About a week ago, Tim and I made a quick stop at McKay’s, which, for the record, is the largest, cleanest used bookstore I’ve ever been to in my life. Set high up off Old Hickory Boulevard on Nashville’s west side, McKay’s exterior looks more like a bulk warehouse shopping center than a place that makes it easy for anyone to walk in and buy or sell old books any day of the week. You…
I go to used bookstores for the same reason I look into windows when we’re driving down residential streets at night: I like to imagine the people inside. The same way I fix my gaze on the warm glow of a table illuminated by candlelight or the man who’s sitting in his recliner all alone, I pick up a hardcover, tracing over the handwriting, wondering about the person who underlined that passage or the reader…
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;…
Here is the ugly truth: When I eat too much ice cream, I get sick. But I love ice cream. Saturday night, at around 10:30 PM, I couldn’t say no to a big, frothy milkshake at Stella’s Diner, orange and vanilla like a Creamsicle. For what it’s worth, it was delicious. And I don’t know if it was the milkshake itself, or the combining of said milkshake with scrambled eggs, two-and-a-half pancakes (not all three…
The story of these vanilla bean cupcakes with salted caramel frosting is bittersweet—a perfect example of what you shouldn’t do, and I don’t just mean with recipes.
It’s the same thing I’d tell my teenage self, that cocky girl who felt she had the future in her control. Looking her square in the eyes, my hands tight on her shoulders as I shake them slightly, I’d tell her, whatever you do, if you can just remember this one thing: Don’t set unfair expectations. (On my way out, I might also add that a little styling product could do wonders for your wavy hair, but that has nothing to do with these cupcakes.)
Those simple words would have saved me a lot of heartache, trite as it sounds. If I could have learned then that when someone hurts your feelings, it’s possibly unintended; or that when it is intended, that person could be coming from a very dark, unhappy place that deserves your pity not your anger; and that, most importantly, whatever hurt your feelings, you’ve probably said and done something very similar or worse—maybe I would have learned to cut people some slack—that, and spent a few less nights listening to depressing music or whining on the phone.
From where I sit today, I know setting someone or something on a pedestal is probably the absolute worst thing you can do to it. The moment you demand things must be, you set yourself up to be devastated when they aren’t. With some things—a job that provides paychecks, for example—it’s fair to be demanding; with others—a friend that forgets to call you back or never returns your e-mails—it’s not.
But now I’m getting carried away with myself. Back to the cupcakes. From the moment I got the Chow.com e-mail, luring me with words like “irresistible” and “flecked with vanilla,” I built these vanilla bean cupcakes up to be the most marvelous I would have ever had.
I can’t stop talking about the weather, which I guess isn’t very new to you all. I tend to do this a lot, and I think maybe I should have been a gardener or a botanist or something. I am so aware of what’s going on outside. The two years I belonged to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, I literally went every week, sometimes more than once, just to be outdoors, away from big buildings and heavy traffic, to sit in grassy fields with a book or walk through forests of fallen leaves. I’ll admit too that I feel this insane sense of wonder at the changing seasons, that watching days of rain and gusts of wind turn autumn into winter amazes me every year and that the first warm days of spring, which hint at winter’s end, are enough to make me powerfully optimistic in areas of my life that have no connection whatsoever to the weather. Even though I know what’s coming in some sense, the fact that it does and that I have absolutely no control over it makes me feel hopeful, happy to trust that which is greater than I.
Here in Chicago, we are having the most gorgeous February days I can remember—warm breezes, melting snow, the need for light jackets and not hooded parkas. I drive down the street to people jogging—wearing shorts, no less! And even though I know this can’t last, I also know we’re near the end. We are climbing down the hill of winter, with much more momentum (or at least more daylight), and I am thrilled. It’s enough to make me waltz into the produce section of the grocery store and pick up two celery roots, having no idea what their price was, let alone what I’d do with them (and then later just to chalk it up as a learning experience that one was rotted). It’s enough to make me clean and organize a bunch of files on a Saturday afternoon. And that same Saturday, while I wore a tank top and jeans and sat next to an open window, it was enough to inspire me to make ice cream.
I recently came into possession of an ice cream maker, complete with its instructional guide, and I don’t know what I was expecting, other than that it would be difficult to use. It wasn’t.