Friday, September 18, 2015

Brick & Mortar: A Full Restaurant Review

Thirty-Seventh Birthday

Even though Brick & Mortar has been open only five months, I can sense immediately upon my arrival that the restaurant has settled into its groove. 

With my husband and mother in tow, I walk through the doors at seven, happy to find shelter from another rainy evening. The dimly lit, intimate interior of the restaurant is welcoming. A wine bar dominates the back wall, and behind it are tastefully displayed bottles. Potted plants hang from repurposed pallets above the bar, and the walls are paneled with reclaimed wood planks. A picture window at the front of the restaurant provides ample opportunity for people-watching along Central Avenue. The total effect is an interesting blend of modern lines with rustic finishes, which turns out to be a nice reflection of Brick & Mortar’s offerings. 



The dinner menu is diverse. So too is the lengthy wine menu. We order a bottle of wine that our server, Lance, recommends — a Bordeaux-style dark and fruity red blend. It’s my birthday, so for food, my mom, husband, and I decide to go for it, ordering as much on the menu as we can without making ourselves sick. 

Carpaccio of Beef Tenderloin with House-Made Ravioli

Our strategy is to target variety, sampling many of the small plates. Our first course is the carpaccio of beef tenderloin with poached egg ravioli, parmesan, and microgreens. The beef is a delicate cut, and the ravioli is pillowy. The egg oozes from the pasta when I pierce it with my fork. This first course is indicative of everything we would try that night: complementing and contrasting flavors and textures placed on a single plate. 

Flatbread with Prosciutto and Fig Preserves

Next, Lance brings us a savory flatbread topped with prosciutto, crumbled bleu cheese, greens, and fig jam. Flatbreads are pretty ubiquitous these days, but I find this far from disappointing.  The crisp crust is the perfect delivery system for this savory-sweet appetizer.

House Beet Cured Salmon with Juniper and Dill

As the evening rolls on, the small bar and dining room, mostly empty when we arrived, fills to capacity. Lance tells us, as he drops off a plate of bright beet-cured salmon with juniper and dill, that this is normal, even for a Wednesday night.

Next is the local gulf shrimp, served with baguette slices in a bowl of white beans. The  well-seasoned shrimp are lightly firm, and the beans make an unexpected but delightful pairing. 

Salmon Bite

Gambas Ajillo Featuring Gulf Shrimp

My favorite dish of the evening was our last, the veal meatballs and parmesan polenta. This is comfort food in its purest form. The polenta is creamy, and the meatballs melt in your mouth.

B&M Veal Meatballs with Creamy Parmesan Polenta

And while the meatballs may have been comforting, dessert is the biggest surprise. I choose to live on the edge and order a lavender panna cotta served with jamon, a Spanish cured ham, similar to prosciutto, covered in a local honey syrup. The flowery, mild panna cotta and the salty, sweet jamon are not meant to be eaten in one bite but alternating bites so that the contrasting colors, textures, flavors, and scents provide a balanced experience. The dessert is innovative and, I think, a win.

Lavender Panna Cotta and Jamon (ham)

At the end of our meal, Chef (and co-owner, with Hope Montgomery) Jason Ruhe stops by our table, introduces himself, and confirms that we’ve enjoyed everything. He’s personable and happy to talk about his new restaurant. For most of his career, Chef Ruhe has run a catering business with his partner, and he still does from the aptly named Brick & Mortar. Even though the dining area is small, in the back there is a huge kitchen with a 20-foot hood to accommodate the catering side of the enterprise. 

In the course of our conversation, I ask Jason where he received his training. He tells me he has no formal training. I'm surprised and impressed; his skill definitely betrays any lack of formal training and speaks to his experience in the industry.

Chef Ruhe’s personality permeates Brick & Mortar, translating into an atmosphere that feels like you’re having dinner at a friend’s place. I can speak for my whole party when I say that, from beginning to end, the staff was friendly, knowledgeable, and provided excellent recommendations. The food at Brick & Mortar was excellent, beyond a doubt, but it’s the service and the atmosphere that will keep me coming back.

Monday, September 7, 2015

I Might Be a Helicopter Mom

When I think of a “helicopter mom" of children my children’s ages, I think of a mom watching anxiously as her child attempts to piece together a puzzle, only to impatiently step in and complete the whole thing for her. I imagine a mom putting her child in one of those backpacks with the leash. I imagine a mom licking her hands and wiping them on her child’s head to smooth down stray pieces of hair and buttoning the highest button on her kid’s polo shirt before walking her into her classroom and unpacking her backpack for her. I imagine a mom arguing with the teacher over any grade lower than an A on her child’s report card, and furiously defending her child in the face of any note home about her child’s disruptive behavior in class.

