Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Day 299

Having a birthday without the woman who gave birth to you, is a confounding experience.

It's like a chill that creeps up your spine and raises your hairs on end. One of those emotions that does not shy from physical expression. A feeling that penetrates the body's very reflex engine. A multitude of tiny lightening bolts through your nerve endings that leaves your fingers cold and stiff. 

Not that it's an entirely negative experience, though we certainly associate it that way. "Someone just stepped over my grave," many recite at such a moment. Facing mortality is also facing eternity. All of that to say, I've had those chills all day. 

Last year, for her birthday, Mom and I launched a joint blog called: Little Chicken Face. It was an attempt to record our weekly cooking ventures together. We only managed to complete the one post. So,  for my birthday, I wanted to share with you one of her birthdays:

Little Chicken Face:

Wednesday, April 27, 20

Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon

One of these days, I'll be able to spell out Boeuf Bourguignon without looking on Google first. Still, it seems fitting that this journey, well the telling of it anyway, begin with one of the most classic dishes by one of the most iconic chefs.

My mother and I love to cook together. And, we do so every week. The catch is: she's in Woodside, CA and I'm in Seattle, WA. We began a tradition some time last year of making the same recipe on the same night, every Thursday (well, as often as we can manage it).

There are two simple guidelines in choosing the recipes:

1 - We take turns choosing.

2 - It must be something we've either never made before, or include a culinary technique we've not yet explored. In other words, it has to stretch us.

As it happens, for two modest house cooks, we're quite at home in the kitchen. So, these recipes are an endeavor to enhance our cooking ability, but moreso, to bring us together. Although, we've made it a priority to visit quarterly and we talk almost daily, these nights cooking together almost feel like we're standing side by side.

As you may have guessed, my mother and I are very close. Without question or exaggeration (thought I'm prone to both), it is the most formative relationship of my life. She is my idol, my hero, my friend and (prepare for a little Divine Miss M) the wind beneath my wings.

This blog is my birthday gift to my mother, Denise M. Green. (I dare you to ask her what the "M" stands for). In it, both she and I will talk through the recipes, share our successes and failures, our tweeks and flubs. So, without further ado...

Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon

It must be said that the recipe we followed wasn't the authentic original recipe as written in Julia'sMastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead, we used the one from Oprah's website. No particular reason; it's just what I found to be the most comprehendable.

Right off the bat, we had to make a small change. Bacon Rind. Apparently, there's a long gone tradition of trimming the bacon rind off slabs of bacon, blanching it, frying it and adding it to the stew. Alas, alack, even my local butcher didn't have any on hand. My mom had the same difficulty. So, we both settled for some smoky, delicious thick cut bacon.

You'll find when it comes to fatty, creamy, rich goodness in all the foods Jenny Craig keeps out of your reach, we are of the same opinion as Ina Garten and Paula Dean, less isn't more... more is more.

Luckily, this fancy french dish calls for a not-so fancy cut of meat and an even lower rent wine. However, whether its brisket, stew beef or beef shoulder (we both went with the shoulder cuts), you'll want to visit your butcher for the best grade. If you're butchering it yourself, just remember a helpful little hint I learned from Monsieur Bourdain: creamy fat good, shiny fat bad.

On the wine, however, skimp away. In fact, I went for a cheap Burgundy since that is where the dish originated. Well, that's not entirely honest. Actually, I bought Burgundy because Tony Bourdain told me to, but either way, it's a good idea. Mom opted for a Pinot Noir. Our concencus is that any bright, young wine will do.

Before beginning your afternoon long journey into this dish, like my mom alway says, get all your ingredients out and prepped first. Like so...

Once we were both prepped, we texted back and forth on whether to blanch the bacon first, which just seems odd. So, I looked into it. I found a great post, which basically explains that if you want the final flavor of the dish to have a smoky salty presence from the bacon, don't blanch it. But, if you want a more sublte pork flavor without all that smoke... blanch away.

We didn't blanch.

Now, I was entertaining for ten, so I doubled the recipe and had to start a bit earlier. So, we browned, we blended, we deglazed and braised. Although I've seen stovetop versions, we did our braising in the oven.

Somehow, after hours of low heat all those flavors become magic. The aroma permeates the home, so that everyone who walks in the door comments on how good it smells. Once the meat was fork tender, mom and I both had to strain and reduce the sauce before serving.

In Short:

The one thing we did differently: she served hers over buttered egg noodles and I offered just a side of crusty baguette slathered in butter.

The one thing we regret not doing: tossing in a bouquet garni (as is done in Julia's original recipe).

The one thing we absolutely agreed upon: as the beef is the star of the dish, be sure to get a good cut of meat, which doesn't always mean the most expensive!

