It’s our very first grown-up Halloween. Our first Halloween with a giant bowl of Kit-Kats and Butterfingers and the porch lights on for trick-or-treaters. Our first year answering the doorbell, admiring all the Batmans, princesses and and witches, then snapping off the lights at eight o’clock, after the last horde of kids were clearly creepy high schoolers, collecting their candy in an empty bag of chips. Our first Halloween with a squirmy baby dressed up like Little Red Riding Hood. Seven years ago we hosted a Halloweenie Soiree for our closest college friends. Nine years ago, we ran around and around Williamsburg like maniacs, in and out of apartments and buildings with people we met that night and never saw again. Twelve years ago in our dormitory, we dressed as characters from The Matrix with materials we bought at Home Depot. We’ve had a lot of wild nights in our life, but this year was the very best ever. I hope you all had a safe and scary and silly night. And if, by chance, you haven’t had enough chocolate yet, here is the recipe for our ultimate, all-time, perfectly gooey fudge brownies. They will blow your mind.
The Sunfire Mexican Grill is a warm, sunny dining room occupying a doublewide storefront in Rockland, bustling at noon on a weekday. It feels like a slightly eclectic abuela’s kitchen with homey touches, tasteful Mexican-themed artwork, and light wood accents. We’re lucky that Rockland has a lot of these really sweet little lunch spots. From The Brown Bag to The Brass Compass, Rockland’s Main Street is a great place to grab something good. Casual, cozy eateries where the food is like home cooking, but you don’t have to do the dishes. You can sit and chat for an hour, meet friends, bring your crabby baby, people watch and enjoy being out in the community, a very comfortable activity, especially as the weather starts to cool. For over a year, Malcolm has insisted that the fare at Sunfire far exceeds any expectations you may have about the Mexican food being served in a town more famous for lobster than for lengua. I must admit, I had my doubts, and since it was always closed when we wanted to go, I never had to challenge my assumptions, which is just the way I like it.
Have you heard the news? It’s a hurricane out there. Sandy has arrived on the Eastern Seaboard with all the accompanying media frenzy, battery buying, and stocking up on water, wine and whiskey. A superwindy “Frankenstorm,” with gusts and floods and outages, has officially made landfall. You know what that means. Storm food and horror movies! We’re battening down the hatches and holing up with a big pot of something simmering on the stove. I thought that a popular Jamaican dish, known as “brown stew chicken,” was in order. I don’t have any particular affinity for Jamaica or its culture. But hurricane winds bring a decidedly tropical weather system to our Northern shores. Turn up the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come,” gather your lanterns and candles and loved ones and card games and make this super tasty stew while watching The Serpent And The Rainbow. Stay safe, East Coasters!
Ninth grade was a time of transition. I never have been good at transition. In middle school – sixth through eight grades – I was profoundly awkward. Now, every supermodel and high functioning grown-up will insist that she was a gawky tween, and I’m sure this is true in their hearts. But I really was an adolescent mess: Sally Jesse glasses. A bad perm, which is just redundant. Sprayed up bangs. Pimples. Too smart to be cool, and too self-conscious to be completely invested in schoolwork. In my seventh grade class photo, I wore a paisley vest from J.C. Penny over a puffy white shirt. Sometimes, classmates would leave dog treats under my chair and throw things at me on the bus. I had a lot of stomach aches those years.
But I also was a dancer and cheerleader and made my friends crack up with silly impressions and the ability to coin new words. I discovered a wicked gift for mean girlishness, because I could suss out exactly what was odd about our rivals. I was the one who ghost wrote the notes and drafted the petitions we circulated. I spread gossip and exaggerated the truth. It was self-preservation, I rationalized. We were all just trying to survive. The boys I liked never noticed me. I cheered for them from the basketball sidelines and slow danced all seventy-four minutes of Stairway to Heaven with the kid who lived in the motel next to Stop ‘n Shop because I felt sorry for him. And when the lights came up in the gymnasium, he walked back to his friends and made barking noises as I slipped into my turquoise windbreaker and went out to look for my mom’s Caravan.
The fall of ’92 arrived, and so did I. Taller and well-proportioned, with better skin and contact lenses. A classic ugly duckling story. But I didn’t feel like fitting in. I couldn’t understand why the older boys who used to tease me suddenly wanted to take me out. Cliques were torn apart, as classes were stratified by level. We sorted and resorted our social alliances, and started reading Dante in English. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” was written over my homeroom door. Freshman year was circles of Hell even more confusing than the purgatory of terrible middle school. I took my lunch alone in the last rows of the auditorium, where I could think and cry and read. Every day I had a bottle of water, because I was on a diet, and a package of three crispy chocolate chip cookies, because I was sad. Such is the logic of a 13-year-old.
