Closing the Book

June 11th, 2013 · 84 Comments · Dinner, Rituals

Something momentous has happened in the past month and I haven’t even let you in on it. Not because I’ve been keeping it a secret, but because I just didn’t know how to tell you. And also, I wasn’t exactly sure how to deal with it myself.

In truth, the story begins a little over a year ago, on my birthday, April 2012. At the usual celebratory breakfast, there were a few gifts scattered on the table and Abby, the self-appointed VP and Director of Birthday Events in our house, chose the order in which I’d be unwrapping. There was a small box that looked like jewelry (#1); a medium box (#2) that, I’d eventually find out, held a dove-shaped candy dish (both girls know that I’m a sucker for anything bird-related); and a tablet-sized box, wrapped in leftover snowflake-print holiday paper.

“This is last,” Abby said. “It’s the best one.” She looked conspiratorially at her father.

Hmmm,” I said shaking it. “What could it be?” I like to take my time unwrapping, because I know it drives the girls crazy.


The paper came off fast to reveal a crimson box. In gold across the middle, it read “Liberty of London.”

Hmmmmm….I like where this is going”


Inside was a blank notebook with a midnight-navy leather cover, embossed with ornate vines and leaves. ”Holy cow!” I said. “It’s so beautiful.” The only thing I like more than birds is a blank notebook. “Thanks!”

“It’s your next dinner diary,” Andy said. My first dinner diary, as you likely know by now, chronicles fifteen years’ of dinners. It, too, was a gift from Andy, though he didn’t know what it would become when he bought it for me a few months after we got married.

The only way I know how to explain what happened next is by using this phrase we often deploy in my house: Emotional Lockdown. It describes the phenomenon of shutting down what you are feeling in order to get through what you’re feeling without completely breaking apart inside. One might say I’ve been in a state of perpetual Emotional Lockdown all June-long, in anticipation of my eldest graduating from her storybook sweet elementary school next week. Sometimes, the passage of time, the change of an era, is just too much for me to bear.

“So who wants more pancakes?” I said to no one in particular, locking away both the journal and the heartburn back where they belonged. In a box, out of sight.

Andy stared at me, incredulous.

“That’s it!???” he said. “I thought I knocked that one out of the park! You’re almost done with your dinner diary. You need a new one!”

“I like it! Who said I didn’t like it?!?”

“So then what was that reaction?”

“Well. I’m not done with the first diary yet. It’s hard to think about a new one right now.”

“Wow,” Andy said. “That is dark. I’m just sticking to birds next time.” He got up and cleared the girls’ syrup-smeared breakfast plates.

I wasn’t lying. I did like the book. (How could I not? It was freaking gorgeous.) I just didn’t like what it stood for. And the original diary still had a dozen pages left, which roughly translated to one more year of dinner recording. Another year for me to think about all that had transpired since I cracked the spine on it fifteen years ago. Another year for me to decide whether or not I even wanted to start a new diary, now that I am coming to terms with the fact that these eras don’t go on forever. They have last pages. They have graduations. They wrap themselves in white towels instead of the ones with hoodies that have floppy puppy ears. They tell you to dismantle the dollhouse and store it in the basement, next to the box with the words “crib bedding” scribbled across the top in black Sharpie.

Periodically since my birthday, Andy would wander into my office where the Liberty journal lived, tucked away on a shelf, pick it up, and shake his head. “I will never understand your reaction to this.”

Easy, I thought. I was in lockdown, not willing to close the book on the era that began on February 22, 1998 with Andy’s childhood recipe for Chicken Cacciatore, and ended on May 12, 2013, with a Mother’s Day dinner at my sister’s house, where both my siblings, both my parents, my brother-in-law, his parents, and six cousins raised milks and Chardonnays to the first beautiful spring evening of the season. In between those two meals were holiday charcuterie spreads for old high school friends; beef stews and baked pastas for new work friends; Fourth of July barbecues on our Brooklyn rooftop, where we watched millennium fireworks light up downtown Manhattan and the Twin Towers; tortilla pies and lasagnas for college roommates who had their first babies; a grilled soy-limey swordfish for a couple we knew in our hearts to be soul mates, but who would break up five years and two kids later; many million Mark Bittman recipes (especially this one) that pretty much defined the era; spaghetti and meatballs for the Seinfeld finale, pasta with yogurt and caramelized onions for the Palin-Biden debate; breakfast burritos for American Idol every Thursday in the spring of 2011; coq au vin for the first dinner we cooked as new parents; grilled turkey dogs for our first dinner in our first ever apartment that came with a mortgage; take-out pizza with my entire family on the night we moved to our suburban Dutch Colonial (me=seven months pregnant, me=ravenous); mail-order ribs for end-of-the-school-year “bus stop parties;” Grimaldi’s pizza and Junior’s cheesecake for Andy’s Brooklyn-themed 30th birthday party; Andy-made paella, with homemade aioli, for my 30th birthday party; more than fifty birthday cakes for over fifty birthday celebrations; freezer dinners that helped two working parents survive two kids under two; four long-table, champagne-filled dinners from Phoenix to Kiawah Island to New York to Larchmont, celebrating each of our four parents hitting 70; dinners spent mourning the loss of two special uncles; Bugiali’s Minestrone; Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese; Nobu’s Miso-glazed Cod; Jim Lahey’s pizza; David Chang’s Brussels Sprouts; Andy Ricker’s Pad Thai; Fish cakes! My God did we eat a lot of fish cakes! Easter Hams every spring at our daughters’ great-grandmother’s house, until 2008, when she died at age 93; Passover briskets for seders presided over by my father, who once cried at the table remembering his father presiding over his childhood seders; the relentless — the blessedly relentless — roll-out of stir-fries and burgers and pizzas and baked potatoes and pork chops and Grandma Jody’s chicken at our family dinner table night after night after night.

