42 Meals: A Vacation Odyssey, The Overview

By Lisa

We’ve just returned from our annual family vacation, which this year involved a long an epic road trip from the Bay Area to San Diego, one of the most southern parts of our state.  Our initial destination was ComicCon in San Diego, which was a blast & included a preview of the upcoming Phineas and Ferb Movie,which is terrfic, if you like that sort of thing, which we do.  But the trip quickly morphed into a week at the Coronado beach, a 3-day visit at Disneyland, an excursion to Hearst Castle, and something Caroline came to call Mission-polooza: a visit to every California mission between our home and our destination.  I will not be writing about that part of the trip here.  (You can check my personal blog for follow-up and fallout on that score.)  But what is of interest to LTE readers is that for the first time ever, we stayed in hotels for the duration of our trip, which was a new experience for us.

For me, this meant a lot things: no cleaning, no sweeping, no making beds, no tidying up at the end of the day. Of course it also meant no marketing and no cooking. No farmers market. No prep. No meal planning.  Honestly, it was a terrific break, but I was nervous about many meal-related things including:

  • Cost
  • Getting the kids ready and out of the hotel for dinner.  Every night.
  • Table manners
  • Stamina–the day in, day out energy it takes to dine in restaurants
  • Finding enough variety in the food to keep us feeling energetic and healthy
  • Theme park food

We were right to worry about some of these things. Variety, for instance: we eat so much seasonal produce that by the end Finn was picking the cucumbers out of his dad’s water in search of fresh vegetables. And I may never again eat another Caesar salad, because at many of the theme parks we visited, this is the closest thing you can get to fresh vegetables.  I also discovered that left to their own devices and an unstoppable tidal wave of kids’ menus, even my accommodating and not-picky eaters will choose chicken tenders or pizza or burgers.  My daughter, who never ate a chicken finger in her life ordered these twice in our last three days.  It’s true she got the side of fruit salad, too, but it just goes to show the deeply subconscious appeal of the kids’ menu–even for a kid who doesn’t really eat like a kid.  And finally, it is costly to eat out all the time, so we were right to budget high for this part of our vacation.

But other things proved not to be problems. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising. In some sense, we’ve been training our kids from the time they were toddlers to eat out in restaurants, so the stamina, the manners, the getting ready, all these things were taken in stride. It surprised us. We stuck to our tried and true rules, and they worked for us through many different kinds of meals: in a car, at a pool, at a taqueria, in a fancy restaurant, in a lodge….Frankly, it was an enormous relief because in the weeks leading up to the trip we were not at all sure that the kids would make it through every meal without incident.  But they did, and at the last meal, a lovely little place in Carmel, we celebrated and we toasted them. While they ate pizza and a burger.

Up next: managing breakfast on the road.

Saying Yes

by Caroline

This past year, my 6 year-old got out of school an hour earlier than my 9 year-old, and we spent that hour in the school library or, on sunny days, in the park across the street. Once spring came, an ice cream truck parked at the entrance and as we crossed the street into the park every day, Eli would ask, automatically, “Can I have an ice cream?” And I’d say, just as automatically, “Nope,” and list the snacks I’d brought in my purse. It was a routine that caused no particular stress or bother; we didn’t need any legislation to ban the ice cream trucks, we just went on our way.

I don’t have a single good reason for my school year, week day ice cream ban (which is really too strong a word for this routine), and probably if Eli had lobbied harder I would have caved. But he didn’t, so I didn’t. We would play in the park for an hour, he would munch on an apple and a muffin and maybe some peanut butter crackers or a MoJo bar, and then we would pick up Ben and snack some more. I don’t think either of them feels at all deprived of sweets, and if you have read this blog any length of time, you also know they are not — it’s just that most of the time, I like to make them at home.

