4.01.2012

who we are


My grandparents were the welcoming type. As in, the "coffee's on, door is always open" type. And I mean that literally — there was always a hot pot of coffee in that house, from before daybreak to after dinner, and their door was rarely locked.

Their home had an open floor plan, with the kitchen, dining room and living room all sharing the same large space. My grandfather, Putt-Putt we called him, when not out in his shop, fixing cars or building tuna fishing boats or houses or airplanes (really), would sit at the head of the dining room table, mug of black coffee permanently at his side, and, as I remember it, almost immediately be joined by some friend or relation, stopping by for a chat. Nanny, often in the kitchen, would serve up another cup of coffee and offer a sandwich. The dining room had French doors opening onto the deck and windows wrapping around one corner, and the southern exposure guaranteed that that part of the house always felt wide open, bright and warm.

Welcoming.

And everyone felt comfortable there. From the dining room table you could watch cars pull into the parking-lot-sized-driveway (because a normal driveway won't do when you've got boats and skidders and backhoes to move around), and soon Uncle Donny or Chuck or Barbie or Ricky would make their way up the stone steps and through the door, no need to wait to be asked in. This happened daily, and repeatedly. Naturally, my grandparents went through a lot of coffee, of the most pedestrian kind. Folgers or Chock full o'Nuts, something that came in a big metal can that afterwards could be repurposed as a container for nails or paint stirrers or the tadpoles we scooped out of the pond. The smell of cheap drip coffee is still to this day one I love.

It was a long time before I realized that this was a different way of living than what we did at our house. And longer still to understand why I was so attracted to it. It wasn't so much that I was drawn to the constant parade of people coming and going; after all, they were all grown-ups, and once the initial, required jesting-with-the-visiting-grandkids was done, they mostly left us alone. No, it had everything to do with my grandparents, and the atmosphere they created. It felt like a slower pace of life at their house, one where no job was so urgent it couldn't be put aside for half an hour to allow catching up with a friend over hot coffee and, depending on the season and your luck, maybe some strawberry shortcake or a piece of pie. Nanny and Putt-Putt greeted everyone as if their arrival was just what had been missing from the day up 'til then, and no one ever felt like they were imposing.


This was due partly, I'm sure, to the fact that by the time I was old enough to really know them, to be paying attention to the goings-on of their home, they were retired. As were most of their friends. I can only assume that the retired lifestyle allows for such spontaneous socializing. Busy as they may have kept themselves, it appeared to be a much less structured busyness than their former nine-to-five lives had been.

But also, I think there was something about the two of them that made people want to swing by, to dip their toes into life at the house on Mere Point Road on a regular basis, something steadying about it. Whether they came to gossip or gripe or seek advice, everyone always left feeling good, always looking forward to doing it again soon.

Nanny laughed a lot, and Putt-Putt's language got very animated when he talked. These were people that everyone wanted to be around. They were easy and outgoing, comfortable with themselves and indiscriminately doling out kindness to everyone who crossed their threshold. And as I moved into my own version of adulthood, I came to understand the fundamental role they really played: they were our Sun. Not just for our immediate family, although their gravitational pull on all of us scattered members was undeniable and irresistible. But I began to see them as an important commonality in the random orbits of all their friends, too. They provided a much-needed stillpoint in everyone's lives, a little bit removed from the rest of the day, restorative and energizing. And not because it was necessarily always calm at their house, because sometimes it wasn't. But it was constant, dependable and — there's that word again — welcoming.


I always had this sense, vague and undefined though it was, that I would have a home just like that when I was grown up. I would cultivate friendships with people based largely on this arms-wide-open philosophy, encouraging my house to be a hub of socializing and bonding over unlimited cups of coffee. (Though, maybe not the same coffee my grandparents served.) My home would have that same feeling of warmth and light and unabashed friendliness. I would be welcoming.

However, as anyone who knows me well can probably guess, that scenario neglected to take into account who I actually am. Someone with forces other than nostalgia tugging on her personality, ones that balk at interruptions and sudden changes in plans, that resist letting friends see the dust bunnies under the dining room table and the toys scattered in the living room everywhere (while simultaneously resisting doing the work needed to banish them), and that keep her days so fully occupied that finding a moment to relax with a warm cup of something is hard enough on her own, never mind coordinated with a friend. So, while I welcome the occasional unannounced visitor, my house sees very little social traffic on a daily basis. It's just not me.

