apparently I’m a Jewish mother

Although I’m not technically Jewish, nor am I a mother (yet). But my cousin Ira told me that I was, the day before he died last weekend. Today would have been his 80th birthday.

chicken soup

My Jewish Mother Chicken Soup

It all started with my chicken soup. I make it when someone is sick, or needs a little extra love, or for myself when I need a little extra love. There’s just something about chicken soup. Oddly, my mom doesn’t have a staple chicken soup recipe in her repertoire, so I have been making a variation of the next best thing — a Martha Stewart recipe that she made on her TV show while I worked there. I know this image, and I reference it often. I’ve adapted it into my own version, which personally I like better. I used to think making a bouquet garni was fussy. Now I’m all about it.

So of course I made it for Ira when he was entering the final stages of his battle with liver cancer, along with a giant loaf of sourdough bread and my 3-day dark chocolate sea salt cookies. You could say I pulled out the big guns. He didn’t have much of an appetite but he needed to eat (and so did his husband), so bada bing, bada boom, that was the menu I came up with.

When I brought it over to his apartment on Saturday afternoon, I was ready for him to tell me he wasn’t up for eating anything. But instead, he held my hand and said slowly, poignantly, “You really are a true Jewish mo-tha.” And then he didn’t let go of my hand. He held it for longer than he’s ever held it, and I started to wonder if he had actually ever held my hand before. Maybe to grab it quickly and pat it with his other hand in an attempt to commend me or congratulate me or something — or more likely with Ira, to emphasize some sort of sarcasm. He was brilliant at loving sarcasm. But never, that I could recall, had he held onto it before. Then he told me that the fresh bread sounded “won-da-ful” and he would eat a chocolate chip cookie. (That’s when I knew something was up — he never ate sweets.) So I savored the moment, continued shooting the shit with him as we did so well, and held his hand right back.

The next day his husband called to say that he had passed. Strangely, I didn’t cry. (I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, so maybe I have dried up.) But a flood of memories came over me in such a rush that I couldn’t make heads or tails of what I was actually feeling. I was immediately thankful for the time we had spent together, not just the day before but over the past four years that I have lived in San Francisco. Ira was my west-coast dad. He introduced me to chicken feet at his favorite dim sum place on Geary, took me to the old-school Polish delis in the Outer Richmond, and always kept on top of my latest job search/boyfriend search/NY bagel search. He told everyone he knew that I went to cooking school (apparently beaming with lots of pride), and I learned on the evening that he died, that he had also started telling everyone that I had found love. He never had a chance to meet my boyfriend, but he has made fun of his Minnesota accent enough that I feel like he does know him. Ira was the first person I went to when I needed advice, and he was always right. In fact, he said so much to me the day before he died, and we both laughed out loud about it. He’s been to so many places, seen so many things — of course he would always be right. And I was lucky enough to have him as my valentine this year. (We went for dim sum and he didn’t even make me eat chicken feet.)

Ira Lubell

Valentine’s Day with cousin Ira — no chicken feet this time!

Ira — I’m not sure what the world is going to do without you, but Lord knows I will still be asking you for advice about everything. And I will still be cooking you my Jewish mother chicken soup.

Happy 80th birthday, Ira. I love you, always.

JEWISH MOTHER CHICKEN SOUP

  • 1 whole chicken, about 4 lbs.
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
  • 3 celery stalks, cut into rounds
  • Any other firm or root vegetables you have in the fridge, cut into rounds
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, stems reserved
  • 1/4 cup fresh dill
  • Coarse salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 lb dried pasta, such as rigatoni, elbow macaroni, penne, or farfalle

Bouquet garni:

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1 dried bay leaf

Tie parsley stems together using kitchen twine. Prepare a bouquet garni: Place peppercorns, bay leaf, and garlic in a piece of cheesecloth; tie to enclose using kitchen twine.

In a large pot, combine parsley stems, bouquet garni, carrots, celery, onions, other vegetables (if using), and chicken, breast-side down. Add enough water to cover; season with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce to a simmer, and cook, partially covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Skim any foam that rises to the top and discard.

