Progress and Productivity in Stillness

Personal

A day at home, I wake up and I’m already in pain. It’s 7am, but I know that I have two hours to kill. I can’t help but refresh the mail app on my phone. I only get notifications for my personal email accounts, but my curiosity always gets the best of me and I look at how many emails await in my work inbox. My eyes just getting accustomed to the sunlight also squint to accommodate the small text on my screen. I feel my shoulders rise, though I choose to put my phone down or scroll through twitter instead. The shoulder tension moves up to my neck. The minutes pass, it’s 7:45 and I tell myself I have until 8 before I can get up, but I get up anyway. I putter about my house, make breakfast and just wait until it’s an appropriate time to open my work laptop and stare at a screen all day. But I can’t wait until 9am to work. I open my laptop (my non-work one that I also do work on) and start reading my emails and writing my social plan for the week. I convince myself it’s not work since it’s not for my salaried job. That somehow makes it better.

All the while, I see the babbling miniatures of a devil and an angel perched on my shoulders. Both of them look like me, and are dressed in pretty rad outfits because duh. One is telling me that I should do my work, continue to hold myself to my standards and ride it out while the other is telling me to sit back, relax and take care of myself. Take a wild guess at which is which. Of course, the devil on my shoulder eggs me to sit on my couch and watch movies. Why though? Why does my desire to pause coincide with devilish temptation? What harm is my inactivity really causing?

I think modern corporate labor has put too much of a value on professional productivity. Since high school it’s been ingrained that I need to be busy all the time – taking college classes, engaging in extra curricular activities, volunteering, studying – in order to beef up my resume and make myself look appealing on paper. Essentially, busy equals important, and if I can’t fill a page listing my accomplishments, achievements by age 18 then I am not somehow unworthy of a promising future making other people’s money. And I know this because I filled those pages and took those classes, and all that it’s given me was an inability to take care of myself because if I’m not advancing my professional career, I’m lazy. Right now, I resent my inability to separate my personal worth from an arbitrary value deciding my professional worth – a vanity metric in professionalism, a quantified value on my productivity and therefore goodness.

If it’s not clear, I’m a workaholic and compulsive people pleaser. It feels good to get that off my chest. While I do my best to be unapologetically myself, I have inherent guilt when I disappoint people. Even people I’ve never met before, people I hardly interact with. (“That’s crazy, Marcella.” Right?) I derive my individual value based on how many lines bisect tasks on a list, or how many Facebook users share posts and images I create. While I feel this way about myself, I preach and preach the importance of self care, of rest, because truly I can’t find myself worthy of that sanctity and peace, but others should do it for themselves. I’ve got to work. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

These tendencies have brought me some success but have mostly set me up for emotional failures, especially right now. Now’s not the time for sealing deals and expanding your audience. I’m hearing the phrase “business as usual” to describe operations right now and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Business as usual” is simply a guise for “we aren’t interested in hearing about your hardship.” The very “get back to work” mindset that will cause a mental health deficit once we crawl out of the collective darkness and resume a more lively, interactive “normal.”

It’s already hitting me: constant anxiety and tension from work-related stress coupled with the ambiguity of the future as we know it. I’ve taken my fair share of easy days, but it brings me more stress to try and justify the outcomes of my “laziness.” Who will have to assume my responsibilities? Will my boss notice? Will clients say something? It’s almost not worth that extra stress.

Oh, but it is. It’s worth it once you understand the incredible power and poise in stillness. Like I’ve always said (and “I’ve always said” because it’s been said to me so often), you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to refill before you can pour again. But also you have to drink from the cup too. You can’t keep filling up your own cup to continue dumping it. You can’t let your own well go dry without taking a drink. Because simply you need water to survive. And we’re all just trying to survive this one day at a time.

And while rest looks like physical inactivity, it’s just a different form of progress. There’s growth in rest. Humans, organisms do their most profound growth while resting. And it took a jar of sauerkraut and a walk in the woods for me to understand how my own stillness could transform me.

I’m no stranger to shoving vegetables in jars and turning my countertops into small-scale science experiments. I took an inexcusable amount of AP science classes in high school, and I would be remiss to not apply some of my “useless” knowledge to my kitchen antics. And when I made a big jar of sauerkraut I saw the possibilities in seeming inactivity. In a jar on my kitchen table, microscopic bacteria were engaging in fermentation. Though the jar didn’t move for days, invisible processes were at work. Upon each day’s burp (not me burping, but me cracking the jar’s lid to prevent too much gas buildup) I could see bubbles rise from the shredded cabbage and smell what could only be described as early stage sauerkraut. Beneath a seemingly unchanging exterior, a transformation occurred.