I don’t imagine myself, someone who has learned better. Someone who tries to observe rather than interrupt or insert herself in her child’s play. Someone who keeps her voice calm and level and reacts nonchalantly to misbehavior. Someone who allows her kids to fail at an activity and suggests they try it again another time if they weren’t able to figure it out. Someone who used to be a classroom teacher and who knows to always side with the teacher, unless it’s something completely egregious.

In fact, it wasn’t until one evening during a visit my mom gently suggested that I might be a helicopter mom. I’d had one too many glasses of wine, and I immediately dismissed it, getting defensive. I’d told her that I would never allow my girls to have a male teacher, and she was shocked. “Don’t you think that’s a little crazy, Shan?” she asked. I explained that no, I didn’t, and that it was just a practical choice. I said that I knew very well that there were plenty of male teachers who were wonderful, but that there were also male teachers who were attracted to the profession because they were pedophiles, so to err on the side of caution, I would just request that my girls be switched to a different teacher if ever they were placed in a class with a male teacher. I said I would explain to the administration that I knew that they likely had great male teachers, and that I would take full responsibility and just say that I was an “anxious parent” (even though, in my mind, I’d only be saying that to try to endear myself to them, when, in reality, I’d be making a perfectly reasonable request). I would politely insist.

But maybe saying I was an anxious parent would be more of a confession than a manipulation. And maybe that anxiety is precisely what makes me a helicopter mom. In Parents magazine, Carolyn Datch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide, defines “helicopter parenting” as “a style of parents who are over focused on their children and who take too much responsibility for their children’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.” In the same article, another Ph.D., licensed psychologist Anne Dunnewold, calls it “overparenting.” “It means being involved in a child’s life in a way that is overcontrolling, overprotecting, and overperfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting.”
Those definitions are disturbing—disturbing because it sounds a lot like me. Disappointingly, after a quick mental inventory, I decide my mom is right. My name is Shannon, and I am a helicopter mom.
Here's a list of some of the things I do.
1. I yell at my kids at the mall (or restaurant or grocery store). I yell because Violet is running ahead of me, and Harper is following her lead and is now running ahead of me. I would have to jog to catch up, and to avoid that, I am trying to be discreet and just power walk. I say, loudly, "Slow down." I say, "Stop running." I say, "Violet, come here." And when that doesn't work, and once I imagine someone swooping in from around a corner and snatching them up, or a car hitting them when they've run into the parking lot, and me not being able to wrestle them free or pull them back because they are too far away, I panic. That's when I yell, "Stop running right now! I said stop! Stop!" Once I have caught up, I point my finger in their faces and say, "Never, ever run from me again." They always promise they won't, and then they always do it again.
2. I blame myself. When they whine because they haven't gotten their way, I decide that's because maybe I haven't always stuck to the "no" I'd given them, and so they've learned that if they whine enough, they will get their way. Because they are picky eaters, I've decided it's because I gave them some salty, sugary foods down the line, and once they'd had a taste of that, they decided they'd never try any new foods again. If they are really crabby, I decide it's because I haven't created enough of a calming breakfast and bedtime rhythm, and so they are suffering the consequences, or that I am not doing a good enough job being calm, so they are reacting to my mood, which is not always upbeat. I vow each night to do better, to keep in mind all of the things I've learned.
3. I'm too strict. Sometimes the word "no" is out of my mouth before I've really had time to consider it. Once I've said it, though, I try to stick to it, so even if we are in an area where it's okay to run, or even if I know Violet will wait for me on the next block if she rides her bike around the corner, where I can't see her, I've said no, so that is that. I also don't give them enough freedom to make their own choices. I feel like it's enough to give them a lot of food options at dinner and to occasionally pick out what they want to wear, or to pick out what they want to wear from two choices that I've provided, but what about all the other decisions in the day? Is it really that big of a deal if one night they want to skip a bath? Is it that big of a deal if they want to watch more television or stay a little bit longer at the park or at a friend's house?
4. I worry too much. When Violet was at a more relaxed school that didn't focus on academics, I worried that she wasn't learning enough and would fall behind. Now that she is a traditional school, I worry that there is way too much pressure and she will fall behind because she will end up hating school. If I've been too permissive with the TV one day, I worry that they will stop relying on their imagination and will forget how to entertain themselves. (On that front, I also worry that they won't have the ability to think creatively as they get older.) I worry every night that someone is going to break into the house and take them away from me, because, I wonder, how could I be so lucky to have these intelligent, funny, curious, kind little creatures? Will I really be allowed to be so deliriously in love with these kids for the rest of my life?
5. I'm a perfectionist. I read parenting blogs; I consult with parenting experts, sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists about parenting; I continue to set goals for myself based on everything that I've learned. When it looks like the piece of pottery my daughter is holding is about to fall and shatter into a million pieces on the floor, or my daughter has just spilled her juice all over the floor, my first instinct is to gasp. When they continue to not listen to me, my irritation builds and my instinct is to yell or to unfairly punish, just to really send the message. When they hit me or each other, I want to put them in their room and slam the door shut. Sometimes I even want to spank them. But I have learned better, so I try to use all of the tools that I have been provided. I try to make my voice calm, even though it is a struggle. I try to understand their point of view and be compassionate. I try to use natural consequences. I try to limit TV. I try to encourage them to find their own answers or figure it out for themselves, even though they are getting impatient and saying, "Ugh. Just show me how to do this." By setting myself up this way, trying to follow each and every rule I have for myself so that I can be the perfect parent, I fail every day. It does not feel good to feel like a failure every day.
I know what the dangers are to helicopter parenting: You end up with insecure kids who can't do anything for themselves and who are completely entitled. You end up with kids who absorb all of that anxiety and become anxious themselves. You end up with kids who resent you.
But I know I'm doing a lot of things right (hence all the "lay-off," "let-kids-be-kids," RIE stuff that I practice), and I know a lot of my fears are founded. I know I'm well-meaning. I know I love them like crazy and just want the best for them. I know that I have availed myself of so many resources and that I am trying every day to be the best parent that I can be. I also know that, in this day and age, I am not alone. Surely all is not lost. The first step is admitting you have a problem. (Check.) The second step, according to an article called "How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Helicopter Parenting," in Empowering Parents, you need to just deal with yourself, instead of projecting those anxieties onto them. I consider myself pretty self-aware, so I don't think that will be too much of a problem. I know why I am anxious, and I do have some techniques within my grasp to combat that anxiety. So I think—I hope —I am not a lost cause.



Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sweet Peas Cafe Restaurant Review

Owner Danielle Pastore

Three cheers for Sweet Peas Café in downtown Dunedin, just off of Main Street on Virginia Lane.
Tears are usually involved when I take my two children—a five-year-old and a three-year-old—out to eat. They don’t want anything on the menu. They want to get up and roam around. They are only distracted for two minutes by the standard crayons and paper kids’ menus typically doled out to youngsters.
That’s because most restaurants don’t cater to families, and even if they claim to, they don’t really. Often families are ushered into a booth in the back of the restaurant so as not to disturb the other diners, and they eat their greasy meal quickly so they can get out the door before there is a total meltdown. And when my kids were babies, I noticed, with scorn, that many bathrooms didn’t even have changing tables. On a handful of occasions, I had to put paper towels down on a dirty floor to change my baby’s diaper. And, likely, the restaurants only have kid-menu options like chocolate milk, hotdogs, and macaroni and cheese, and nothing for the kids to do, unless it’s—gasp—an iPad or some kind of electronic tabletop game, which is not ideal in this age of organic-eating, superfood-loving, anti-helicopter, anti-media parenting.

Dreamy Pancakes

Enter Sweet Peas, described by owner Danielle Pastore as not kid- or family-friendly but “parent-friendly.” The little red bungalow with a yard shaded by oak trees offers organic, homemade, hearty dishes for breakfast and lunch, like the bacon, kale, and tomato sandwich with house-made honey-mustard dressing, served on wheatberry bread. For breakfast, one of the menu items is a porridge that can be served with fresh or dried fruit, organic flax, organic cream, and/or brown sugar. Or there is a less-healthy-but just-as-delicious option: the steaming stack of organic pancakes drizzled with warm maple syrup, which is what I (and my girls) choose for our Sunday-morning visit. Breakfast is my daughters’ favorite meal, so I was happy to learn that it was served all day. Both breakfast and lunch dishes are prepared by head chef Mike Webb, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy.