Meanwhile, cook pasta separately according to package instructions for al dente. Drain and set aside.

Remove chicken from pot, and let stand until cool enough to handle. Skim fat from surface of soup, if desired, and discard. Remove and discard parsley stems and bouquet garni. Remove meat from bones; discard skin and bones. Shred meat into bite-size pieces, and return to pot. Cook until heated through; season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a portion of pasta to each serving, and garnish with chopped parsley, dill, and freshly ground black pepper. (Sometimes I add a little grated Romano cheese, too.)

 

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can you really reinvent yourself?

There are some days when you wake up and everything makes sense. Then there are those days when you find yourself wandering aimlessly around Williams-Sonoma looking for an OXO mixing bowl — and a purpose in life.

Kim's baking book

one of Kim’s many amazing cookbooks

Today was one of the later. I had a business lunch in Union Square, and left more confused about life than when I had arrived. So I decided to go to my happy place, the mecca of all things baking and cooking and yummy smells, to visit the cookbook section. It’s where I go to get grounded when nothing else will do the trick. I scan the sea of colorful beauty that is the cookbook bookshelf to find my friend Kim’s books, which are all a culinary journey in and of themselves. They’re inspiring and beautiful, just like she is, and each of the alluring images is meant to be devoured as intensely as each of her remarkable baked goods. And they make me happy. There’s just something about a photo of giant chocolate chip cookies stacked on top of each other so high that the pile looks like it might topple over at any minute, but it doesn’t.

I had the pleasure of working with Kim recently on a photo shoot for a cookbook about pies. Ummmm… pies. Lots and lots and lots of pies. So many pies, so little time. (I tried to eat each and every one of them, and not let any crumb go to waste. But soon realized that my waist was the recipient of all the waste, and that was not a very good thing at all.) Working on the photo shoot was both a blessing and a curse. For the first time, in a very long time, I was actually doing something that I loved and getting paid for it. But it gave me a taste (sorry about the pun, I’m my father’s daughter) of a new life, a life where you can have your cake and eat it, too (sorry, again) and all I’ve been able to think about since then is how I can go about having that life. In many ways, I’d be starting over. Reinventing myself, if you will. Not in as crazy of a way as my stint attempting to reinvent myself training as a bread baker. But still, quite a bit of a departure from where I left off before Ireland.

flat stanley with pie

Flat Stanley sneaking onto the set of the pie photo shoot

My resume is filled with words like strategy, execution, customized marketing, data-driven, platform analysis, etc. etc. etc. etc. Sometimes it makes me nauseous.  It was my life for many, many years, and like a light switch, I can turn it on again just like that. I turned it on at lunch. It was that kind of lunch. Lunch about potential work in my old life, but at a new place. Yet as soon as it was over, a million thoughts flooded into my head. Do I want to go back to my old life? Do I want to do that kind of work again? Is it now or never? Am I fooling myself that I can actually create and walk on a new path and still live in one of the most (if not the most) expensive cities in the country? And if I try to, will I forever be caught in between the lands of “overqualified” and “not enough experience in that yet?”

So during today’s lunch I was asked, as I always seem to be asked these days, “What are you looking for?” (Which I’ve come to prefer ever so slightly to the question of “Can you work with millennials?”) Once again, I didn’t have a straight answer. I think it makes people nervous and confused when you don’t have a straight answer to that seemingly straightforward question. But I don’t. My answer takes some form of “many things,” followed by a list of the things I’m currently working on. That list runs the gamut, and I lose most people before it’s even finished. It seems a bit all over the place, and I get that. To be fair, I am a bit all over the place these days, both literally and figuratively. But when you are trying to reinvent yourself, do you need to just pick one thing? Do you have to choose between what you once were and what else you might want to be one day? I don’t know. I hope not. Because if so, then I’m doing it all fucking wrong.