Human perception is also not the only measure of development. The existential “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it” scenario is extremely human-centric and highlights validation, not only as a marker of activity, but as a necessity for improvement or change. On a walk in the woods only a few weeks ago, I encountered fallen trees, cracked in the middle with the trunk and roots secured in the ground; the fallen limbs interrupting a trail. I couldn’t tell when it happened and I didn’t know if anyone could watch the top swing down and land on the ground. The fact is, yes, the tree still falls and still makes a noise. Because nature does not continue happening for the sake of human applause and validation. On my walk I saw dandelions both with shaggy yellow flowers and seeded white orbs, maturing at different rates but maturing regardless of my ability to notice. While we all watch the seasons change from inside our homes, the tides don’t stop because a boat is not gliding towards the shore. Instead the tides continue the ebb and flow, boat or no boat, surfer or no surfer, because that’s how the ocean moves forward.

But do you know how much the human body does daily outside of sending emails, holding conference calls and eating snacks? With each inhale your lungs fill with air, delivering oxygen throughout your body. Your hair and nails are growing. White blood cells are fighting like hell to protect your immune system from bad shit. The average human experiences cell turnover of 50-70 billion cells per day. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, but that’s a lot of work for someone who might be eating Cheetos and watching Seinfeld on the couch. If I were the devil upon my shoulder, I’d use these facts to bolster my position, convincing all other parties that this inactivity is paramount for growth.

I know that this entire essay is entirely part of my problem, but I’m done I swear. You don’t have to be ripping your hair out and crying daily from stress to find self-worth and growth. I’m using “you” as a hypothetical as if I’m talking to myself. I haven’t gotten so far as to start talking to myself, but we’re starting new things here so why not. There’s an opportunity to disconnect and progress through rest, through stillness. It’s a difficult lesson I’m learning while adjusting to the ‘new normal.’ Resting to repair an immune system counts as progress. Reading because it quells your anxiety counts as growth. Don’t let anyone else define your growth in arbitrary metrics. To humans a cocoon hangs stagnant, if not for the wind, but inside a creature becomes a winged beauty.

This Kabocha, Date, Nut Bread Kept Me Occupied While Social Distancing

food, recipes

Cut it out. Yes, I’m talking to you, regular person who feels the need to criticize anyone baking during this time. It’s a great time to bake anything – whether you’re using up overripe bananas or making a focaccia and pretending you’re in Italy. Let people enjoy THINGS. Let baking be the escapism folks flock to for comfort during a scary and anxiety-inducing time.

So apologies to anyone who wants to force professional productivity on others. No, I will not be writing my magnum opus or conducting vital research. I will be baking because that will keep my body and soul fed and at peace. Stay mad about it.

NOW – why am I using squash for a springtime recipe? Well, because it’s important to use what you have on hand right now. As we all take stock (and make stock – AYYY) and assess what constitutes a necessary trip to the grocery store, we should see what we can use from our home inventory first, and that means checking the freezer.

For as long as I can remember, we never wasted pumpkins or squash. After Halloween and Thanksgiving my mom would take decorative, but edible gourds and kill them. This means roasting and steaming pumpkins and acorn squash and pureeing the flesh into smooth, orangey-yellow sustenance, roasting the seeds too for a salty savory snack. We would be pumpkin’d out with soups, pies, cookies and cakes before running out of puree, so into the freezer went pints and quarts of creamy orange goo for months. Since the apple doesn’t fall far in my case, that’s exactly the chain of events that lead me to unearthing pureed kabocha from my freezer. I also had pecans I used to make a Basically Baking recipe and dates that I found on sale at my shopping sanctuary, Ocean State Job Lot. It was a perfect storm.

This recipe can be catered to whatever winter squash you have, though I’d steer clear of the heartier butternut squash or stringy spaghetti squash. Acorn squash and pumpkin, sharing similar flavors and consistencies with kabocha, would be welcome replacements. This bread will also work with walnuts instead of pecans. You can also omit the dates or nuts and substitute with a full cup of one filling if that’s your jam. Don’t skip the parchment paper lining if possible; this will make the cake easy to lift from the pan and reduce unwanted crispiness. This kabocha date nut bread should come out moist but not dense and wet – the end product will be delightful enough to eat sliced, and hearty enough to toast and spread with peanut butter.

Baking with a limited kitchen gives you, dear baker, the ability to riff as you please. So riff on people. And take lots of pictures and gloat to your heart’s content online – hell, tag me and I’ll gloat for you.

Kabocha, Date, Nut Bread

1-1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 cup pureed kabocha squash

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tbsp. cinnamon

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 cup chopped dates

1/2 cup chopped pecans

  1. Place oven rack on the middle to upper racks of your oven (we’re baking the cake up there, but we want space so it doesn’t touch the heating element). Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease the inside of a loaf pan and line with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar and eggs until light yellow and a little bit bubbly. Once combined, add squash puree, vanilla and cinnamon and whisk until incorporated.
  3. Slowly stream the vegetable oil into the batter.
  4. Sift together flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder into the wet ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter or you just hate sifting, whisk flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder in a separate bowl and whisk into wet ingredients until combined, without lumps.
  5. Coat dates in a pinch of flour. This will prevent them from clumping together.
  6. Fold in pecans and dates until they feel evenly dispersed throughout the batter.
  7. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.
  8. Bake for 1 hour, or until golden on the outside, and a cake tester inserted in the thickest part comes out dry.