Fair Trade Coffee

We arrive just as the restaurant is opening, at 9 a.m., and eat indoors, in the restaurant’s quaint dining room. We take the spot near the front windows, with a large coffee table and wing-back chairs. We eat hungrily, licking our fingers clean, and then move outdoors to the play yard. I finish my Java Planet coffee—“the only organic, Fair Trade roaster in the Tampa Bay area”—and watch as my girls dance through the bubbles emitting from a bubble machine, move on to play with sidewalk chalk, and then play pretend (“mommy and baby”) in the playhouse, which is a replica of the restaurant. They are happy: I hear them giggling as they dart around under the large canopies of the oak trees, and I am free to relax.


As I sip my coffee, I chat with Danielle, who tells me that the restaurant is the recipient of the Green America People & Planet Green Business Award, which “recognizes businesses for their dedication to a green economy.” So Danielle can now use the money from the award to add a full-fledged garden to her 1,600-square-foot, North American Butterfly Association (NABA)-certified butterfly habitat. She also invites me to come to one of their weekly events, like the child CPR class or family yoga class. I tell her that, regrettably, I can’t go because I have to work. But I appreciate that Sweet Peas both supports and enriches the community by hosting events that appeal to new moms (like breastfeeding workshops), parents devoted to healthy living (organic, gluten-free, and non-GMO foods), and families attending local schools (like the nearby Waldorf school).

Kids' Table

I excuse myself to go to the restroom, and Danielle offers to keep an eye on my girls until I get back. I’m happy to find that there is indeed a changing table— a changing pad atop a dresser— which I find home-like, comforting. When I get back, I tell her that I will leave her alone, that she is free to get back to her customers. I take a deep breath and savor the calm and the respite from the heat. This is a good start to my morning: I will leave refreshed, which (hopefully) means I will be more patient with my kids for the rest of the day, which, I know, is what they deserve, and they are doing what they do best: play. In fact, when I perused Sweet Peas’ website the night before, I saw that its slogan was “Eat, Play, Love.” And for me and my girls, that’s as it should be when you go out to eat as a family, and for us, on this lazy Sunday, that’s just what we’re doing.


Friday, August 28, 2015

Up in Flames

From ages ten to thirty-two, I kept a journal. I remember my first one, a white, lined book with a lock that I was very excited about. It was hard for me to fill those pages. My life was so bland: school, homework, dress-up, Barbies, my mom and brother, sleepovers. At ten, the only entries that necessitated that lock involved boys and whether or not I thought they liked me. At that time, I wasn't really interested in them. I just knew that it was a good thing in fact, one of the most important things — to be pretty. To be pretty was to be liked, which was to be happy. Because I didn't always feel so happy, I must not have been pretty, and therefore not liked by boys. Any break in this chain of flawed thinking led to a collapse of my prepubescent pyramid of self-worth. I was of course completely unaware that I was only searching for validation, likely because my father was not a part of my life, but I did know that I didn't want my mom to find out that I was thinking about boys because I knew somewhere deep down that she would be disappointed in me, and because I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. So I made sure I always locked that journal, and I kept it out of view, under my mattress.

That was just the start of my quest to receive validation from boys. By high school, I needed a different journal. I had no problem filling the pages then because I'd reached a crippling level of self-consciousness. I felt this enormous pressure to be happy because all of the adults around me told me that these years would be the best years of my life because I was young and beautiful (in the way that teenage girls are). Yet I didn't feel happy most of the time. My mom and I were fighting; my missing father made me feel abandoned, which swiftly turned from sadness into rage; at times I was in arguments with different girlfriends, so there were periods that I had no friends and had to sit alone in the cafeteria; my grades slipped. All of this made me feel unloved, inadequate, and at times depressed, and I couldn't understand why happiness was so elusive for me.

Once again I was obsessed with whether or not people, not just boys, thought I was pretty. I felt that being desired by boys and the envy of girls was my only card to play, so I was desperate for proof that I was in fact attractive. Whether or not a boy liked me consumed my thoughts, and I filled my journal with complaints about my home life, confessions of jealousy, declarations of love for my boyfriend, when I had one, and every horrible recurring thought about myself. I was deeply fearful of someone reading my journal, so I kept it behind the bookshelf in my room. Every time I wanted to write in it, I had to cram my arm in the small space between the bookshelf and my closet wall and drag it out, hoping none of the pages would tear.