A good friend, who is in a slightly similar place, and I talk about this type of thing a lot lately. What happens after you climb the corporate ladder pretty high and then want or need to change course? Why do people and prospective employers seem to not know what to do with you anymore? Why is your vast list of experiences and accomplishments now a deterrent? If you’ve already worked at some of the top companies in your field, is there even anywhere left to move over to? Our generation (Gen X) has been trained to work hard, climb the ladder, do everything we can to gain experience and expertise, achieve lots, push ahead, plow through, and all that jazz. But this upcoming generation of millennials is being trained very differently. They are the new golden children, sought after for their youth and fresh eyes and new perspectives, as well as “awesome” experience in social media, disruptive technologies and the like. After all, they were raised in an era of social media and crowdsourcing. Their lives at age 15 were way different from mine. For the first half of my media career, Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet. (Or open to the general public.) My friend just gave me a copy of the new book called Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-up Bubble by a former Newsweek journalist who goes to work at a tech start-up after he’s laid off from the print magazine. I’m only a few chapters in, but I find myself nodding constantly. Yes, I felt like that. Yes, I know how that goes. OMG, yes!!! I couldn’t believe it either! Yet another book written about almost exactly what I am going through at that exact period of time, but not written by me. (Two other famous “novels” still torment me to that end: The Devil Wears Prada not-yet-published manuscript found its way to my desk when I was the assistant to the fashion director at Mirabella magazine; The Nanny Diaries came out when I was a nanny for a very rich and very fucked up family on Manhattan’s east side after I got laid off from my first Internet job during the original Internet bust in 2001.)

There are days like today, and pretty much every day over the past two weeks, when I just want to wear a big sign that says, “I can do it! Really, I can! I’ve done lots of things!” I wonder if that will work. Or maybe something more like, “I’ve been around the block before — I’ve got this.” Or even better still, “All of the random things in my purse don’t make me more enigmatic, but rather more interesting.” I just wonder if anyone (clarification: anyone who might potentially hire me) will ever really get that, or just trust in that. I really hope so.

Needless to say, Williams-Sonoma did not have the bowl I was looking for. So I walked home, up the big hill, amid the glaring sunshine, wondering where to look for it next.

finding my tribe

Two weeks ago, I flew more than 5,300 miles for a hug. Well, OK, lots of hugs. I needed to see my tribe.

three blondes

the three nutty blondes, made even nuttier by the bubbly

I’m a hugger. And it still baffles me to no end how most people in San Francisco are not. Tree huggers, yes. People huggers, not so much. Even though my mom is German, she’s a hugger. That’s probably where I got it from. We hug every morning when we first see each other and again at night before we go to bed. We’re known to sneak some hugs in there in the middle of the day, too. So yeah, we hug. A lot. But hugging aside, it’s no secret that I’ve felt more than a little out of place in San Francisco lately. So I got on a plane (or two) and flew 5,351 miles from San Francisco to London to be with what a good friend (whom I met in SF but doesn’t hug) calls “my tribe.”

I’ve been a bit of an etymology nerd lately, thanks in large part to a fellow word nerd whom I met here in SF (and whom I’d classify as a medium hugger). While there are many definitions for the word “tribe,” my favorite is a simple one: A group of persons who have a common character, occupation, or interest. The word dates back to 13th century Middle English, from Latin tribus, a division of the Roman people: tribe. (Always the Romans, they knew what was up.) Even though I used the term quite often, I never put much stock or deep thought into it until last night when I was recounting my trip to the aforementioned word nerd. I realized then that I flew all the way to London for more than a bacon sandwich, really amazing gin or a giant bag of Cadbury’s mini eggs. I flew all the way to London to reconnect with my tribe. The tribe I have spent years depending on but never really realized it.

IMG_7840

sometimes in life, you just really need to share a sausage

I hop around a lot, which confuses many people. I’ll move country or city without a lot of premeditated thought, I’ll get on planes to far away places on a whim, I’ll do yoga in jungles or French chateaux or tiny northwestern islands, and I’ll occasionally do crazy things like live on a farm in Ireland for three months. A doctor here once told me that this sort of lifestyle is a symptom of my “overstimulated mind” — apparently my mind moves more quickly than any other part of me, so I need to change my stimuli often to keep it happy. I fall into the hyper-creative, entrepreneur-brain category, which seems to have a common neurological pattern. We are “people that balance their neurochemistry by constantly doing something stimulating or innovative at all times,” according to this Inc. article that the doctor was interviewed for. Believe of it what you will, but much our 20 minute discussion years ago still resonates with me today.