 

Sustainable Habits During a Crisis

lifestyle

So I can’t beat around the bush: the world is a wild place right now and many, if not everyone, reading this has been staying home for one reason or another. At the very least, I hope everyone reading this is minimizing trips out and keeping social activities virtual. In this moment I’m learning that sustainability in my life is experiencing a change for better and for worse.

As you may know, I’m passionate about reducing my carbon footprint through my lifestyle choices. I shop second hand, limit my single-use products and reduce food waste where I can. In these respects, some parts of my life have not changed with the onset of social distancing. I’ve been home enough to make use of all my leftovers and food scraps, I haven’t had a desire to even leave the house and shop, and my reusable products are saving me trips to the store and keeping me from hoarding products that I do not need. In some respects, my shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle has made this major change a little easier.

However, in other ways it has been safer to understand that public health must come first and that may require using more disposable products. Look, I’m not about to stubbornly frown upon people from a sustainable high horse while simultaneously putting those people in danger. Disposable gloves, single-use masks and disposable disinfectant wipes are crucial to keeping public spaces safe for immunocompromised people and essential workers. Processed and packaged foods can stretch your pantry to reduce your grocery store trips and that’s okay. Living with someone considered an essential employee means taking some of those not-so-eco-friendly practices into my home, primarily using more disposable paper towels and disinfectant wipes to get surfaces clean without potentially contaminating other surfaces. Also using more chemicals to keep spaces as clean as possible. It’s not an easy change, but it’s a necessary shift for this moment in time. Even Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers has had to compromise some of her sustainable practices for the sake of public health and safety.

So maybe you’re saying “Marcella, what sustainable practices CAN I maintain during this time?” I’m so glad you asked.

Keep in mind that, like Lauren said in her post about prioritizing values during this crisis, the ability to purchase sustainable and unsustainable products (especially in bulk for the sake of the latter) is a massive privilege in this country and in this moment. I’m fortunate to be able to support myself with these means right now. If you, like me, feel this way I encourage you to help where you can: don’t hoard food and support local, non-profit initiatives like food banks and farms.

You can repurpose old shirts, socks and towels into rags for cleaning surfaces. I’ve been doing this recently to give new life to items that can’t be donated to second hand shops. It’s something my mom always did that didn’t make much sense to me until this point in my life. This is helpful especially if you’re trying to limit your paper towel usage to important things like food preparation and cleaning high-traffic surfaces. I use these for kitchen spills, cleaning glass and mirrors and dusting hard surfaces. You can make the most of the paper towels you have by thinking about what HAS to be disposed of versus what can be thrown in the wash. Therefore, no need to hoard.

Using fewer disposable hygiene products also reduces waste and trips to the grocery store. There used to be nothing worse than having to make a trip to a pharmacy or grocery store for just tampons, especially after going to the grocery store the DAY BEFORE. So in this time I’m thankful for my menstrual cup and safety razor, two items that are going to help me save money and reduce unnecessary trips to stores.

Lastly, being home all day and needing to be resourceful in the kitchen is the perfect soup storm. Meaning, save your scraps PEOPLE! Mushroom stems, onion skins, chicken bones – you name it. Roast your scraps to release some deep flavors, throw it all in a stock pot and add spices of your choice and water and let simmer all day while you work from home. Now you have homemade stock, which can then be the canvas for many dinners. Add leftover cooked veggies or wilted greens and give them new life. Add noodles and crunchy carrots for chicken noodle soup, or a beaten egg for stracciatella. This whole experience has made me more resourceful, and cooking has provided an escape from daily anxiety.

I’m so sick of living in these interesting times, and I’m sure you are too. I yearn to see my friends and hug my family, but right now I understand my responsibility to stay home. I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy, and I hope you can relate to some of these sustainability challenges during these times.

I Finally Tried ThredUp and Here’s What I Think

lifestyle, Vintage

So I’m not the official authority on thrifted clothing but I know a thing or two about the whole process. I’ve been trying to make the conscious effort to shop ethically and sustainably which sometimes means shelling out a bit of money for something well made and ethically sourced, or sifting through racks of second hand clothing at my nearest Goodwill or Savers. Personally, I like visiting thrift stores and spending time finding a piece that speaks to me. Without an agenda, a sense of “oh I really NEED a new black dress,” and instead a sense of “what treasures can I find today,” I find the hunt exciting. It’s an activity. However, what happens when you want something specific and don’t want to shell out the money for a high quality version because it’s just not the “worth it” sort of item? That’s when you use ThredUp.

