In the post-Christmas glow, the papers seemed especially grim. First I read the story of Bethlehem, virtually empty and devoid of celebration. None of the news from overseas seemed any cheerier. Closer to home, and what put me over the edge, was the story of a baby killed in the crossfire of a dispute in Carrboro on the afternoon of the 24th, including the odd detail of the sheriff unable to find the baby's mother by late that night.
Finally, I read the obituary of the news we had heard on Christmas Eve, the death of Paul Montgomery.
He was one of the area's best jazz pianists, but to those in my generation from Raleigh, he will forever be simply "Uncle Paul," the host of a children's TV show from the WRAL studio. He was my earliest brush with fame, good for bragging rights on my school playground, because he went to my church and was friends with my parents. Even with my mediocre memory, I could still draw a detailed picture of the show's studio, from the vantage point of the audience bleachers. It was a funny, warm show, gentle like Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo, and so unlike the junk on kids' TV today.
For all the talk in this country about how precious our children are, we have such a hard time walking the talk, and I just couldn't escape that thought as I dumped the papers. I thought about how early I started reading Raleigh's newspapers, and then about how little I was reading now would be OK for my own son to read--now just at age 3, but even years hence. And I thought about a typical kid's day nowadays: We wake them at 6 a.m. so they can board a school bus at 7 for a 30-minute ride when they're 5 years old, then keep them running with other activities designed, we tell ourselves, for their enjoyment and enrichment, when for joy what they need is a passel of friends to ride bikes with. Meanwhile, we feed them junk, tolerate it when schools peddle vast quantities of Twinkies and Cokes in the cafeteria, allow schools to get away with just 30 minutes a week--a WEEK!--of PE, and then agonize over obesity rates.
Whew. All I wanted when I got done with my pile of papers was to cuddle with my children and keep them safe and innocent for another year. Knowing that I couldn't completely do that, I gathered up my son and brought him into the kitchen.
The simple process of scooping and dumping flour and salt, whisking oil and sugar and eggs, paring one long swirl of apple peel to my son's delight--all this brought me back to a more moderate view of the world. I can't protect my children from everything, and sooner or later my son will discover who Sponge Bob is, and find Spider-Man infinitely more interesting than Thomas the Tank Engine.
But I can give him the roots that he needs when he's ready to spread those wings. Just as I think it's important to create food memories for your kids, I know the kitchen is one of the best places to pass along a full sense of home and family. Get your hands busy, and your mouth follows; talking seems so much freer when eyes are focused on a measuring spoon than when staring at each other. From my 3-year-old, I get a fanciful story of his dreams last night; from me, he gets an equally dreamy one about Andrew, our 6-year-old, bedtime-story pitcher for the Phillies.
With luck, our stories will change, but we'll keep telling them 10, even 20 years from now. I learned so much more than cooking wisdom in my teenage kitchen conversations with my mother; I'm sure I shared more with her at those moments than any other time together. To this day, when I'm struggling with something and she's not available for advice, I carry on conversations with her in my head while I cook, in the hope of finding the answer (and more often than not, I do).
Advice columnists lecture us on sharing suppers together as a family several nights a week to pass along values and teach your children table manners and conversation. Amen to that, but I'd also bet that the prep and cleanup matter even more in keeping relationships close.
And that's another reason why heating a few frozen dinners just won't cut it. Make something from scratch, and your day slows down, opening the door to relaxed chats. If that's not enough of a reason for you, go back to that bit about 30 minutes of PE. At the very least, give your hands and heart a workout by the stove.
Cook's Notes: These muffins are based on the recipe for Apple-Sage Muffins in my book Morning Glories. There's a running debate among bakers about which muffins are better, those based on oil or melted butter (which can be mixed by hand), or those based on softened butter (which must be creamed with a mixer to get the butter fluffy enough). I won't turn down either kind, but I usually vote in the oil camp, for moistness and preparation ease. Let your creativity loose with variations on this recipe. When my son and I made it, I had no fresh sage, so we used a teaspoon of minced rosemary leaves instead. The muffins had a crisp top and just a hint of the herb, as I prefer when I use herbs in baking. I've also used a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon in place of herbs. Likewise, you could substitute a teaspoon of apple pie spice or pumpkin pie spice, or even try a little ground star anise, or Chinese five-spice powder, or anise extract, or about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of ground or chopped almonds and just a touch of almond extract. Or try a little lemon or orange zest (you can mix the zest in with the dry ingredients, or try first grinding a few strips of zest with some of the sugar in a food processor or blender to get a stronger flavor). Other flavor-makers include 1/2 cup of pecans, walnuts or pine nuts; 1/2 cup raisins, dried currants, or dried cranberries (all good with cinnamon or citrus); or a few handfuls of grated cheddar cheese. You may also substitute some whole-wheat flour for the all-purpose, to make them more nutritious. Just remember that the muffins will be heavier with whole-wheat flour; I wouldn't substitute more than 3/4 cup flour. If you don't have buttermilk on hand, make a little sour milk by stirring 3/4 teaspoon of lemon juice or cider vinegar into milk; let it stand for about 5 minutes to thicken slightly.
Versatile Apple Muffins
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
1 to 2 teaspoons flavoring (see Cook's notes), such as 1 teaspoon minced rosemary leaves or cinnamon
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups diced peeled cooking apples (try Braeburn, Rome, or Granny Smith) (about 2 small apples)
1/2 cup raisins or chopped nuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place paper or foil muffin cup liners in muffin cups.
In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and dry flavor ingredient (if also using a wet ingredient, such as an extract, whisk it into the oil mixture below). In a medium bowl, whisk together oil, buttermilk, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Pour oil mixture over flour mixture and fold in with a rubber spatula until barely blended. Fold in apples and raisins or nuts, if using, until just combined.
Divide batter among muffin cups. Bake muffins 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove to a wire rack to cool.