IMG_7887

a proper Sunday lunch with good friends can do wonders for the soul

I’ve deduced that a lot of people just don’t get me. (The doctor did add that romantic relationships would be challenging. Um, yes.) So for the few people that I meet that also fall into this same category, we get along swimmingly. For the rest, they’ll either a) try to calm me down, strongly suggest that I choose one path, or just shake their heads; or b) let me be my nutty self. This is not to say that the same person cannot play both roles at various times or in different situations, but the reactions are pretty clearly divided into those two groups. Because of this, I try to be conscious of my reactions to other people’s paths, dreams, career aspirations and the like. I hope I do OK on that front. But spending a lot of time alone these days had lead me to crave some seriously awesome human interaction with people who get me. People in group (b). This is not to say that I don’t have a tribe in the States. I definitely do. But it’s different. We are so work and career-focused here that it’s very hard to be, for the first time in your life, not defined by your job and truly embrace life in the US. Perhaps it’s the adventurous European spirit, perhaps it’s the bond you create with people who are in the trenches with you (another term coined by my wise Californian non-hugging friend), perhaps it’s a mix of both that lead me across the pond to my tribe.

FN gals

we look so well-behaved here

I spent a week laughing and eating and drinking gin and hugging. I spent a week in a place without judgement, both literally and figuratively. I spent a week surrounded by unconditional encouragement and support for my new journey, and really good gin. (Did I mention the gin already? Oh well, it was really good.) On my last night, I got a bit emotional (shocker, I know). Surrounded by the smiling faces of friends, many of whom are as nutty as I am, I realized that I’m not as f—ked up as I often think I am, and I’m ready to carry on (as they say) back home.  No, I don’t have a full-time job. No, I’m not earning six figures anymore. No, I’m not moving back to New York tomorrow. No, I don’t know exactly where this new road will take me. But yes, I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

As a very good friend and fellow culinary school mate says to me almost every day, “How lucky are we?”

Version 2

i love these mugs, and these lovely ladies

I live in San Francisco, but I’m not 27

Version 2

As Otis Redding so accurately captured this moment… just sittin’ on the dock of the bay

A few weeks ago, I went to the corporate offices of a well-known “disruptive” tech company in SF to pitch some content strategy ideas, and I was immediately struck by the overwhelming awareness that I’m not 27 years old anymore. (To be fair, I’m not even 37 years old anymore.) Waiting at reception after I checked in via an iPad (I miss humans), I watched oodles of twenty-somethings walk around carrying half-open MacBook Air laptops in the palms of their hands like a waiter carrying a tray, being followed by prancing puppies clad in denim jeans stopping at dog biscuit stations for treats and then bounding up the factory-inspired metal stairs after their owners. The girls wore classic San Francisco girl outfits — skinny pants, loose blouses, booties, big sweaters, Warby Parker black or tortoise-shell glasses. The guys wore classic engineer duds — gray T-shirts with some sort of logo or cartoon (the more unrecognizable the design, the cooler the dude), jeans, and sneakers. It was sort of cold that day so there were some hoodies. I was wearing a Diane von Furstenberg patterned tunic dress, burgundy leather knee-high boots and a gray wool Vince one-button cape jacket. So yeah, I, um, didn’t fit in. A born-and-bred New Yorker who started my career in fashion, I might be just slightly more aware of what people wear. But — it was soon very apparent that the outfits were very much the book covers by which we all could be judged.

I only met one person there and she was perfectly lovely. Though we spoke quite different languages, we thankfully seemed to be speaking about the same thing. (Score!) During the presentation she mentioned on a few occasions that my ideas were “like so totally awesome.” (Double score!)  I can’t imagine what my slightly pained and very pensive face must have looked like during that meeting. I just really wished I had a millennial dictionary to help decode our conversation while it was going on.