Disclaimer: I don’t want my opinions to deter anyone from using ThredUp. I think any move towards more sustainable options (that may be more accessible due to price point and online fulfillment) is a good move. These are just some questions/concerns/stipulations I had before ordering, and my experiences. Spoiler alert: I would shop at ThredUp again.

I placed my first order on ThredUp on a slow Thursday at work. Honestly, ThredUp can be akin to a thrift store when you surpass the filters and search options, making it a great source for afternoon scrolling. This time, however, I was looking for two specific things: a pair of khakis and a sundress. My first praise to ThredUp comes here: I found both items easily through the filters. I could sort by my size, brands that I like and colors I prefer. I landing on a pair of Uniqlo khakis (a brand that makes pants that actually fit my weird body) and a grey linen Tahari dress.

While I found what I was looking for, now would be a good time to mention some critiques. While I understand that these items are second hand and the site might have a high turn-over rate, clothing often looks a bit disheveled in the photos. The descriptions offer some assistance (both items were classified as “like new”) but when the photo looks one way and the caption says another thing, you get weary. This was actually a deterrent from me ordering clothing sooner. But with enough assurance from other people, I gave it a shot. My other critique: price point. Yes, I know the designer brands and expensive name brands see a high markdown from traditional retail price, that discount diminishes when it comes to other brands. For example, you can probably find Old Navy items in the actual store on clearance for the same price they are listed for on ThredUp, and if you’re shopping second hand due to budget, this isn’t quite the discount you may need. You can probably find some mid-tier brand items even cheaper at actual brick and mortar thrift stores, however without the luxury of pre-sorting items and browsing online.

Nevertheless, I placed my two item order: $29.75. Definitely more than what I’d pay in a traditional thrift store for two items. I actually paid $3 for a pair of pants at a thrift store one week later. Shipping was $5.99 – another critique but something inevitable for an online retailer, I guess. I was STOKED to get a package in the mail, though. It’s like giving a present to yourself. A treat!

Yet, I waited a week for my items to arrive. No big deal, I wasn’t in a rush, but I was less than excited to get two separate packages for only two items. I’m all for sustainability, which is why I shop second hand in the first place, but part of the sustainability process is minimizing both packaging and shipping frequency. Aside from the plastic outer packaging, the inside only had a paper sticker and tissue paper, which was nice because it was recyclable.

Upon receiving both items, I was pleasantly surprised to find them in better condition than they appeared online – a shock as almost everyone looks better online. Good job, ThredUp. The dress was virtually wrinkle free (although that changed once I gave it the requisite wash) and the pants looked as if they had never been worn. I can foresee myself wearing both items regularly and for quite some time, an advantage considering the prices. In addition, both items fit, and while I’m not sure if that’s attributed to good luck or accurate sizing, I’m happy with that fact.

So what is the final verdict? I may not shop on ThredUp frequently. For the higher prices, lengthy shipping time and ambiguous quality, I would rather partake in my favorite pastime and sort through musty racks of clothing. However, for the times when I need a new black cardigan or a specific party dress I can happily turn to ThredUp knowing my purchase will still fit this part of my sustainable lifestyle. When I’m in the mood to spend money and shop online, I’d rather turn to ThredUp.

Becoming New in 2020

lifestyle

It really was the year of realizing things, but good riddance 2019.

Growing pains aren’t only physical. No one warns you about the emotional growing pains present beyond adolescence. The first year post-grad was about living in the moment and making rookie mistakes. It was about working two jobs and drinking beers while painting your apartment. It was about realizing the woes of today’s job market.

In 2019 I made a lot of changes. I changed jobs, I moved into another state, I live with someone, and I’m realizing I’m worth more than I’ve bargained for.

Look, I’m a smart lady. This past year I’ve looked at myself and surged with confidence, and a sense of “what am I doing to be better?”

As a woman, especially as a woman in her early 20s, I’m overwhelmingly proud to see opportunities and not limitations before me. There’s so much more available today than what gender norms have afforded women in the past. It’s made me realize so much.

Like body hair. It’s beautiful. It’s comfortable. And while it can make folks uncomfortable it’s also no one else’s business. My whole life I shaved my legs every day. Dancing and performing somehow instilled a need to always have shaved legs so hairs wouldn’t poke through tights and other people wouldn’t be uncomfortable during those tactful quick-changes. And this year I got sick of it. Because it’s so much more comfortable to shave on your own terms and not because you feel others would find it unsightly. Do you. Your comfort is gorgeous on you.