In my twenties and into my early thirties, the contents of my journal were similar to the depressing entries of my teen years, minus the boys. The only other difference was that I was, by that point, capable of understanding my motivations behind certain behaviors, the traumas in my life that heavily contributed to the way I was feeling, the ways in which my parents had failed me, and that I needed to love myself first. I did, however, allow myself to feel proud of my accomplishments, and this made me less self-conscious, but those moments of contentment, no matter how fleeting (or perhaps because they were fleeting), never made their way into my journal. My journal was still a place where I could vent all of my frustrations and pain.

By the time I had my first daughter, my journals were lined up on my bookshelf, not tucked away in some dark place. I became a self-conscious journalist because I believed that one day, if there wasn't already, between my husband and my mom, there would be an audience for these journals. So I made an effort to write happier entries, even though I still struggled with feelings of anxiety, ineptitude, and depression. I don't believe I was clinically depressed—in my life, as in the other years in my life in which I was journaling, there were many pleasurable experiences. I had a good education, a career, a husband, and a child, and I traveled places I'd always wanted to go. But it was an effort to hang on to those feelings of joy, so it was difficult to record them in my journal. 

At one point I thought I would one day give all of my journals to my daughter. I thought that when she was old enough she would find comfort in them because she might experience those same feelings of alienation. The journals would make our relationship more intimate, and she would always feel safe enough to open up to me. But as I paged through them after she was born, I became disgusted with the entries and embarrassed by them because, once again, I hadn't been able to sustain the level of happiness that I thought I should be able to. I decided my daughter would never want to read how unhappy her mother was, and that she might not—if I parented her the way I should—feel the same misery that I had.

One night I gathered them all and took them into my backyard, where I'd created a small bonfire. Without hesitation, I threw them all in and watched them burn. At the time, I had convinced myself that this was almost some sort of goddess ritual, in which I was cleansing myself of the past. It felt cathartic to watch them all go up in flames. I felt pleased with my choice. I had rid myself of those feelings, and I could move forward and parent my child and push ahead in my career, and be happy.

I am almost thirty-seven now. I have two children who are my greatest joys and who have given me the gift of a lifetime of reconciling past hurts, growing, and becoming the person I have always wanted to become. I have a good job and a good salary. I have a nice house. I take a vacation, no matter how modest, every year. I have a couple of good friends and a strong marriage. If I were asked if I was happy, I would say yes. But that is not entirely true; gratitude is not the same as happiness. Even if I feel pleasure every day, I also feel pain. I feel anger. I still am looking for validation.

Facebook is a trigger. I love it because I want to stay connected, but I hate it because everyone looks so happy. Everyone is so successful. Everyone appears to be having more fun than I am. No one else has to work through their emotions at moments every day to try to reach a level of contentment. Observing my friends' lives through the lens of Facebook makes them look so easily full of joy, and mostly empty of sadness.

I combat the urge to keep a journal these days with this blog. But because it’s meant for public consumption, I keep everything as neat and tidy as possible and try not to leave piles of negativity in the corners. I'm not sure that my journal today, if I kept one, would look much different from my past journals. I know that I could not fill it will joyful entry after joyful entry. I don't mean to suggest that I go through life weeping and complaining, but I do know that happiness for me doesn't come easily.

Even though I know I’m a good mother, a good wife, and a good employee, I am still disappointed in myself. I still have that nagging, critical voice in my head telling me that I have not yet achieved enough, that I can do better, that I should have more. I am angry at myself for even having those feelings when I know that I am lucky and I know that there are so many people who have it so much worse than I do.

I believe there's value in being able to confront these feelings, being able to poke and prod at them until they tell you where they come from. A part of me misses those journals that I burned up in my backyard. They may not have told a happy story, but they contained a truth. Maybe not the whole truth, but those feelings were real, and they helped shape who I am today. So even though I lit fire to the paper artifacts, I remain the original document, and maybe instead of permanently tattooing all my negativity on the pages of a journal, I should become more adept at dealing with my feelings in real time, writing my story with action rather than ink.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: Jennifer Weiner's Who Do You Love

Jennifer Weiner's much-anticipated new novel, Who Do You Love, was just released this month, and I swept through it in a week. Like her other novels, I was drawn to her three-dimensional characters, the way their lives intertwine, how each has his or her own arc that reaches a gratifying conclusion, and her style, which is smart and confessional with dead-on similes that echo the characters' feelings. Like other writers who get stuffed into various genres or categories, Weiner is often lumped in with chick lit, and this is unfortunate, because I believe fiction of any genre is primarily about characters and the world they inhabit, both the conscious and the unconscious, which Weiner brings to light.