But when summer vacation comes, I feel like celebrating. Even though the weather in San Francisco isn’t so summery, I embrace the season with sandals and bright pink nail polish and home made ice cream and field trips with the kids to the latest ice cream and donut shops:

the menu at Dynamo Donuts

My friends tease me about my summer food enthusiasms, but my family is certainly not complaining. And when we travel, as we have been this last week (and as Lisa has written along the same lines) I am just a little sweeter, and even more inclined to say yes to treats. They are morale and energy boosters, they are a way to sample the local food culture, they are a break in a busy day of walking from one science museum to the next. On the ferry to San Juan Island last week, which seemed in some ways so foreign, the boys were delighted to find their favorite ballpark treat:

And after a surprisingly good lunch from the snack bar at one of Vancouver’s amazing public pools today, Eli chose from the standard ice cream menu:

While Ben bypassed that for a less typical post-swim snack:

This afternoon, flagging after a long walk from the planetarium to the Granville Public Market, we stopped for donuts, and we’re already looking forward to fudge tomorrow at the Capilano Suspension bridge, because apparently fudge is one of the things one buys to survive a walk across a sky-high suspension bridge, and because we are on vacation, and because it is fun to say yes.

Baking from a Mix

by Caroline

Some of my best baking experiences have been spontaneous efforts in unfamiliar kitchens. In the Outer Banks with my sister’s family one year, I made never-to-be-repeated cinnamon rolls, based on the white bread recipe on the bag of flour I bought in the market. I improvised a brioche dough by making the dough with milk instead of water, set it to rise and forgot about it till evening. So I punched the dough down, stuck it in the fridge for an overnight second rise, and rolled the dough out and filled it with a lot of butter, sugar & cinnamon, and raisins in the morning. I let it rise some more while I preheated the oven, then, unfamiliar with the oven’s controls, baked the rolls in a cooling oven for twenty minutes since I had inadvertently turned the heat off when I set the timer. But the rolls looked okay at that point, just a little pale, so I left them in, turned the oven on, and took them out when it reached baking temperature again. Like I said, never to be repeated.

Another year, in a Thanksgiving beach rental, I wound up making a chocolate pecan pie with my extra pie crust. I hadn’t needed the pumpkin pie back-up crust I’d made, my friend had extra pecans from her stuffing and I, of course, had plenty of chocolate. It’s become a Thanksgiving tradition for us now.

But baking did not really figure into my plans for three days in a cabin on San Juan Island last week. I was just looking forward to having a small kitchen to cook some simple summer meals, and I know my boys were, too. On our second night in Seattle, the first stop on our summer vacation, my 6 year-old, Eli, asked mournfully, “Mama, when will we eat home food again?” But baking, well, baking just takes a lot more kitchen overhead than fixing a quick pasta with market vegetables. I’m certainly able to use 5 pounds of flour in three days, but that’s not what this time was about. So, while the boys were excited to see that our cabin came equipped with scone and muffin mixes, I was skeptical about them. I confess I haven’t used a baking mix since I was in elementary school, and my brother and I would make (and eat) an entire Stir n’ Frost cake after school before my mom came home from work. These mixes, like those fabulous Stir n’ Frosts, required nothing, nothing but water, just like the original Betty Crocker mixes, before the company realized that people were more likely to buy them if they had to beat an egg and measure in some oil, so they’d feel like they were baking. But who am I to reject a nicely labeled bag of muffin mix, especially after a long day of orca-spotting? I have pretty high standards, but I’m not too fancy to turn down a free mix.

The package didn’t list any ingredients, just instructions to add a certain amount of water and bake at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time. Eli did every step, hoping against hope that the little dark bits in the mix were chocolate chips. Sadly for him, they turned out to be dehydrated blueberries. But the muffins were delicious — fragrant with vanilla, moist and not too sweet. They’re never to be repeated, just like those Outer Banks cinnamon rolls, but we may remember them just as fondly.


by Caroline

I was in Washington, DC for a conference last week and the main non-conference plan on my to-do list was to visit, finally, Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian.