Fall always makes me think of that period of flux, when innocence to experience happened overnight. It’s been twenty years since I was that crying girl. I wish I could time travel back and give her a hug and these homemade cookies, instead of the crummy ones I bought from the school cafeteria. I’d tell her that transition never gets any easier, but never to give up hope, which is an infinite resource that never diminishes, like the Hanukkah oil or Everlasting Gobstoppers. Gah, what a bummer of a story for a Friday. Sorry.Yay weekend! Make cookies! These are awesome and packed full of chunks and chocolate and oatmeal and nuts and are so, so good with coffee.
I got my first job in New York in the Fall of 2000, working as a graphic designer for an incentive marketing startup in Midtown, on 5th Avenue and 31st Street. At the time, the internet industry was still recovering from the recently-burst dotcom bubble that had left the landscape littered with lots of very bright kids that had been showered with millions of dollars from investors, only to suddenly find themselves out of work after their second round of fundraising. For many, the self-destruct of their companies had been deserved; a company whose best idea was to sell pet supplies on the internet really didn’t need to reward employees with $5,000 desks and profit sharing programs that would never actually come to fruition. At the same time, many good ideas (like the company down the block from us, who wanted to serve streaming video online long, long before the technology of the medium was ready,) got caught up in the bad press of the companies that were spectacularly flaming out all around us.
While my friends and I considered ourselves fortunate to be working for a company who had an idea that we all basically believed in, and that even had a few million bucks in untouched investment money in the bank, there was definitely a spooky mood in the air. We crowded around one another’s workstations each morning, where websites like F*cked Company brought the dismal news of each new day, and Odd Todd made us laugh with his crude Flash animations that seemed to tap specifically into the hopelessness we all felt. Looking back, it seems like a very strange way for all of us to have started our careers, with the marked cynicism and a basic mistrust in management that should have taken many more years to develop.
As I reflect on those years, however, it’s also with a fair amount of excitement. You’re only 22 once, and getting paid to live and compete in the greatest city in the world during those first few years of my career is something I feel lucky to have experienced. When I first began working there, I still lived in New Haven, and would take the Metro North commuter train in to the city in the mornings, before walking through the crackly Autumn air to the office. Some nights after work, I would couch surf at one of my coworker’s places (in the way that only seems possible at a company where the CFO is 26), but most of the time, I would hop a late-night train back home to Connecticut. When I close my eyes, I can still remember that walk back up 5th Avenue, brain fuzzy from a few post-work pints of commiseration with my new friends. I’d stop outside Grand Central, and buy two bags of piping hot Nuts 4 Nuts sugar-coated peanuts to stuff into my coat pockets for the ride home. They’d warm up my hands enough to get the heavy door to the train station open, to buy a train ticket and a can of Foster’s for the ride back North.
The smell of these “street nuts” from the Nuts 4Nuts cart is burned into my memory, and is something that I will always associate with the descent of Winter in NYC. You can smell a fresh batch cooking from a block away, with big clouds of sugar-scented steam billowing off the tiny chrome and plexiglass carts. Though the company has never released the “official” recipe, it has to be simple enough to prepare on the side of a busy city street, which should make recreating them at home even easier. As it turns out, it is; sugar and water are all you really need, though I like to add a little vanilla extract, as well. You can also experiment with adding cinnamon, or even cayenne or sea salt. The only constraint is that the peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, or pecans you use must be raw; the oils present in roasted nuts prevent the sugar from crystallizing and adhering properly to the nut.
A few weeks ago, Jillian began working a new job that keeps her away from home for most of the evening, most notably during suppertime. I usually work at home all day while she takes care of Violet, and then in the late afternoons, I assume baby duty. My amazing parenting style usually amounts to sitting on the couch with the baby watching Judge Mathis together, while I try only half-successfully to keep her from eating the down feathers from the throw pillows. Needless to say, she absorbs nearly one hundred percent of my attention, and because I am terrible at planning ahead, the evening meal has of late become a ridiculously informal affair. With the baby scurrying around at my feet and only myself to feed, I can usually manage to rustle up some frightening combination of leftovers from the fridge, which I pile into a saucepan, heat up, and then tilt down my gullet while Violet occupies herself with whatever her latest sticky rice-cracker obsession is.
In an effort to continue eating at least somewhat like a grownup (the packed freezer full of frozen burritos and Pillsbury Toaster Scrambles notwithstanding), I’ve been working on a collection of easy-to-prepare, comforting dishes. The criteria? They should be relatively inexpensive, comforting, and take less than a half an hour to whip up, with as little danger as possible to a baby who is suddenly everywhere all at once. And if there will be awesome leftovers that I can eat straight out of the saucepan later in the week, all the better.
With this in mind, I whipped up this easy riff on Pork Marsala, a pork and mushroom mixture flavored with onions, garlic, and sweet fortified wine. Serve it over buttered egg noodles, because when you’re at the end of your rope and counting the minutes until Mom gets home, nothing will make you feel better than buttered egg noodles. Except maybe bourbon.