So, too, did I appreciate her wit, which, in this novel, is mostly expressed through Rachel, one of two of the novel's protagonists. The other main character is Andrew Landis, who later goes by "Andy." Andy and Rachel's lives first cross paths at Miami Children's Hospital in 1985, when they are both eight years old. Andy is in the waiting room with a broken arm, and Rachel is being hospitalized for a congenital heart condition known as tricuspid atresia. Rachel has escaped from her room to the waiting room to collect gossip for her hospital friend, Alice, who has leukemia.

When Rachel and Andy part ways, neither can forget the other, and their lives cross paths many times, from that first meeting, in 1985, to when they are thirty-eight years old, in 2015.

It's the classic Billy Joel situation: an uptown girl and a downtown boy. Andy is biracial and lives in a depressed area of Philadelphia; he has a father who has passed away and a neglectful mother; and his clothes come from the church donation pile. He doesn't fit in anywhere —he is friendless —and he is tormented about being poor. But Andrew retaliates and gets into fights, until the day he realizes that he can use his anger to run, lightning fast and hard, which is when he finally feels free. Eventually, a neighbor, Mr. Sills, takes him under his wing, and Andy is given a paper route that allows him to run as fast as he can, from door to door.

Rachel is Jewish, from an upper-middle-class family, and has overprotective parents. Despite being hospitalized for her heart condition many times throughout her young life, she eventually carves out a normal childhood, with best friends, sleepovers, boys, and indulgent shopping trips.

Given their markedly different circumstances, it seems that the two will never be able to be together, yet they are, again and again, at different points in their lives. What's clear is that they love each other, but the question becomes whether that love is enough to overcome their internal struggles and build a relationship that lasts.

The star-crossed lovers' relationships with everyone else in their lives—Andy's mother, Lori; Rachel's fearful helicopter parents; Mr. Sills; Alice; boyfriends and girlfriends along the way; classmates—shift and change. There are some losses, and some relationships reach a reconciliation, while others do not. 

To amplify the tension, Weiner also provides Rachel and Andy with counterparts who embody their worst fears about themselves. For Rachel, it's her high school classmate Bethie Botts, a hostile foster kid whom Rachel, one night, humiliates and belittles. For Andy, it's his girlfriend Maisie, a Sports Illustrated model who "was made for cities, for late nights, for glamorous night clubs, for Champagne and sushi, not small towns, fish sticks, and generic ginger ale."

For years, Andy goes through life feeling unworthy of the good things that come his way. Rachel, who comes from a life of privilege, worries that she contributes to his feelings of unworthiness. When the two do come together, they act as a mirror for each other, as any intimate relationship should, dredging up each other's worst fears about themselves, each pushing the other to overcome them.

The first line of Who Do You Love comes from Rachel, who says, "I was born with a broken heart." As we read, we find out that not only was she born with a broken heart but she will have one again and again. But will her heart (and Andy's) be mended? At the beginning of the novel, Rachel asks her friend Alice, who is suffering, if it hurts. Alice says that it does, that in the end "It's going to hurt a lot." For the brokenhearted it always does, and Weiner does an excellent job fulfilling this prophecy for her characters, leaving the reader to wonder throughout the narrative if Rachel and Andy remain brokenhearted or if they commit to each other once and for all, as two whole adults who have licked clean their wounds.

Creating wounded characters is something Jennifer Weiner does best. Not only are her characters sympathetic because they are wounded, but they are sympathetic because they are like us. They have emotional scars; they have hurdles to overcome; they fail and then move on because there is no other choice, and then fail again. The characters in Who Do You Love are all just doing the best that they can, like all the rest of us. As a reader, we invest in them because we believe in them.  Given the chance, that binding label of chick lit stripped away, Rachel and Andy will breathe, because Weiner's deft touch and insight into the human condition has truly given them life.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Standing Before the Fire

There was a time when I hated my hair. According to my mom, when I was a baby, people always commented on how beautiful my hair was and would lean into my stroller to touch it. In elementary school, I never really thought about it, but through middle and high school, I was embarrassed by it, even ashamed. I wasn’t brave enough or rebellious enough in middle school for hair dye, but I used Sun-In in vain. If I got any compliments on my hair at all, it was always from elderly people, and I clung onto those with an iron fist. And this was long before the whole “ginger” thing came about. Fortunately, I was never tormented about my hair, but occasionally people would ask me, stupidly I thought, if I was born with red hair, as if I was once a blond and it turned red in the sun. Or they would ask me if my hair color was real. Occasionally, I even got the dreaded “Do the carpets match the drapes?” question. When they asked that, I was equal parts mortified and shocked at their ballsiness. I never had a quick-witted retort at the ready, so I would just ignore the question, as if I hadn’t heard.