I love Julia Child. I have happy memories of her voice trilling from the TV in my mom’s kitchen when I was growing up, and I spent a significant portion of graduate school watching her various cooking shows, too. Her memoir, My Life In France, is one of the most honest and lively I’ve ever read, and her cookbooks, of course, are classics. I’d seen pictures of her kitchen, read descriptions of it, but none of that is the same as seeing it in person.

So, my sister and I made a very long and rainy pilgrimage from one side of DC to the other last Saturday to visit Julia Child’s kitchen. There was the wall of copper pans, their outlines marked in pen by Child’s husband, Paul, so she would always return them to their proper spot on the pegboard:

There was the bookshelf holding different editions of Joy of Cooking (just like my mom’s kitchen bookshelf, just like mine). There was the big kitchen table, with comfortable-looking chairs around it. It’s not a fancy kitchen at all, just really well-designed and organized. And there, outside the kitchen, among the photographs and newspaper stories about her career, was this plaque with a quote from the cook herself:

That’s why I love Julia Child, really. Because all her enthusiasm about people learning to use cream and butter and wine in their cooking didn’t matter at all if they weren’t then enjoying that cooking with other people, together, right in their kitchens. It’s that table (that table I didn’t take a picture of! but you can look at some images here), it’s that table that symbolizes more than any wall of copper pots and pans.

I don’t actually have a kitchen table. I have a renovated kitchen with modern features like an island and a raised bar behind the stove that we sit at for breakfast. But you don’t actually need a kitchen table — only a kitchen — to get what Julia Child wants us to get. It’s what Lisa and I say, in various ways, regularly in this space and now I have Julia Child’s version of it, too. It bears repeating: Gather people in your home and feed them. Make this a habit. Bon Appetit!

Dad’s in Charge

by Caroline

By the time anybody reads this post, I’ll be comfortably settled into VirginAmerica’s seat 11E on the morning flight from SFO to Dulles. I’ll have my tea, more books and magazines than I can read in 5 hours, and my airplane snacks. I’ll be looking forward to four days at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, four days of inspiring panels and overwhelming bookfair and meals and drinks with a number of writers and editors that I usually only get to “see” online.

I will not be at all worried about my family at home.

I don’t go away too often, and although I love it when I do, I believe perhaps my husband enjoys it even more. Partly he loves to see me get a break, and he urges me to indulge in the opportunity to sleep in, order room service, and eat out (he is making fun of me for packing airplane snacks at all). But also, I think, he loves just being on his own with our boys. It’s not like he’s not here all the time — and I do mean all the time: he works from home, he drives the kids to school twice a week, even his weekly basketball game is late enough in the evening that he sits — if not eats — during dinner with us. And of course he cooks dinner most nights so that’s nothing new.

But my being away makes things a bit different and it shows in my preparations for this trip: I updated my website, finished a couple essays, and researched DC restaurants, but I did not stock up at the farmer’s market over the weekend. In fact, Tony asked me to skip the CSA delivery this week; he’d rather go to the store with the boys and let inspiration hit. I didn’t make any meals and stick them in the fridge or freezer. In my absence, there will be less meal planning, more “cooking show” meals at the kitchen bar — with the boys watching Tony cook — than at the dining room table, more puttanesca, less (homemade) dessert. And they will be fine.

Obviously, it doesn’t go this way in every house, but if you are the one responsible for all the marketing and cooking in your family, maybe this is the week to consider encouraging some of your family members to take a bigger role. Maybe older kids can put together the grocery list for a change, or a different adult can go to the market. It’d be interesting to see what new foods come home in the grocery bags! Maybe instead of urging your young kids to stir up the pancake batter, you encourage your partner to do it. They might not do things the way you would; they might make messes and burn things. But they might also find they love it, and if you back off and let the other members of your family find their way to — and around — the kitchen, you might just find they stay.