Speaking of dictionaries, I’ve recently rediscovered my love for Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I have the third edition, published in 1979 and handed down to me from my older brother, who was also an English major and a grammar nerd. I’ve found one other grammar nerd here, he’s 30 so technically still a millennial but not as much of a logo T-shirt-er as his peers. We can nerd out almost endlessly about affect vs. effect and the correct uses of the word “hopefully” (there are very few, in fact). And I really appreciate this nod to concise and grammatically correct speaking and writing. Many, if not all, of my publishing peers in New York would think of these efforts as a given, but sadly in the young San Francisco tech scene, I yet again seem to be a fish out of water.

That same week I was also at the corporate office of another well-know “disruptive” tech company in SF for another meeting. The offices were stunning. Draw-dropping, crank your neck, mouth-wide-open stunning. A modern glass and open-plan space juxtaposed in a 96-year-old warehouse building, it is a design masterpiece. But when I looked around the dining room, casually eating my grilled chicken schwarma and still oogling at the tap bar from which I chose an awesome local sour wheat beer, I noticed that everyone looked, um, well 27. Trying to imagine myself working there, I just couldn’t get past feeling like a dinosaur. I guess in dog years in the tech world, I am. At least the building was older than I am.

All this to say, my life is different now. It’s been just slightly over a year since I left my corporate VP job and starting blazing my new trail. And it’s taken me that entire year to step back and get some perspective on it all. Some days are fucking scary. Others are amazing. Most mornings when I wake up to start the coffee brewing and start motivating myself, I don’t know which kind of day it will be. Although I don’t regret any of the adventures I’ve taken in life, I do miss the times when I had friendly faces of encouragement around me always. I do miss having coworkers. I realize now that the “we’re all in this together” hokey stuff is very comforting.

I was struck by an article I read recently on medium.com entitled Blind Positivity Sucks. After a bit of harsh reality around how much people on the Internet seem to be obsessed with positivity, motivation, and inspiration, it goes on to say:

Blind positivity is believing that your dreams will come true instead of putting in the hard work to make it happen.

That line actually gave me some reprieve around my approach to life lately. Because damn have I been hustling. Hustling for $0, it should be noted. Promises of payment or contracts or longer-term working relationships, yes — but actual money, no. So it probably goes without saying that there are only so many consecutive days that you can hustle for $0 that you don’t occasionally stop and ask yourself, “What the feeeck (as the Irish say) are you doing? Do you really think this will work?” And honestly, I have no feeecking idea.

I’m not 27. I live in a city where everyone is obsessed about the next big thing and disrupting anything and everything that could possibly need disruption. Many of my “peers” are brilliant and will go on to do great things. Many of them don’t use “your” and “you’re” correctly, but will still go on to do great things. I don’t really want to disrupt things as much as I want to make them better. I want to teach little kids how to cook. I want to show them where their (not there) food comes from. I want to help the awesome chefs and bakers and food people in this city spread their knowledge and their research and their amazing food with others. I want to connect those amazing people with the little ones like I’m Cupid with an arrow made out of bread. And every so often I want to put on my chef’s whites and open my knife bag and get cooking somewhere awesome. I just need to stop and remind myself — I’m doing all of those things. For $0, yes, but I’m doing them. I’m now on the Board of Directors for Bay Leaf Kitchen, an amazing non-profit organization that teaches kids about cooking, farming and food sustainability from age 3. I’m helping Chad Robertson with anything and everything related to the future of bread. He has taken to introducing me as, “This is my friend, Alexis. She came to me to bake bread and then I found out who she was.” It makes my heart sink every single time. And this weekend I’m going to cook somewhere awesome — at the Taste of the NFL charity dinner the night before the Super Bowl, which helps fight hunger across the country.

So the hustle is not for naught, but the true test is reminding myself every day that I’m putting in the hard work. It’s been crazy to leave a world where you define yourself and your successes from a corporate perspective. Audience growth, product engagement, unique users, PNL, percentage change year-over-year, etc. etc. — it all plays like a game of corporate bingo. If nothing else, I’ve learned from blazing this new trail that I need to redefine what success means to me.

