Summer Days + Homemade Soft Serve

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It’s a bloody hot day in Nashville, a Wednesday, the kind of day where walking the 50 or so feet from your kitchen door to the mailbox means beads of sweat forming fast on your forehead and upper lip. Tim and I are inside, working, I at my laptop on the dining room table, he from his computer on the sofa. When I look up from the article I’m writing, I see him straight ahead; when I turn to the right, it’s all blue skies and beating sunshine above our front yard.

I want to be sitting in the grass, I want to be having a picnic, I want to be sipping lemonade while rocking on a giant front porch.

Then I remember the heat, and I change my mind: I want to go swimming.

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“What time is it?” I say to Tim. He tells me it’s half past noon. “Too bad,” I answer back. “Wish we had time to go to the lake.”

And then we look at each other from across our freelance perches, and he says what we’re both thinking: oh yeah, we do.

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So we finish our work and throw some towels in a bag and drive 20 minutes to Percy Priest, the manmade lake that makes Nashville feel a little less landlocked. We haven’t been there since last summer, when we were still engaged, on a Saturday that was loud and crowded and earned me a sunburn on my back.

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Today it’s quiet, just a few dozen people grilling or swimming or soaking up sun. We stretch our blanket out in the green grass, sandy shores ahead of us, the smell of charcoal in the air. We step into the water and it’s warm, like a bathtub, and I don’t have to shudder when I dip my toes in first.

We’re only there two hours, but it’s two hours that feels a million miles from life—a few hours that feels like a summer vacation in the middle of the day. We walk, hand in hand, to the water; come back to the blanket to dry off; go back to the water; come back to the blanket. It’s so peaceful, so relaxing, so like Wisconsin or Florida.

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I finish the book I’ve been reading, “Writing Down the Bones, in which Natalie Goldberg talks about one of her favorite writing prompts for students: to talk about a time when you were happy. She says this is worth doing because,

“Stories stay with us … Our stories are important … To begin with, write like you talk, nothing fancy. This will help you get started.”

I look up from where I’m laying on my stomach, elbows propping me up, and a little girl runs past us in her bathing suit. I hear voices laughing in the water. I see Tim laying next to me, a smile on his face. We go back into the lake, and the way I talk to him, while we’re standing together, water coming just above our shoulders, minnows swimming past our feet, is with a breathless, “This is so fun!”

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We come home, taking showers and sweeping up sand and unpacking our towels, and we make frozen yogurt. It tastes like soft serve—the kind I used to get at places like TCBY, perfect for piling high with toppings like fruit and coconut and nuts, perfect for eating on the couch with your husband after an afternoon at the lake.

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And I want to tell you here, the way I’d tell you if we were talking, how much I like this day, how much I love laying by the water on a weekday, surrounded by forests and swimmers and picnic tables.

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But then I think about Natalie Goldberg and about writing how we talk, and all that comes out is “It was wonderful!” and “I love this” and “This is so fun!” So then I think, you know, sometimes, maybe that’s exactly right.

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Arrington Vineyards + ‘Writing Down the Bones’

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Last month, when my brother was in town, we spent a night with friends at Arrington Vineyards, located about 25 minutes south of Nashville. During the summer, Arrington is probably my favorite place to have a picnic—free music on weekends, a setting of rolling hills, vineyard views and space farther out in the country. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think about picnicking and why it’s so enjoyable—which is exactly why I loved reading a recent post from Tea & Cookies. In it, she says this:

The thing about picnics I think is this: they are less of a meal and more of a celebration. There may be food involved, but the point is not simply to eat—you could do that at your desk, standing over the kitchen sink, in your car. This is not about feeding. The point about a picnic is to enjoy.

Picnics slow things down, they make you step back and notice. The way the light filters through the trees. The sound of the water as is splashes over the locks. The feeling of grass on bare feet. Picnics feed all our senses.

With that in mind, here are some photos of things I stepped back to notice at Arrington, as well as some thought-provoking quotes from a book I just finished, “Writing Down the Bones,” in which Natalie Goldberg talks about what it means to be “‘writing down the bones,’ the essential, awake speech of [our] minds.”

