla that sprang
Nearly formed from my two hands' work on Sunday.
Of dirt sketches unfettered by the minute hand's tyrannical tick.
Of letting learning happen in its own time. Inspiration, too.
And to-do lists that flutter quietly away while you savor the breeze.

Forget the Great American Novel. I've got epic aspirations. Call me Lis, Master of Cheesethings, or Lis, the Great Pot-tender. Or, hmmm... Maybe just Lis, the Good Woman, as a sleepy Gabe labeled me tonight after I kissed him and told him he is a good boy.

Yes, I like that. Much better than the Queen of Time.


Sweet Potato and Kale Quesadillas
The meat is optional in this recipe. I had pork in the fridge, but we often have the remains of a roasted chicken, which would go just as well. We didn't use salsa, but it would only add to the deliciousness of this combo. Choose any that you like. Quesadillas can be prepared in advance and stored in the fridge until you're ready to cook them. They can also be cooked in advance and gently reheated in a warm oven. Enjoy!

1 or 2 sweet potatoes
bunch of kale
tortillas (I use flour)
shredded or chopped meat (optional)
queso fresco (or another cheese you like)
olive oil

Set a pot of water on the stove to boil. Peel your sweet potato and chop it into 2-inch pieces. When the water is boiling, salt it well and carefully add the sweet potatoes. Begin checking for tenderness after 8 minutes. Once the sweet potatoes are tender enough to mash, scoop them out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon. Place them in a bowl and mash them with a fork when they are cool enough to handle. Around this time, place your skillet over medium heat and give it plenty of time to get hot. Meanwhile, rip a few handfuls of kale leaves off of their stems and drop them into your boiling water. Let them cook until they appear tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Scoop the kale out with a slotted spoon and place it on a plate to cool for a few minutes. When it's cool enough to handle, squeeze the water out of it and chop it as finely as you like. (I chop it very finely so that my children cannot easily pick it out of the quesadilla!) Arrange your tortillas on a work surface. Smear sweet potato all over one side of a tortilla, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Crumble cheese on top. Sprinkle kale and meat (if using) on top, add a few grinds of pepper and a sprinkling of salt, and top with more cheese. Close the other tortilla over it. Slick your pan with just a bit of olive oil, and when you can smell the oil and see it shimmering, carefully transfer the quesadilla onto the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side.


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  2. Just stumbled upon your blog during a nostalgia-filled day on the internet. Your prose is absolutely beautiful. I almost miss answering homework questions like these about books - you rarely get asked those in life anymore.

    -Andrew Metcalf, your student in 7th+8th grade, I guess somewhere around 2001-2002?

  3. Hi, Andrew! Thanks so much for your comment! I'm sure I subjected you to some of those types of questions way back when. I hope that you are well. Are you in D.C.?

  4. I love this! An inspiration.

    - Mary

  5. Wow - love the writing, love the thoughts (esp about parenting) and do love the spin on the "meal of the week" idea. I have to try that.

    1. Thanks, Em! We must get together soon. Is Jesse old enough for the Please Touch Museum?? Let's plan a Philly rendezvous. xo

  6. I am in DC! Assuming you still live in the area as well? It's really taken on a whole new life, living here post-college. I'm trying to pursue a car-free lifestyle for as long as I can.

    I'm working at The Washington Post doing web development. When I'm lucky, I get to make interactive graphics to accompany news stories, though there's plenty of general site-maintenance work to slog through as well. Still, it's a great fit for me: I found a huge passion for journalism in college despite majoring in Computer Science.

    A classmate or two of mine from way back when are also in town - perhaps we should all have a reunion coffee at some point!

    (At some point between your class and now, I picked up a shameless affinity for em dashes to denote clauses. No idea why.)

    1. Andrew,
      Congratulations! It sounds like you are doing very well. I will look at the Post web site in a whole new way now! It would be fun to get together for coffee with you and your classmates. Let's try to set something up. : )

  7. I found that I had most of the ingredients for your quesadilla recipe and decided to give it a try - delicious! Thanks so much for the idea! I would never have thought of it.

    1. Yay--that's great, Mary! I like the kale a lot. It's good and makes me feel healthy.

  8. Great mention in the alumni mag about this blog. Well, I'm already a regular reader. I got some tortillas and sweet potatoes today and we are making quesadillas for dinner tonight. Thanks for the recipe! I don't know why this is tagging me as Ms. Kogan, but you know who I am...

    1. Anna! I loved the "Ms. Kogan" label. It's like you're undercover. I believe we served these to Uri when he visited last week, so they may be familiar...We miss you! I hope it's not too long before we get to see you again (hint, hint re: upcoming weddings--Uri filled me in!!). xo