And there is no better reminder about how much hard work can pay off — AND how sometimes we just need to see what we have — than this scene from The Pursuit of Happyness. Especially because it was filmed on a street that I walk down almost every day.

*SPOILER ALERT — if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should watch it first. Right now, in fact. It is one of the best. 

flying solo

I thought breaking free would be the hardest part. But over the course of the past year, I’ve realized that staying free is much, much harder. Carving your own path is tough. But carving it alone is even tougher.

Every time I land at Newark Airport, I look out the plane window for the Statue of Liberty. She is my rock. She’s been standing in that water, holding her head up high, surviving hurricanes and blizzards and even terrorist attacks. And she never lets her arm down or her light go off. She’s pretty bad ass. And she stands there alone.

Northern Ireland

My attempt at being the Statue of Liberty — in Northern Ireland

I wish I were as bad ass as the Statue of Liberty. I try to be, but some days it’s not that easy. 2015 was a roller coaster, to say the least. A year ago, I boarded a plane to Ireland to live on a farm for three months and cook my heart out. It was one of, if not the, best experiences of my entire life. I learned so much about what was brewing inside me that I didn’t even realize was there, I gained confidence in the kitchen, I met friends for life, and I milked cows. Not much in life could top any of that. After school was finished, I traveled for a month to visit friends all over the world. It was probably the first time I really understood how fortunate I am to have friends in all of the far corners of the earth. And then I went to a jungle in Mexico and made some more.

There have been many ups and downs, laughs and tears, smiles and screams during the course of finding my new path. Although my wise yoga teacher tells me often, “You are on the right path, just keep walking,” some days it’s really, really hard. And to be honest, I’ve been struggling with how my world of absolutely wonderful and amazing friends could fill the void of one solid and loving partner.  The Uber driver who picked me up from Newark Airport asked me why I didn’t bring my husband with me for Christmas. I told him politely that I didn’t have one. And he said to me, with the biggest smile and look of optimism on his face, “Maybe Santa will bring you one for Christmas!” Santa did bring me some awesome new running sneakers, but a husband he did not. I could say that I’m lucky to have found love in my life. But when it doesn’t last, does it even matter? If you have no one to kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve, does it matter what has happened in years past? I watched It’s a Wonderful Life the other day, such a classic for so many reasons. But this time I took pause when George Bailey’s mother says to him at his brother’s engagement party, “Nice girl, Mary. The kind that will help you find the answers.” What an amazing way to describe a partnership. And in the end, who calls Mr. Gower and Uncle Billy and brother Harry and He-Haw Sam Wainwright when George loses everything and runs out into the snow in despair? Mary. I could really use a Mary right about now.

I have been blessed with so many strong, independent female role models in my life. Those who take risks and do bold things and follow their dreams. They’re pretty bad ass. But when there’s a dip in the road or a change in the plans, almost all of them have a partner in crime to lean on. I’m jealous of that. I’ve never been one to need a partner in crime (and have been told many times that my independent spirit might actually be a turn off to potential partners), but have always loved having one. And the few I’ve had in my life have been pretty amazing. So I can attest to the power of two. Having spent about as many years in my adult life solo as I have as a twosome, I can say that I prefer the later.

My yoga teacher asked us in class today to sum up our gratitude for 2015 in one word. I said: DISCOVERY. I’m so grateful for everyone I’ve met, everything I’ve learned, and everywhere I’ve been. I’d like my word for 2016 to be LOVE. Love like my parents have even, especially, after 48+ years together. Love that you can lean on, love that holds your hand when life doesn’t make much sense, love that is a rock when you’re wading aimlessly out at sea. When I told my facialist in New York about the feast I cooked for Christmas dinner, she said to me, “The man who is lucky enough to be with you, is going to be the luckiest man on the planet.” So… anyone out there like prime rib??

Happy New Year to all. Cheers to a healthy, prosperous, and loving 2016.

coloring outside the lines

The universe is full of boxes. But I’m beginning to wonder if I fit into any of them anymore.