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Roasted Tomato & Goat Cheese Tart [+ slave-free tomatoes]

tomatoes on vine

I’m an elementary kid, spending a few summer days at my grandma’s house, and when she says she wants to make sauce for dinner, I know it means stepping from the dining room onto the back porch, down steps to the yard and its back-corner garden, where we’ll pull ripe tomatoes straight from the vine. The first time I ever see tomatoes growing in the ground and not stacked up neat and shiny at the store is in this yard, the same yard where my brother and I fight with water guns and talk to the the neighbor’s dogs through a chain-link fence and step on massive ant hills in the holes of Grandma’s concrete driveway.

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Over 20 years later, I’m an adult, and I’ve grown other plants and I’ve stepped in other yards, but still, when I think of tomatoes, I think of Grandma’s garden, the one bordering her lilac bush and the neighbor’s fence, and of the weeks of harvest it would give each year. And lately in Nashville, as our Tuesday pickups are piled high with tomatoes—orange, red, yellow; big and grape—I hold the box of them, inhaling their scent, which is as much summer as it is that plot of land in Maywood, and I think what a gift this time of year is, what a blessing filled with rich fruit, tomatoes that are not even worth comparing with what you find at the store in January, not even close.

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So in the midst of this, when Nicole says to me one Friday afternoon, in a quick email conversation about risotto and cooking and tomato jam that, hey, speaking of tomatoes, you might like to know about this, referring to the upcoming campaign she’ll be launching, through her organization The Giving Table, to have food bloggers come together to encourage some sort of change to end slavery in Florida tomato fields, I’m kind of confused.

All I can say is I didn’t know—because maybe I’m one of the rare Americans who had never read Mark Bittman’s New York Times article last summer; never heard of Barry Estabrook’s book when it came out; never crossed paths with someone talking about International Justice Mission’s summer program, “Recipe for Change,” a campaign to end slavery in Florida’s tomato fields.

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But Tim and I get reading articles and seeing statistics and saying to each other, This is insane! We were just in Florida! It’s happening here, not three hours south of where we laid by the beach! And I’m getting that horrible sick feeling in my stomach, the one that comes from seeing you’ve been unaware, from seeing what you have not seen—that it’s not just better-tasting tomatoes I’m getting when I grow them in a garden or pick them up from a local farmer or buy some at Whole Foods; it’s tomatoes that have been fairly harvested, without slavery, abuse, mistreatment and other tragedies that are occurring now, here:

A third of our fresh tomatoes are grown in Florida, and much of that production is concentrated around Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”) … The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water … Unlike corn and soy, tomatoes’ harvest cannot be automated; it takes workers to pick that fruit. And not only have workers been enslaved, they have been routinely beaten, subject to sexual harassment, exposed to toxic chemicals (Estabrook mercilessly describes the tragic results of this) and forced to wait for hours to find out whether they have work on a given day. Oh, and they’re underpaid. – from “The True Cost of Tomatoes,” Mark Bittman, The New York Times, 6/14/11

Mariano Lucas Domingo discussed being locked in a tomato box truck for 15 hours one day by his employer, Cesar Navarrete. The Immokalee farmworker had to find his way out, he said, and then help others. – from “Brothers Receive 12-Year Prison Terms in Immokalee Human Slavery Case,” Steven Beardsley, Naples News, 12/19/08

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The idea behind today’s campaign is that bloggers are donating their posts to raise awareness for a very real problem of oppression. Some facts:

  • Over the past 15 years, there have been seven cases of forced labor slavery successfully prosecuted, resulting in the release of over 1,000 people being treated unfairly in U.S. tomato fields.
  • IJM’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers has developed, along with the tomato pickers themselves, what’s called The Fair Food program, which works against the slavery, child labor and serious sexual abuse happening in Immokalee, Florida, by setting clear standards against them.
  • Supermarkets and fast-food chains and other retailers who join The Fair Food program pay a little more ($0.015 higher per pound) for their tomatoes, but are guaranteed they’ve been fairly harvested.
  • What The Giving Table, with International Justice Mission, wants to accomplish this summer is for more companies to sign this pledge, so that as purchases shift from fields improperly treating workers to those adhering to fair standards, the issue of slavery can be abolished.