I realized that the more items I throw away the more money I throw away. I mean for anyone who doesn’t see the urgency behind climate change, reducing your single-use items just helps save money. Not only has sustainability been top of mind, but investing in better quality, non disposable items has been a practical improvement. From mindful clothing purchases to bars of soap without packaging, long-lasting, low-waste items offer more stability than low-quality, disposable products. Plus, it feels good to struggle filling up the trash can each week. It’s ignited a desire try to reduce waste even more. Do I want to start a balcony compost garden? Do I want to, oh I don’t know, never buy new clothes again? Regardless, boy do I love not shelling out $12+ for razors every month.

I realized my extrovert self loves a live-in companion. My boyfriend is my best friend and living together has improved the quality of my life ten fold. Coming home to a friend after work makes evenings more pleasant. There’s always someone to hang out with on weekends. There’s someone to commiserate with when times are tough. I’m thankful for the opportunity to live alone for a year and truthfully everyone should get that chance, but finding happiness living with a friend, a significant other or even alone is a bliss I hope everyone achieves.

But 2019 wasn’t full of easy-to-swallow pills.

College doesn’t teach a course on coping with existential turmoil. In 2019 it occurred to me that I don’t actually know what I want to do. But 2019 revealed who I want to be. This world is plagued with so much bad and doing nothing is just as good as contributing to the bad. If you’re not helping you’re hindering, to quote someone wise. I realized I want to actively do something good. And that’s not easy. My indecision and professional discontent has shown me that using my brain for something important might be worth more than the expectation of a stable 9-5. I realized that you don’t have to have it all figured out at 23. Tons of people do and they’re lucky, but if you don’t it’s okay.

It’s the realization that no, I may not be where my friends are in a year, in five years, or ever. There will be no settling down any time soon. But spending the time now to figure out who I’ll be later is worth my time now.

So where does that put me in 2020? Well, I’ll be working really hard. I’ll probably cry a decent amount. I may not see a lot of people or do the traveling I hoped to do. But I finally want to work towards a goal greater than simply coasting.

My 2020 goals include being better to my body and mind while also studying my butt off and writing more. I want to constantly be reading and taking short adventures here and there. I want to surround myself with people who can support me, because part of me knows I won’t be able to do this alone.

I don’t want to reveal too much, but I’m excited and anxious and nervous and I’m ready to share it all here.

Every Day of 30 Days of Thanksgiving 2019

lifestyle

I talk about 30 Days of Thanksgiving in this article, but I thought I would look back at all 30 days here.

Day 1: I’m thankful for my new home, colorful crunchy leaves and blue skies.

Day 2: I’m thankful for family, friends, dessert before dinner and perfectly crisp, chilly November afternoons.

Day 3: I’m thankful for the unexpected.

Day 4: I’m thankful for waking up to a rising sun and coming home to chicken soup.

Day 5: I’m thankful for my boyfriend, my roommate and all our adventures.

Day 6: I’m thankful for baggy clothes and hot espresso.

Day 7: I’m thankful for my first adult friend (psst…she has a blog)

Day 8: I’m thankful for all my homes: Long Island, Poughkeepsie, Florence, Wappingers Falls and now…somewhere in Connecticut.

Day 9: I’m thankful for nights in.

Day 10: I’m thankful for Sundays spent warding off the scaries with coffee and beer dates.

Day 11: I’m thankful for glorious trips to immortal cities.

Day 12: I’m thankful for persimmons, pumpkin spice and peanut butter. Also working from home.

Day 13: I’m thankful for exploratory trips to find comforts in my new home.

Day 14: I’m thankful for polenta.

Day 15: Thankful for future opportunities to continue my food and farm education.

Day 16: Thankful for being in the front row at concerts.

Day 17: I’m thankful for my support system of friends, family and coworkers.

Day 18: Thankful for smiling strangers and kindness.

Day 19: I’m thankful for being hit with signs from the universe.

Day 20: I’m thankful for long conversations with my best girlfriends.

Day 21: I’m thankful for the strong and influential women in my life.

Day 22: Thankful for chicken wings and the end of a long, long week.

Day 23: I’m thankful for weekend trips, especially when we explore Yale.

Day 24: Thankful for a rainy Sunday spent recharging.

Day 25: Very thankful for short weeks.

Day 26: Thankful for sunshine on a Tuesday, work from home lunches and very few emails in my inbox.

Day 27: Thankful for a fat bowl of pasta, and being home-home for a few days.

Day 28: I’m thankful for my first Thanksgiving spent with my boyfriend and all the white wine we drank

Day 29: Very thankful for fried turkey.

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Best way to cook a turkey. #30DaysofThanksgiving

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Day 30: Thankful for the last day of November surrounded by friends, family and lamb barbacoa.

November was difficult. This exercise showed me that on certain days (most days) the smallest things, a perfect dinner, a sunny day, could keep me afloat. Every day is not going to be the best day pf your life, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the worst day either. My friend said “the sun always still rises,” and I guess that’s what this was all about in the first place.