It turned out that all I needed was a boyfriend to help stave off those feelings of inadequacy. Everyone I was friends with wanted a boyfriend in high school, but not everyone was fortunate enough to have one. So if I did, I reasoned, then I must have some appeal, despite the red hair. In college, I was teased by my roommates about my pale skin, freckles, and skinniness, but not my red hair, and again I didn’t have too much of a problem receiving attention from the opposite sex, so while I didn’t see it as a virtue, I knew it at least helped me stand out. Really, it took all the way into my thirties to realize that there was no masking my red hair. Every once in a while I would highlight my hair, or—once—dye it what was supposed to be brunette but came out a blackberry shade. My hair refused to hold any other color. It rejected even the best hairstylist’s efforts and brazenly shone through, screaming, announcing itself like stubborn graffiti that refuses to be painted over. So now I leave it alone. I let it grow long and wild. I let it demand to be seen, whether appreciated or not.

What does it say about me that it took me so long to accept my hair for what it is? My friend Lisa, referring to The Reddleman in Hardy’s The Return of the Native, said “Beauty and ugliness work in the same ways, I think, and pose some of the same questions.” When I consider that statement, I realize that is how I feel and have felt about my hair: that my hair is both ugly and beautiful. If nothing else, it certainly is provocative. And provocativeness can ignite both feelings of contempt and admiration. As for me, I have become comfortable with my hair being a part of who I am — maybe not the sole defining feature but an extension of my personality, the part of me that won’t be tamed.

Redheadedness is the stuff of legends and myths, associated with such things as witches, vampires, and even aliens, which has caused some problems for redheads throughout history. Even though most cultures have evolved past such fanciful thinking, my own hair remains divisive, with people either loving it or hating it. But for me, this hair of mine is indifferent to any objections or praise; it has taught me to be indifferent, too. People might call me a redhead, but I know I am not. After all, you can’t paint an entire picture with just one color.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Fodder & Shine Restaurant Review

Made it!

Fodder & Shine, in my old stomping ground of Seminole Heights, opened its doors in December of 2014, a few years after my husband and I moved to the ʼburbs to raise our two children. The restaurant embodies what I miss about Seminole Heights: the highly praised culinary scene and the authentically creative culture, which lacks most of the hipsterish pretense that often accompanies such places. The neighborhood—full of 1920s bungalows in various stages of renovation—is attracting some cutting-edge restaurateurs who are offering high-quality food at an affordable price, which is just what husband and wife Michelle and Greg Baker (the head chef and James Beard Foundation award nominee) have promised to do.
And they are coming through on their promise. First opening The Refinery, in 2010, with its constantly changing foodie-friendly menu, the couple earned the praise of critics and the loyalty of patrons. Now, with Fodder & Shine, the Bakers are exposing diners to a modern twist on Southern comfort food inspired by historic “Florida cracker” cuisine. Like The Refinery, Fodder & Shine offers a farm-to-table menu with the freshest locally sourced ingredients. Entrées range from $14 to $27, with a mix of traditional and original in-house cocktails ranging from $7 to $12.

Nice space.

I arrive at 6 on a Monday night. Right away, I can tell this restaurant appeals to a hang-out crowd. It’s a clean, uncluttered space with an expansive bar that highlights choice bottles on reclaimed-wood shelves and pays homage to the restaurant’s inspiration with the word “Florida” spelled out in lit metallic script. There are pool tables in the back and plenty of cozy booths in a contemporary shade of gray. Even though it’s early, the bar is busy with an after-work crowd, and a few of the booths are full.

Busy bar.

The water arrives in mason jars, and my cocktail of choice is the Fountain of Youth, a sweet, refreshing blend of white rum, coconut, and lime. A choice of four house-made spreads is on the list of appetizers, and I opt for the deviled ham. It arrives with salted house milk crackers and Cuban crostini, as well as a generous serving of pickled onions and jalapeño peppers. The spread is an elevated ham salad, with equal parts sweetness and heat, both amplified by the onions and peppers.

Deviled ham.