Northern Ireland

a view of the world from the top — quite literally, at the very top of Northern Ireland

Lately I have been trying to shove my apparently non-conventional life into a lot of boxes — online forms, job applications, recruiting websites and the like. Who are you? What do you do? What do you want to be when you grow up? The final scene from The Breakfast Club comes to mind every time I attempt to do this… I’m a student and a teacher, a writer and an editor, a baker and a content strategist, a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a friend and a yogi and and and…

My yoga teacher said to us today to be careful not to think too much about who we are because our thoughts (and I’ll add to that our doubts) can become reality. I am definitely guilty of that. But it is very hard not to do that when you’re trying to carve out a new career path for yourself, one that doesn’t neatly fit into the universe’s boxes.

My wise yoga teacher also says, “Sometimes you need to disconnect to reconnect.” I’ve done quite a bit of that this year, living on a farm in Ireland, traveling around France without a wallet, doing yoga in a jungle in Mexico. What a wonderful year this has been, but also a crazy, stressful, confusing one. I’m learning that those things are not mutually exclusive. I’m starting to feel as though the more I leave to find answers, I just come home with more questions.

I treated myself to a real cup of coffee from a real coffee shop today. That’s not a luxury I afford myself very much any more, partly because it gets expensive quickly and mostly because that used to be how I escaped work when it got really bad. Somehow leaving the office to cross the street, spend a few dollars on a hot, frothy, steamy cup of caffeinated goodness could turn even some of the worst days around. Or at least remind me to breathe. Those real cups of coffee became my mediation. Today I found myself fixated on another women in line at the coffee shop. She was wearing real work clothes and makeup and trendy San Francisco hipster glasses, and I started to feel envious. Her colorful silk blouse and perfectly-applied eyeshadow were things I have lost touch with. Work clothes to me this year have either been chefs’ whites or baking whites, fugly supportive black shoes and aprons adorned with dish towels. For everything else, yoga clothes fit the bill. A friend of mine said to me early on in the journey of my new life, “Let me know how long you go without wearing anything that buttons.” That pretty much sums it up. To me, the woman in the coffee shop represented security, stability, and maybe a little bit of conformity. All things I’ve been craving lately. She looked like she fits into a box. It’s hard to live outside the box. It’s hard to not live in a box at all. Life would be awesome if we didn’t need to “make a living.”

I have been volunteering a lot lately, teaching little kids how to cook and helping the non-profit organization that puts the classes together. There is nothing more rewarding or fulfilling than doing something for the sole reason that you want to, and that other people want you to. No money exchanged, no “what’s in it for me” expectations. It’s simply awesome. One of the founders said to me after our class on Saturday, “When we get all the money in the world, can we hire you?” But here’s the thing, I don’t want all the money in the world. Crazy to say that, especially in this tech money-hungry IPO-crazed city that I live in, but it’s true. Through a series of events, most of which didn’t make much sense to me at the time but are starting to now, I find myself living in one of, if not the, most expensive cities in the country. And all I really want to do is be happy and pay my rent. Easier said than done when you don’t fit neatly into those boxes anymore.

So why am I writing all of this here? I have no f–ing clue. Maybe writing has replaced  expensive real coffee as my meditation. Maybe I thought I would have an answer by the time I was finished. Maybe I just needed a break from all those online boxes. Maybe this “real” coffee is just messing with my head.

hotel quote

someone left this on my pillow 3 1/2 years ago, but it resonates now more than ever

I recently came across an old photo that resonated with me now more than ever. It was of a tiny little quote card that was left on my hotel pillow three and a half years ago when I used to come to San Francisco on business trips before I moved here. It said, “We all have two choices. We can make a living or a design a life.” At the time I probably took it as a sign confirming my decision to move out west and try something new. Now, it actually gives me pause. Is it trying to say that life is really so black and white? What if the life you design doesn’t pay the rent? Am I just naive in searching for a happy medium in between those two definitives? I hope not. Those who know me know that I’m quite a perfectionist. I blame my German blood. And as such, I guess I almost always fit into one of the universe’s boxes. I probably never thought too much about it because I like neat and tidy things, and am most content when everything is organized. But my new life is not easily organized into neat little boxes anymore. In the new year, I hope I can become better at learning how to color outside of the lines.

mmmm… chocolate — my day at Dandelion

Dandelion Chocolate peanut butter and jelly ganache brownie

the Dandelion Chocolate peanut butter and jelly ganache brownie

My universe came full circle today, in one of those tiny little ways that’s just big enough to make you take pause. I spent this morning at Dandelion Chocolate in the Mission District of San Francisco, learning how to make their famous peanut butter and jelly ganache brownie. The same amazingly delicious pastry that was featured on the Cooking Channel awhile back. Back when I worked for their parent company. Back when I was leading a completely different life. And I had no idea.