When I think too much about all that happens around that dinner table, it’s hard to know what to do next.

“I’m going to be 57 when I finish the next diary,” I told Andy finally. Adding, as usual, God willing. “And Phoebe is going to be 26, which is how old I was when I got engaged.”

Upon hearing that, Andy — who, I might add, looked like he was in physical pain flipping through Phoebe’s elementary school yearbook the other night — started showing telltale signs of impending lockdown himself. The hand went up and his head turned away. “Stop. Stop,” he said. “Just start writing, would you?”

So here we go.

 Page One: Abby snapped the above photo to record my first entry: Cobb Salad.

My New Diary. I’ve been keeping this one for almost a month, but it still feels like I’m cheating on someone when I log in a meal.

Old Diary, Page One. Some of these recipes are still in the rotation: Curried Chicken with ApplesChicken Pot PieScalloped Potatoes. And, now that I think about it, some of the recipes that have dropped from the rotation, are probably due for a comeback. (Next up: Amatriciana sauce!)

Old Diary, Last Page. After fifteen years, the original diary has completely ripped from its binding. These are the last two pages. On the left are ideas I scribbled three years ago — ideas I thought would make good posts for a blog I thought I might start one day.

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A Weekly Meal Plan for YOU

June 21st, 2012 · 36 Comments · Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

Ok guys — didn’t I say right there on page 2 of the book that in order to kickstart the dinner habit, you are not in any way whatsoever required to start writing down what you are cooking and eating in a dedicated diary? So what is up with all the emails* telling me that you are starting your own books and filling them with chilled soups and grilled fish tacos and other simple, delicious-sounding summer dinners? Do you not know you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of obsessiveness and ridicule and…simple, delicious-sounding summer dinners?

Well anyway, I was thinking this morning that since I was the one who got you into this whole mess, the least I could do is help you kickstart some weekly planning. So book owners, you are welcome to download a PDF of the line-up that I intend to scribble into my own diary next week. It’s been hot in New York the past few days and this menu (including shopping list) was designed with that in mind. And, also, with the Really?-Dinner-is-Here-Again? cook in mind. All you have to do to access the plan is click here and type in the secret code, i.e. the last word on page 137. (Or, for Kindle readers: location 39% – 2151 of 5506, the word right above “November.”)

And non-book owners, what are you waiting for? Now that I’ve put my diary-inspired mania out there, and you have access to the meals that have seen me through fourteen years of first jobs and working late and eating in shifts and witching hours and picky eaters and two cursed egg-haters and dinners at the beach and in front of the World Cup and the Olympics and American Idol — well, now that all of this is out there, I’m going to be presenting these book-based meal plans as bonus features and I don’t want to feel guilty about leaving you behind! It’s bad enough that I’ve sent all these poor unsuspecting souls down the diary road. So, as Andy would say, let’s do this thing!

*If you have not heard back from me yet, please forgive the delay. Please do not mistake this delinquency for ungraciousness or apathy. I’ve read (and sometimes re-read) every note and will eventually repsond to every single one.

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Back Pocket Quiche

August 17th, 2010 · 10 Comments · Dinner, Vegetarian

When my childhood best friend Jeni got married ten years ago, my mom and I threw her a shower in our house. I still remember the menu. Probably because I wrote it down in my Dinner Diary but also because it was so perfect if I do say so myself! There was a baked goods and pastry spread, a smoked salmon and bagels station, and my mom and I each baked a quiche — one vegetarian and one classic ham and gruyere. I hadn’t ever made one before and couldn’t believe how simple it was (totally back-pocket-worthy). The only problem I had was with the frozen pie crust I bought. It came in one of those ugly aluminum pie plates so I attempted to transfer it to a prettier, more shower-appropriate one…and ended up cracking the dough. So I smushed the crust into a ball, spread it out again with a rolling pin, and placed it in my nice dish. Later, when Jeni’s mom (who also happens to be Rosa, one of my kitchen heroes) was deciding which quiche to eat, she pointed to mine and said “You know that one is going to be better because the crust is homemade.” I laughed a little uneasily — but because she was one of my kitchen heroes, and because I was secretly proud that my crust did indeed look all artisanal and rustic, I didn’t confess to my crime. And I’m embarrassed to admit that in the decade since, I have become a repeat offender.


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