In Praise of the People I’ve Met While Out, About, and Alone

lifestyle

Don’t listen to anyone that says “don’t talk to strangers.” I mean, use your best judgment and obviously don’t talk to people that make you feel in danger, but closing yourself off to the friendly faces in the cafeteria or the waitstaff at your favorite restaurant is a huge disservice to your own world view. The flesh-trapped angels you meet at dive bars offer fascinating anecdotes and kind words. Sometimes they’re just a passing ship dumping a hilarious story to tell your friends, or even a free beer. Either way, use your invaluable alone time to open up your heart to someone new.

I get it, alone time is the best. Living along afforded me opportunities to go to the gym whenever I wanted, order sushi for one on a spicy night in and eat Fruity Pebbles from a mug at 11pm. But too much alone time can be intimidating, especially to extroverts who thrive around people. Yet there’s this odd connotation of going out to eat alone: I feel as if unless you’ve got a laptop in front of you and you’re typing away at your manifesto, you’re a loner, people-watching and drinking a beer. America lacks the communal table culture found elsewhere, and the “don’t talk to strangers” thing only worsens the isolation of being alone in a room packed with people.

Reports by The Atlantic in 2014 and Grub Street in 2017 discuss a return of the communal table in America. I can understand the discontent for communal tables at formal restaurants. Maybe you were hoping for an intimate evening out, and suddenly you’re literally rubbing elbows with a marketing executive slurping tagliatelle at a celebratory dinner. But in places like New York City brimming with not only residents but diners, communal tables should be more commonplace and accepted in casual dining spots. Grub Street cited Zagat’s 2016 survey reporting that communal dining was the second-highest reason folks would not dine at a particular location. While America seemed to try to adapt the trendy communal table lifestyle widely present in Europe, Americans lacked the attitudes to carry it towards success.

But what is the harm in talking to someone at your local bar? What is the harm in chatting up the bartender on a slow night when you’re dining at the closest thing Americans have to communal tables, the bar itself? Don’t be weird, but why not talk to someone new?

Ever since my first solo day trip, I’ve been fortunate to meet a few kind strangers on outings alone. Even on one of my worst nights ever (that I mention briefly in my 30 Days of Thanksgiving post), I spoke to the bartender, tried all sorts of his specialty drinks for free, and spoke with a newly wed couple who were absolute joys. I love kind strangers, you get the best stories from these encounters.

Montepulciano, 2017

Walking through Florence alone at 6am to a part of the city I’ve never seen before was pretty frightening, not going to lie. Market stalls were closed and the only figures out and about were likely there from the night before. Luckily, I’m a pretty no B.S. lady when I’m armored up to go out alone. When I arrived at my destination I felt like such an outcast: I was meeting up with a travel group of European Erasmus students. In case that wasn’t obvious: I was an American study abroad student. Therefore, I was the only American on the trip. I even still have the Erasmus card they gave me with my name scribbled on it in blue ink. I found two girls who seemed to know each other and asked if I could tag along with them. They heard my accent and the flood gates opened.

“Why are eggs white in America?” Girl, you’re not missing anything. “Oh my GOD have you seen that movie? Talladega Knights? I love Ricky Bobby.” I couldn’t stop laughing. We spent the whole day together. I learned that they were linguistic studies students from Scotland part of the Erasmus program which gave students grants to live and study throughout Europe. They were responsible for finding rental apartments and even jobs, very unlike American study abroad programs that could arguably be seen as vacation in comparison. We road buses through the Tuscan countryside and drank wine in Montepulciano. I’m friends with them on Facebook, but I never saw them in Florence again.

Waterbury, 2019

True, this night I was not alone, but it was still a moment spent at an unlikely communal table talking to a stranger. I just wanted wings. We’d stumbled on a place called Ordinary Joe’s and decided we like local dive bars. The place was packed and peanut shells were on the floor. Despite casual Friday at work, I was way overdressed. The only seats were at a communal table with a man drinking beer and waiting for a plate of wings. He said he didn’t bite –  which was true. Doug, this kind stranger, talked to us about the life his immigrant parents worked for in America. He’s a caretaker for a number of mansions in the neighboring town and talked about how Waterbury was once such a gorgeous city with beautiful buildings and parks. It’s now something forgotten.

He also mentioned that his mother makes hand made cavatelli for a restaurant nearby, and we should go there and mention that “Doug sent us.” He bought us two High Lifes, told me to marry Nick, and then sped away on his motorcycle.

Woodstock, 2016

The day after election day left a good chunk of people distraught. We all know this. And this particular day I had an interview for an internship up in Woodstock, NY. I got dressed, put on a black shirt in solidarity with students peacefully protesting, and drove almost an hour to my cloudy and grey destination. It was a damp November day. You know the feeling the day after you fall asleep crying hysterically? That’s what the weather felt like. And I was spending time post-interview in the quaint town. I bought a headband and a bandana and I ended up in a small art and incense shop. The shopkeeper said “how are you?” and without thinking I said “good.”