Andy Bates and the Pizza Hacker

Andy Bates and the Pizza Hacker making pizza on the street, as you do in San Francisco

Only through my “Googling” (as my mom loves to call it) did I learn that today I made exactly what the TV cameras devoured years ago. I used to be on that side of those cameras, coincidentally (or maybe not) in almost that very same spot on Valencia Street where Dandelion Chocolate and Mission Cheese live now. We filmed part of the San Francisco episode of Andy Bates’ Street Feasts there for Food Network UK, where the Pizza Hacker (who now has his own shop not too far away in Bernal Heights) made pizzas with Andy on the street in his awesome make-shift oven that he used to take to parties. That was three and a half years ago. And here I was today, making pastries in a professional kitchen only steps from there.

chocolate bean roaster

this beauty roasts chocolate beans

I met the executive pastry chef for Dandelion Chocolate at a charity fundraising dinner I volunteered at a few weeks ago. We were both in the kitchen (she, working her magic and I, trying not to drop things or cut myself with knives), and she and her team created a pumpkin spice cake with chocolate caramel ganache that changed my life. The world is blessed with some amazingly talented people who are also amazingly nice, and Lisa is one of them. She invited me to come to the shop, tour the factory part of it where they make the chocolate (yes, they make the chocolate right there on Valencia Street, starting with the dried beans), and spend some time in the kitchen with the pastry chefs. YES! Today was that day.

 

Dandelion Chocolate melangers

the melangers at Dandelion Chocolate, all lined up like good little soldiers

I won’t even begin to attempt to describe all the steps that they take to turn a dried bean into a bar of chocolate because they explain it much better than I ever could. But I will say that it was fascinating. And maybe a little life changing, too. I learned that chocolate actually comes from the seeds of a fruit that grows on trees (right about now you might be thinking, “How did she never know this? The gal who has been making chocolate cake since she was in the womb?!” — but I honestly never knew that… blasphemous, I know) and that a gorgeous machine called a melanger grinds the nibs into liquid luxuriousness. They have six giant melangers in the factory and one tabletop-sized machine in the pastry kitchen, which we used to make chocolate for macaroons. Chocolate nibs stay in the fancy big ones for three days (three days!), where the sugar is added and the whole lot is refined into perfection. I tasted a few different chocolates from the melangers, and while standing there, I couldn’t help but think that the entire process isn’t that dissimilar in steps and precision to that of making wine. Hmmm…

chocolate melanger

mini chocolate melanger at work

And then I got to make ganache. Not just any ganache. Peanut butter ganache. And raspberry ganache. All for… you guessed it.. their peanut butter and  jelly ganache brownie sandwich. YUM. As any good American would be, I’m obsessed with peanut butter. And I love baking with it. I tried to get my friends across the pond to eat it when I lived there (and I put proper American peanut butter in my purse), but only a few took the bait. Not one to give up easily, I found some American ex-pat bakers who happily worked with me on perfecting peanut butter frosting one night in the basement of their London bakery during the London riots of 2011. They had a baseball bat and endless jars of imported Jif peanut butter and somehow everything was OK. And we came up with a damn good frosting. But I digress… I love peanut butter. I love jelly. So transforming both of those magical condiments into ganache form was right up my alley (substitute with “right up my street” if you’re in the UK). And now my mind is filled with dozens of other things I want to transform into a ganache. They won’t be as magical as Lisa’s, but not one to give up easily, I sure as heck will try.

Dandelion Chocolate pumpkin spice cake

the pumpkin spice cake that changed my life