Sometimes I think that my hesitance to embrace impromptu gatherings means that when we do have people over, I can appreciate the significance even more. I can feel the change in atmosphere in the house, from banal normality to festive anticipation, a convivial feeling of opening ourselves up to the outside world, our community ties strengthening before my eyes. It's very, very good, and I'm working on doing it more often.


Which is why I loved our bo ssam party last week. Friends new and old were gathered together to eat food we'd never had before, a fitting way to welcome the new season. It was during the crazy-warm spell the atmosphere had gifted us with, so we dragged the dining room table out into the yard, threw a seldom-used tablecloth over it, and had our first garden party of the season. (Never mind that there was no garden. We're working on that.) We scooped soft, sweet meat into crisp leaves of lettuce, piled it high with jasmine rice and kimchi and two kinds of pickled carrots and daikon and ginger-scallion dipping sauce, and ate it all with much gusto and boisterous approval.


More than that, though, we spent quality time together. We caught up and got acquainted. We told stories, we laughed, we learned about who we are. We debated wines and lit the fire pit, we were dazzled by Wylie's self-designed superhero costume and impressed by Kalen's chess tutorial. As the cool darkness eased over us, we moved under the pergola, eating our just-made ice cream closer to the warmth of the fire. The kids got drowsy. The after-dinner drinks came out. The fire burned low. And the music kept playing.



Grapefruit Crisps
Yields 1 dozen

Having some dessert essentials always on-hand helps manage my stress levels when I don't have time to plan out a real dessert for a dinner party. These crisps, with the unexpected flavor of grapefruit shining through brightly, are a snap to make and keep for ages. Paired with my go-to cinnamon cream cheese ice cream, dessert that night was a refreshing and low-key way to wind down our evening.

23 grams/¼ cup almond flour
56 grams/approx. ¼ cup granulated sugar
29 grams/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
45 grams/2 tablespoons corn syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
22 grams/approx. 8 teaspoons Tara's gluten-free pastry flour blend
6 grams/1½ teaspoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon xanthan gum OR psyllium husk powder
finely grated zest of one large grapefruit

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line two baking pans with silicone baking mats and set aside.

In a baking pan, cast iron skillet, or other oven-proof sauté pan, toast the almond flour for 3-4 minutes, or until it's just beginning to turn a lovely light brown color. Keep an eye on it, it can burn quickly. Set aside to cool.

In a small saucepan set over low heat, stir together the 56 grams of sugar, the butter, corn syrup and vanilla just until smooth. Off the heat, add the toasted almond flour, pastry flour, 6 grams of sugar, xanthan gum/psyllium husk powder, and the grapefruit zest. Stir to combine well. The batter should be very loose and pourable.

Scoop the batter by the scant tablespoon onto the prepared baking pans, six per pan, leaving room for lots of spreading. Bake the crisps for 6 minutes, or until they are a rich brown color and are spread very thin. If any crisps have merged together, gently use a knife or the edge of a spatula to separate them. Cool on the pans for 2 minutes, then use a thin spatula (an offset spatula also works) to gently move them to a wire cooling rack. Cool completely, then stack the crisps, separating them with pieces of parchment or wax paper, and wrap airtight. Crisps keep, stored at room temperature, for up to two weeks.

4 comments:

  1. You painted such a beautiful picture of your Grandparents. While mine (Granny and GP) were different I have similar memories of the easy pace of their lives. I hope I can be that for my Grandchildren someday.
    It's still cold and rainy here but I can't wait for the outdoor dinners to come in the summer yours looks wonderful!

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    1. Thanks, Pétra. I hope the weather has dried out and warmed up in your corner of the country! Eating outside is such a wonderful, simple pleasure.

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  2. The photos are lovely. And the crisps look divine. I can't wait to try them!

    Alison

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Allison! I hope you try the crisps - they're a great accompaniment to so many desserts.

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