Let Them Eat Artichoke

For the longest time, I disliked artichoke (among other “weird” looking vegetables and fruits). Artichoke looked entirely unapproachable. Artichoke looked scary, unknown and unknowable. Dislike is the absolutely easiest thing in the world. Dislike implies little to no emotional risk.

My thoughts will sound non sequitur, but trust me, as my grad school mentor (progenitor of bitch face) used to say, “Everything is to the point. Our job is to make the connections.” I should know: even when I was a sketchy teacher, I proved Nancy Walker right every single school year, and usually again during the miniscule weeks of summer break. I still do. Every year, I remember that I know for sure that our job is to make the connections.

I first gave artichoke a chance the summer of 1996 when Paulina, a dear teacher friend, gave me a book called She Taught Me to Eat Artichokes. (I think I finally know why, after a four week summer writing workshop she gave me that book – connections don’t always come instantly.) My mom was visiting that summer. My mom the gardener, the would-be vegetarian; my mom the writer and thinker and teacher. Momma and I were inspired to boil up artichoke and make hollandaise dipping sauce thanks to Paulina. Thanks to Momma, I learned about the “choke”, and the nutty sweetness of the heart.

To get to that tender nutty sweetness, the raw, fresh artichoke has to be boiled, steamed or baked a long time. A long time. An hour. Sometimes more. And like the efforts of a teacher who has watched over raw, fresh students, the cook asks and waits, offers and waits, and even after she asks and asks again in a rolling boil the work is still not done.

I waited, and watched, and offered, and asked, and “boiled” this senior class all fall semester. There was a part of me that began to think finding their hearts was too hard, and maybe I should just dislike them and move on with my life. But early in the spring, as I kept watching and offering and waiting and asking – I saw unexpected bubbles of interest here and there linking the struggles of the wife who lamented to the conflict between vengeance and survival in Hamlet; recognition of themselves and their culture in the frustration of Winston and Julia as they sought freedom. Among these bubbles of interest and hints of tenderness the purple heart beneath the choke began to appear.

The artichoke metaphor came to me in the blinding, breathless five days in which I read and evaluated ninety-four 10-page essays (sometimes more, sometimes less). But the metaphor was incomplete until the following week when I sat for three straight class days in the brand new auditorium listening to my students tell each other and their teachers what they know for sure, right now, this moment – about themselves, about excellence, about the world at large.

Unlike my students, when the talks got a little dull or repetitive, I couldn’t distract myself with games or social media on my phone since I was evaluating the nuance and structure of argument and general effectiveness of the talks. I had to pay attention to the peeling away of each teardrop-shaped leaf of experience with my complete self, my whole brain and intellect, while my students reached into themselves and exposed the tricky, hair like choke above their hearts.

At times, during the talks, I wanted to curl up on the floor under my chair and disappear as students sheared away all illusion of youthful innocence. Despite all the watching and waiting, I had glossed over important details about the needs of astronauts, the bent backs of dancers, the shadows of introverts, the power of WORDS, the losses and losses and losses and near misses. In those three days I could see how my students held each other together both intentionally and by accident through the traumas and victories of their lives and the lives of others. Being a grown-up had dulled my sense of observation and turned me into nearly pure choke. On the final day of the talks I was both shaken and renewed. My students had revealed the heart hidden beneath the protective choke, and allowed me to find the nutty sweetness the choke protects.

That was three weeks ago. Now those students are gone and they will never be that senior class in those particular groupings ever again. And they are a nutty sweet memory with a lingering burn on my tongue and in my throat. I will remember each leaf – the beast, the giant weeping Pooh bear, the surgical steel-coated heart, the twin, the son, the daughter, the dancer, the actor, the comedian, the philosopher, the coder, the triathlete, the scholar, the loafer, the lover, the friend, the artist, the broken-hearted and the whole, the insomniac, the gamer, the anxious, and the complete orange – as if I had scraped away the choke protecting them with a spoon and let the pure heart beneath meld into my own experience.

When the artichoke is gone, it always seems too soon. As if I could have savored these hearts so much more, appreciated more, loved more. The wish for more leaves me with an ache, a yearning. Yes, dislike would have been easier, less complicated. But the heart is totally worth the effort.

Makin’ Cookies: The Almost True Story

The process is nearly rote now, even though I only bake cookies once a year, twice at most: nearly always at Christmas, and less reliably near July 4th.

Sugar, brown sugar, shortening, vanilla, eggs: beat until creamy and light and most of the sugar crystals have gone smooth. The flour, soda, and salt look on from a nearby bowl supervising. Forget to pre-heat the oven.