For my entrée, I order the cornmeal-fried quarter chicken, which comes with two sides. I choose the creamed kale and the bacon fat cornbread. The crust on the chicken is thin, crispy, and perfectly seasoned. It offers just the right amount of crunch to contrast the tenderness of the meat within. The creamed kale comes with leeks and a Swiss cheese-nutmeg creamy mornay sauce, and the sauce counters the typical bitterness of kale. The leaves are warm and wilted in the sauce, which is just enough to not overpower the kale. The slice of cornbread is huge—enough for two—and it is served with butter and local honey. It crumbles easily (the way cornbread should), and the best part is that delicate layer of bacon-fat crust.

Fried chicken.

Even though I am stuffed, I can’t resist dessert. Two red velvet brownies arrive drizzled with butterscotch. The brownies, reddened by beets, are so decadent that they nearly have the texture of a dark chocolate mousse. The cream-cheese icing is light but tangy. At the restaurant, I can’t eat more than a couple of bites, but once I am back at my house, I finish the remainder from my take-home box, licking my fork clean.

Red velvet brownies.

On my way out, I notice the owners have left impressions of their hands in the concrete with the year the restaurant opened. Obviously, the opening of their second restaurant was a milestone. And it’s a milestone for the neighborhood, too, keeping it on the map for food critics and hungry customers alike. Having just finished a generous meal there (two people, two entrées, two drinks each, an appetizer, and a dessert for $80), I feel like it’s a milestone for me, too. I’ve found a place where I can indulge in guilty pleasures, and I know I won't hesitate to go back.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Stress-Free Meals Part II

C'mon, it's not even a full baby carrot stick.

It's not like me to admit defeat, so I won't. I will say, though, that after following all the advice that I gave in my post Stress-Free Meal Times, I have had to make some adjustments. I hope that it worked for some. I know not all parents are as lucky as I am to have two stubborn little girls, and I did have some success with it, but if it's not going anywhere and you're sending your kids to bed hungry, it's time to make a change.
Food is one of the power struggles with my girls. I know that, little as they are, they have few things they can really control, and what goes in and out of their bodies (and when) is one of them, so naturally they hold on to it with an iron fist. My goal is to disengage from that power struggle. I would like them to eat the meals that I have prepared. Of course, I'd like them to eat vegetables. I'd like to be able to go out to dinner with them and have them find something on the menu that they like. But what my real agenda should be is to raise healthy eaters. That means not teaching them that sweets are a reward. That means not making meal times stressful. That means not forcing them to eat when they may not be hungry. That means taking myself out of the equation.
So I've taken to serving food family-style. Three and five are tough ages in terms of pickiness because many children have a fear of new foods during that time and growth may not be rapid, so their appetite may have slowed down, which only makes it easier for them to reject new foods.

The wine is never far away. 
So what I've taken to doing now is including foods that my kids enjoy that I am okay with them filling up on. Their choices are limited but not terrible in terms of healthiness. For us, this is usually eggs, strawberries, Applegate ham or turkey (or Applegate chicken nuggets), baby spinach leaves, carrots, bananas, grapes, or almonds. In one of the bowls, I put some of the food that I have made. I admit, it usually doesn't even make it onto their plate, but I encourage it. I'll say that they don't even have to eat it, although I think they should give it a try. If they want to just touch it or smell it, that works, too.
 Can you find the wine?
Another thing I've tried is to put a little bit of dessert on the side of their plate, so that I am not tempted to offer it as a bribe. If they don't want to eat their dinner, I don't make them. I will offer them something to eat before they go to bed. It may not be my preference, but it won't be junk food and it will help ease bedtime, which will make mornings go more smoothly. I might offer a banana or toast with peanut butter. I also don't allow them to say "yuck" at the table. I was hearing a lot of that, so if I hear it, they have to get down. They don't have to go to their room or into a time out, they just have to get down. I admit that at first this felt like a punishment for me, because I want us all to sit down at the dinner table together, but, at least with my girls, they don't want to get down, whether it's FOMO or just that they really enjoy spending time with us, so they have stopped using that word for the most part. Every once in a while, they still need to be reminded.
Again, much like the last post I wrote on picky eating, I wouldn't say that it's "working" in terms of them deciding that they like my food and will eat whatever I cook now. I think what really matters is that it "works" in terms of them enjoying meals with the family, not associating anxiety with food, feeling like they have some control, and having healthy eating practices.
Only time will tell if they become more adventurous eaters or what exactly their relationship with food will be, but I am hopeful that I am giving them a good start.