Well, that's it for this week. Mom will be contributing in future posts, so that'll be fun.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Day 293

It occurs to me that's it's been almost a year since Mom was first diagnosed. And though our count nears 300, it doesn't feel as though I've ticked those days away. It seems the wisest lesson on time comes to us through the immortal genius of Steve Martin as The Jerk:

The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days and the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days and the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in then evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it.

Mom & I loved that bit. In fact, that movie played a significant role in our upbringing, as did Arthur & Young Frankenstein.  We laughed our way through hard times. We learned those movies word for word. One of Mom's favorites was: 

Not everyone who drinks is a poet. Some of us drink because we're not poets.  

So, when I think back on coming home from the hospital with an NG tube in Mom's nose, which would not come out until the very end, a clunky pump, a lot more morphine and a slew of family and friends who knew the time was near, I'm searching for humor. I'm sure we buoyed each other up somehow. 

Instead, all I remember is my Aunt Terri who showed up one day and didn't leave. She took her vacation time and camped out at the Green Ranch. Home-made tortillas, juevos & chorizo found their way to the table, floorboards were cleaned, the backyard was hosed down, and most importantly, Mom was well tended. She sat with her in silence for hours on end. A post that became increasingly more difficult for me. We bought baby monitors to set about the house in order to keep tabs on mom when we were not in the room. 

Hospice immediately sent over a bed and oh yes, now I remember. We decorated her room in a Hawaiian theme. The guest room became a tropical explosion of orange fish & pink hibiscus blossoms with decorative Tiki lights accenting our picture wall. What must have been a hundred pictures of friends and family made a spiritually reviving wall of support and prayer. The only solemn additions to the room were that damn hospital bed and an oxygen tank. We didn't need it, not yet. Mom was still sleeping with the love of her life in her own bed in her own room and breathing on her own.  So, the hospice supplies simply stood sentinel awaiting her immanent diminishing.

Days, he said. Weeks maybe, not months. 

Joshua flew home from Vegas. 

Still we didn't talk of death. We only knew that the tube in mom's nose was keeping her with us and simultaneously depriving her of any and all nutrition. Food and drink became mere palliative companions. Like the skeleton in the dungeons of King Haggard's castle guarding the gate of the Red Bull and all the while lusting for an empty carafe of what he imagined was fine wine, she gulped down a ghostly promise of nourishment only to watch it sucked back out of her nose. 

More than any other time through this process, she looked less and less like herself. She could still move about with help, though she fought us off at every turn. Independent to the last. In fact, it should be noted if it has not yet, that not once did I witness an expression of resignation upon her face. She fought for her life. Though the battle was unjust, the odds impossible and the respite obsolete, yet she never gave up. 

I think it was then I started to crawl deeper inside of myself. Grief drew me into its womb and I nestled in the dark with thanks. I mined my youth for memories of her skirts spinning, the way she layered her lasagna, or how she flipped her hair when she knew she was right... which was always.

The first time the tube fell out, we did as we were told and went to the ER to get it put back in. If the tube pulls out of the stomach and can no longer do its job, we were told that only an RN could put it back. Like all ER visits, Aunt Terri, Mom & I sat about for hours waiting for an unnecessary x-ray and a replacement tube. We decided that the next time it fell out, we would just handle it ourselves. It turns out that the next time was right as we pulled in the driveway on the way home from the ER. 

So, I took hold of the tube and gently fed it into her nose as she swallowed. We got it back in, taped it up and tested it with the pump. Success. It was so successful in fact that I was designated to adjust the tube for all of its shifting. Each new adjustment didn't get easier. Quite the opposite. It became a painful reminder of my mother's lifeline. A reminder that she was starving. I hated that tube. Disdain. Vengeful disgust. 

We swabbed around her nose and tried to keep it lubed, but as we were repeatedly told by doctor's and hospice nurses, an NG tube has never been used over a long period of time for someone in this situation. As a result, her nose began to erode, which only added fuel to my spite. How could any righteous destiny decide to cover that resplendent face with bile tubing? 

I remember the last time I saw my mother in Seattle thinking even then that she would die looking nothing like herself. Forever my memory of her would be cluttered with her much altered appearance toward the end. This foresight is all the more potent these days. For what I didn't expect was what it would feel like to look in the mirror after she was gone. It is her face I see. Her expressions. Her aching furrowed brown when she cries, taking long deep gasps as she swallows her fear and exhales her courage. Her knowing smile.that puckers her soft lips as her right eyebrow slides up confidently. I am a whirling dervish swallowed in the cyclone of a greedy pursuit for her every expression and then plummeted into sorrow with the reality that it is me smiling back, not her. And then I see her crying. And around I go.

Perhaps someday her likeness will soothe my longing for her. But, today it only serves as a sharp reminder of what is lost.