Lick the beaters, or if you must, pass the beaters to a small person(s) to lick. Sneak a lick off each beater as you hand it to a small person. Keep your back turned so they don’t notice. If they catch you anyway, tell them you are testing the dough. Make the small people share if there are more than two. Forget, accidentally-on-purpose, about raw eggs.

Throw the flour on top of the creamified sweetness and with a sturdy spoon, stir a bit. By now the envious flour will be mostly incorporated and the dough will begin to look like dough more than ingredients. Add the chopped pecans and Nestle Toll House Semi-sweet Chocolate Morsels ®. Accept no substitutes. Not even Hershey’s ®.

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Forget that this last stirring is nearly impossible with a spoon, no matter how sturdy. Ditch the spoon and dive in hands first. Forget how the dough tries to become one with your rings. Cuss. Forget about the small people gleefully engrossed in sugared raw-egg lollipops. Hope they didn’t hear, or at worst, won’t repeat to their parents (in this case, my brothers, and my sisters-in-law).

Remove dough-encrusted rings and set them aside. You can clean them later, when you clean up the nieces and nephews (or your siblings, your kids, your grandkids — reader’s choice). Squish the dough between now naked fingers a few more times. Watch for dry patches and spaces where the flour is still just flour. Fix those dry bits with an energetic massage. Like that.

Realize that you “forgot” to pre-heat the oven and do that now. Meanwhile, enlist the pint-sized nieces and nephews to start making walnut-sized balls of cookie dough. Show them, again — same as last time — how big, exactly, a walnut-sized ball of cookie dough is. Otherwise, be prepared for the biggest balls of cookie-dough you’ve ever seen.

“That one says, ‘Ryan’s’.”

“No way, Mister. Make like four out of that one.”

“Awwww….”

Remember showing their parents how to do this when we were only slightly less pint-sized than these characters. Ok, maybe I was the one who wasn’t pint-sized, but I was only a quart, not a full gallon or even half-gallon.

Place the finger-marked, lopsided cookie dough balls on the cookie sheet at about two inches apart; you should be able to get a dozen on a cookie sheet, and with luck, two cookie sheets each round. Set the timer for 8, 10 or 12 minutes. This depends on your oven. Twelve usually works best at Mom’s (and also at my sister-in-law’s).

Take the intervening minutes to wash small hands and faces clean of illicit, raw-egg cookie makings. Remember to wash your rings while you’re at it. Find a walnut-size ball of uncookie in a pocket. Scold. Try not to laugh. At least not right now.

Wait for the magic to happen around minute 9 or 10. Turn on the oven light to give a peek, but don’t open the oven door (you’ll mess up the temperature). Flicking the switch on that light does something to people while the still pale-ish cookie dough has not quite converted to its soon-to-be cookie self.

The brothers and their respective wives, Mom, and all the small people start hovering in and around the kitchen. There is talk of milk. Is it cold? Is there enough? How many glasses do we need? Give an eye roll to conceal delight. Threaten anyone standing too near the cookie landing zone with loss of life and limb. Don’t mean it. Smile. Oh, go on, giggle.

Once everyone’s had a look, turn off the oven light. Look for the cooling racks and a spatula. Ask (again) where the paper towels are. Check the timer. Still two-ish minutes to go. Try not to pace.

When the hundred last seconds have passed, slow like the wait for Christmas, and the timer finally bings, turn on the oven light one last time. The cookies should now look done, shiny with melty shortening or butter, but clearly cookies. Experience tells you that the shine will fade as the cookies cool.

Slip the oven mitt over your hand and slide the first tray out of the oven. Identify your landing area and make the removal a clean one. There are hoverers all around, the kitchen crowded with bodies and cookie heat. Swipe the spatula under each row and gently release them to the freedom of the cooling rack.

Warn small people about heat while watching a big hand reach around and snag the first boiling cookie. He juggles it, but the cookie is safe. Broken in his palm, but safe. When the moms say go, little hands reach up, too, then march dutifully to the table where ice-cold cups of milk await. There are dippers and sippers, between them the first batch of cookies has been cut in half in a matter of breaths.

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Now, you are alone with the rolling of walnut-sized cookie dough balls, the timing and the sliding and the cooling. Tummies small and large are warm and full of cookies and milk and have retired to the latest round of Minecraft or Skyrim in the next room.

Only you remain. Sacrificing yourself for the sake of a cookie broken on the end of the spatula, or, heaven forbid, the tiniest uncookie known to man — the last bit in the bowl.

As the last pans of cookies come out of the hot oven, lean against the kitchen counter listening to the joy, the warmth, the competition, the sheer family-ness of the moment in the other room – nearby, but still removed. Know that neither they, nor you, could possibly be this satisfied more than once or twice a year, at most.

Don’t forget to turn off the oven.