“I’m not,” he said. In that moment, I definitely was not “good.” In fact I was feeling pretty bad, even though my interview went smoothly. He noticed this and said “take some incense, we all could use a little peace today.” We were then chatting. I introduced myself and he mentioned how his wife had traveled to Italy often. “Ci vediamo, it means we’ll see each other,” I said before leaving to fill up on comfort food.

Fall Leaves and Boots

My Mindful Exercise: 30 Days of Thanksgiving

lifestyle

Around 4 years ago I was spending too much time working and not enough time taking care of myself. Weeks of antibiotics took a toll on my physical, mental and interpersonal well-being – not to mention I was non stop working and taking pride in my inability to remember meals or get adequate sleep. It was a toxic form of Stockholm Syndrome where I was growing to love the alienated, unwell version of myself because I associated being exhausted to being important. This was my sophomore year of college, an extremely formative year not just in spite of but because of some of those hard times. This tradition grew out of something unpleasant and that’s always my hope whenever November comes along.

So this is 30 Days of Thanksgiving, a 30 day mindfulness exercise that not only changes my mindset but also prepares me for the holiday carnage. After Halloween ends folks jump straight to Christmas and sentences brim with “I want” statements. “I want a boyfriend,” “I want some new boots,” those kind of “I want” statements that seem greedy and sometimes unrealistic. It really changes the season of giving into a season of taking.

Honestly, slow down. Christmas will come like it does every year. It’s draining, and I’m sure I’m not the only one anxiety-ridden and stressed. What we miss by rushing through November is an opportunity to take care of ourselves and appreciate the little, every day things we take for granted. This is especially necessary before the draining, hectic holiday season. I mean, is anyone ready for heavy traffic and throwing elbows at the mall? I’m not.

How does it work?

This could very well be a journal activity, but I prefer to do this on Instagram as a way to bring realism and positivity into the social media realm, something lacking in a lot of hyper-produced, inauthentic content that circulates among the many genuine accounts. Every day, no matter how down I feel, I think of one thing I’m thankful for. It could be anything: people, places, things. You know the drill.

Now despite hard days that inevitably arise when it gets dark at 5pm, you have to keep going. Last year I remember getting a flat tire on my way to meet someone for dinner. It was a perfect situation: no tire iron, no car jack, no roadside assistance. Thankfully, the person I was meeting for dinner drove the extra hour to meet me. We called a local roadside service to change my tire, and after a few hours and about a hundred dollars we were en route to finally get some food. The CBD cocktail I drank with dinner made me ugly cry in the shower a few hours later, but despite all that (plus the next day’s waiting for new tires) I still could find something to be thankful for.

Personally, I find that putting this out on social media almost manifests a positive attitude. There’s something about writing it down and getting input from friends and followers that feels comforting, like we’re all living through November together. However, there are other variations depending on what you can manage. I mentioned bringing this exercise analog in a journal, but you can also verbally express thanks. Tell the people around you when you feel thankful for their presence. Tell your favorite barista that despite your long commute, you’re thankful for mornings because their drinks bring you comfort. Hell, tell the pizza guy that you’re thankful for that stuffed crust. Whatever you choose please don’t forget the reason for the activity. Keep your gratitude front and center even when you’re not posting about it on social media or writing it down in your journal.

Bowl of Pasta with Red Sauce

My Non-Recipe Recipe for Tomato Sauce

food

Every Italian person can make a red sauce based on pure instinct. Period. It doesn’t mean it’s the perfect sauce for everyone but damn it’s a sauce that makes you proud. Maybe it’s inconsistent, but Italian cooking has always been about availability and making something work. It’s about utilizing what you have to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Folks get very caught up in validating or invalidating Italian food when in reality, Italian food isn’t one cuisine but a holistic way of cooking. In reality, nothing about tomato sauce is Italian. Tomatoes are from Mexico, and Italy didn’t even exist when tomatoes traversed the Atlantic.

So cook with what you like and what you have. If you don’t know where to start, here’s what I always and never do to make my sauce distinctly mine.