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Would you consider raising your voice to do something about the issue of abuse happening here in America? McDonald’s, Subway, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have already endorsed the pledge, but many major retailers have not. Here are a few ways to help:

  • With your pocketbook: Buy tomatoes from local farmers—or from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, both of which are already on board with the Fair Food program.
  • With your computer: Take two minutes and send a message to execs of the major supermarket chains yet to sign the pledge, asking them to change their stance. (It’s as simple as filling out your name/email and hitting send)

tomato tart from above

In light of Recipe for Change and today’s campaign, Food Bloggers for Slave-Free Tomatoes, we’ve created this roasted tomato and goat cheese tart, made with tomatoes grown right here in Tennessee, from the local farm that supplies our CSA.

tomato tart on the table

For more information on slavery happening in American tomato fields, visit the websites of The Giving Table, Recipe for Change and Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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{outtakes + favorites}

While we’re in Chicago, we spend a night driving around my hometown, past the Riverwalk and up side streets, through neighborhoods and by a big barn, looking for a white wall that we can take self-timer pictures against. I keep saying to Tim, thank you for doing this! for putting up with my crazy! for letting me pursue this idea of a blog header with our picture in it! and he looks at me, and he’s like, What? I want to do this, too!

And a few hours later, here is what we have:

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My friend Kendra tells me how my writing is so much more me since I’ve met Tim and how that’s indicative of the kind of marriage in which I’m loved well and so, free to be more of who I am. I tell her that’s a lovely thought and one I hope is true and that Tim’s a good gift, I see it more every day, in the way he gives me his time and his ear and, one night in Naperville, Illinois, hours of self-timed photos.

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Golden Tomato Sauce

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So speaking of CSAs, ours recently gave us a bunch of yellow tomatoes (along with red tomatoes and grape tomatoes), and while my first thought was yellow tomato cake! and then, maybe fried yellow tomatoes! it was Tim who suggested turning these tomatoes into one of those things tomatoes do best: sauce.

Golden tomato sauce.

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I don’t know how sauce works in your household, but in ours, it goes something like this:

1. Prep the tomatoes (i.e., boil water, remove the stems of tomatoes and score an x at the bottom, plop them in the pot for eight seconds, remove and cool, peel off skins like they’re a loose jacket; chop)

2. Saute garlic and olive oil in a skillet, sometimes with onion, sometimes without

3. Add chopped tomatoes, maybe with basil or maybe with wine

4. Add salt

5. Cook for a while and watch and season to taste, adding sugar or honey or herbs or spices or whatever you need until it tastes the way you like.

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It’s not complicated, not even as hard as putting together a blog post if we’re being honest, but it works. Every time. And with golden tomatoes, it works so well that it makes you look like you’re really smooth in the kitchen, like you’re doing more than just that basic, mindless thing you usually do to pull together sauce, the mellow and sweet flavor of the fresh tomatoes doing all the work while you go about your business washing the dishes or talking to your husband about weekend plans.

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Golden tomato sauce is the kind of thing I absolutely love. Like a back-pocket secret. Something you can do or make that is low on effort and high on value, so when you’re done, the reward so far exceeds the journey that it’s almost not worth talking about. Like when you turn your shrunken maxi dress into a sundress that gets complimented just because you cut it, with a scissors, in two seconds flat; or being told you have a ‘trendy’ dining room with mismatched chairs when actually you just picked your chairs because they seemed cute and easy to paint and, mostly, were under $10 each; that quick and easy pie crust recipe that always turns out flaky; the morning smoothies that use up leftover lettuce and too-ripe bananas and kale.

And the way I see it, when you do one of these too-easy, still-impressive things and someone comes to you, eyes all wide and admiring, asking how you come up with this stuff, you have two ways you can respond: (1) smile or (2) tell them the truth.

Which do you do?

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I mean, think about it: When someone’s impressed at your handmade pillows or golden sauce, it feels good. You know something. You did something. Victory! So sometimes it’s kind of nice to just smile and nod and bask in that praise and say, oh, it’s nothing, leaving the other person to wonder at your talent and wish they had it, too. I think there are generations of cooks who did this, who told us younger folks that some people just have it and others don’t and, sorry, kid, maybe you’re one of the don’ts.