Always:

  • I always start my sauce with onion and garlic. I slice the onion nice and thin and let it sweat out in olive oil and salt until it becomes translucent. Garlic goes in after the onions have released some liquid (garlic can burn easily so don’t add it at the same time as onion). Sometimes it’s 3 cloves, sometimes it’s more.
  • Salt throughout! Don’t wait until the end to add salt. Build the flavor starting with salting the onion and taste as you go. The sauce should reduce so constantly check your seasoning.
  • Use three herbs: basil, oregano and bay leaf. I find that these three (any variation in any amount) imbue the most iconic flavors to the sauce. If I have fresh basil, I’ll definitely take advantage of it, but dried basil and oregano do the job just fine. The bay leaf seemingly doesn’t add anything, but I was always told to add a bay leaf to take some of the acidity out, reducing the chance of heartburn and indigestion. I thought it was some Old Nonna Tale, but apparently bay leaves reduce inflammation and can aid digestion.
  • Let the sauce cook down! I don’t always add tomato paste (because I don’t always have it on hand) but cooking down your sauce and scraping the concentrated tomato that builds up along the interior sides of the pot add more flavor, basically mimicking tomato paste!
  • Whole, crushed or pureed tomatoes are my favorite. It depends on what else is going into the sauce (i.e. meat) or what’s available. I don’t typically use diced tomatoes. I don’t know why. Yes, the can is fine unless you’re living the dream and making fresh passata all summer.

Never:

  • Use anything but olive oil. Unless it’s Marcella Hazan’s butter and onion sauce. I just like the flavor of olive oil and the higher smoke point gives you some wiggle room when sweating those onions.
  • Rosemary. I don’t know why people put rosemary in sauce. To each their own, I guess, but it’s a little too hearty for something as rich as a tomato sauce. Bright herbs only for this girl.
  • Use pre-seasoned tomatoes. Maybe it’s a quick way to get dinner on the table on occasion, but if you’re going to simmer a sauce use the unseasoned tomatoes.

So my order of operations is:

  • Sweat the onion in olive oil. Season with salt.
  • Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
  • Add tomato sauce, basil, oregano, bayleaf, salt and pepper.
  • Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer for at least 30 minutes.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust.
  • Remove bay leaf and basil (if fresh and whole) before serving.

The simplicity is what makes this work. Add your extras like red pepper flakes, anchovy fillets or tomato paste, but consider those the icing on your weird, savory, already-delicious cake.

Roasted Squash and Feta Salad

Roasted Delicata Squash Grain Salad

food, recipes

Once upon a time there was a sophomore in college who finally had a kitchen and wanted to do nothing but cook all day. She spent the last summer working on an organic farm and just got an internship with a food magazine. Unfortunately, she also had to do things like go to class and overcome the insanity of living in a house with nine other manic 19 year old college students. Exciting. But how was she going to make this all work? She was going to bring squash from the farmer’s market to chamber choir rehearsal. That’s how.

If you couldn’t guess, that girl was me. A lot has changed. But deep down I’m still that weird girl. Catch me at work returning from lunch with a canvas bag full of produce sitting at my desk until my commute home. My affinity for squash has not changed and it’s only magnified in autumn when produce bins are overflowing with easily the most beautiful fruit. Stripes, patterns, rich colors and unique shapes coax creativity in the kitchen, too.

I was particularly inspired by delicata squash’s stripes and the way it looks like flowers when it is cut crosswise into rings. It’s so cute and the skin is edible?!? A double whammy.

For this recipe I adapted Epicurious’ Sheet-Pan Roasted Squash and Feta Salad. I’m obsessed with the idea of warm salads, especially during this time of year when mindful eating becomes difficult because the outdoor chill makes you crave cheesy pasta, and avoid cold, uncooked greens at all costs. I also watched Epicurious’ Instagram story series “At Home with Anna,” where Anna Stockwell, senior food editor, invites viewers into her kitchen and cooks dinner. Surprise, surprise, she made her version and it looked delicious, giving out those fall vibes we’re all looking for these days.

Anyway, this recipe calls for cubed bread and radicchio, but I figured the roasty squash and salty feta would pair well with farro. Plus, instead of storing and getting soggy greens, all parts maintain integrity through refrigeration and reheating. It makes a great autumnal desk lunch that can be eaten warm or cold.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cook the farro as instructed on the package. I buy Bob’s Red Mill farro from Ocean State Job Lot and I swear by it. (If Bob’s Red Mill or Job Lot want a spokesperson or brand rep PLEASE contact me.)

While the farro is simmering away, cut your delicata squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and pulp and cut into half rings. On a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil, toss squash with enough olive oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. After the first 10 minutes, flip squash and roast for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until squash takes on color and becomes soft.

While farro bubbles and squash sizzles, let’s make some dressing! Combine 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. honey, 1 tsp. thyme and salt to taste. Honestly, you can use any oil and vinegar based dressing with some herbs mixed in. I know I don’t always have thyme but I have other dried herbs that could also substitute.

Hey, cube up some feta too!

Drain any excess liquid from the farro and combine with squash in a large bowl. Add feta and mix so feta gets warm through. Toss grains, squash and feta with the dressing. Eat warm immediately, or chill for another day.

This recipe is very easily adaptable to accommodate other squash or grains depending on what’s available: swap out quinoa if you can’t find farro for a high-protein alternative; remember to remove the skin from other squash varieties, like butternut or acorn.