But I don’t buy it.

spooning sauce onto toasts

Because sure, it’s fine to keep our back-pocket secrets, fine to make our sauce and watch people eat it and feel good—but that doesn’t change the fact that our wedding ideas came from Pinterest or that the origin of a recipe came from our grandmas. Just like we learned our secrets, other people can learn them, too, which is why I’m a little averse to phrases like “good cooks” or bad ones.

Why is it that we think calling someone a bad cook should make us a better one? Why do we need to put down someone else’s ability in order to feel more confident of our own? Why can’t we instead join together, all of us, bloggers and cookbook authors and home chefs and grandmas, and trade secrets and share stories and grow?

Is that crazy? Maybe.

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Or maybe, when one of us shares our secrets, even if it’s a little one, it gives another of us the courage to try. And maybe in the process, the both of us take another step forward towards that kind of sharing-and-growing-together world of cooking and eating and living that we all want to be part of, the kind where we’re all rooting for each other, not competing, the kind where cooking is just mostly fun.

Maybe I’ll start—with golden tomato sauce.

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Chicken Pot Pie + ‘Dinner: A Love Story’

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It’s a hot and sunny Saturday and we’re on our way to Lynnville, a sleepy little town that you could live in Tennessee all your life without hearing of, but which today has drawn our attention because of an ad I saw somewhere for a blackberry festival. The whole trip, I’m reading to Tim from my latest library find, and right away, we’re both so into the stories about food and parenting and the world of magazine editing that before we know it, we’ve driven the entire hour, past hilly pasture land and giant barns and no places to use a bathroom, anywhere, and then there’s Lynnville, right before us, rewarding our travel with what turns out to be the very anti-climactic main street that today boasts one carnival booth, four craft tents and, off in the corner, a 85-year-old man selling tomatoes.

No. Blackberries.

None.

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So we talk with the tomato man, who tells us he’s lived in Lynnville all his life, and we ask him about blackberries, and he says, no, there aren’t any, but you know, he used to pick them when he was a boy, and we buy a bag of his produce, and he gives us a green pepper for two quarters, and we’re back in the car.

We say to each other, laughing at the wasted hours in the countryside, well, at least there were tomatoes! but then I pull out my book and we remember: actually, at least there’s this.

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It’s a week later that I finish “Dinner: A Love Story,” the Saturday night we’re flying home to Chicago, just a few minutes before we board the plane. About 80% of the book I’ve read aloud to Tim, either that day to and from the no-blackberry blackberry festival or in the five or six nights following, before we fall asleep at night. Part cookbook and part memoir, it comes from Jenny Rosenstrach, the former Real Simple editor who blogs at a site by the same name. I wasn’t a follower before I read the book, but I am now: after reading Rosenstrach’s stories, which are as much about food as they are about parenting, as much about gathering around the table as they are about building relationships, I feel like she’s someone with whom I’d like to be friends.

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While we’re in Illinois, my mom says to us one morning, I have some chicken, what should I make? And I jump from my chair. I know exactly the thing! I tell her. And I run upstairs to my suitcase to pull out this book, to flip to the chicken pot pie recipe, the one Rosenstrach has been making since the early days of marriage and entertaining and which she has been known to monogram for a real wow factor for her kids.

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My mom makes it and it has the same effect: I eat three pieces. And later that night, my brother wipes the dish clean. So when Tim and I come back to Nashville and we’re making dinner for friends, it’s this recipe that we turn to, making it the night before and just sticking in back in the oven for 15 minutes before serving.

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The thing about chicken pot pie is it’s comfort food. It’s hot and it’s creamy and eating it feels like you’re nine years old again, cradling a cup of chicken soup—but it’s even better! with a flaky crust!—so while I know it’s July and it’s humid and many of us are heading to the pool or the beach or the lake house, and so salads and grilling and fresh fruit sounds more like the norm, bookmark this one (rainy days or not!) because it’s good.

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Oh, and while you’re at it, bookmark “Dinner: A Love Story” and make it a must-read. I’m so glad we did.

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