Sunday, December 10, 2017

How to Stuff a Stocking

I don't know how it is in your family, but stockings are often cited as the best part of gifting in our house (and my husband's, growing up!). It also seems to be something that everyone does a little differently - price wise, and content wise. Sometimes it's hard for me to find enough stuff to fill a stocking, or other times I have plenty of stuff but I blow my entire gift budget filling it. I don't have a "right" way that I'm pushing, but I still wanted to share some of my ideas and hopefully glean some good ones from you guys.

The Stocking Itself
First of all, I believe that the stocking itself should be a meaningful. There are seriously oodles of cool ones. Personally, I'm not too into the matching ones, the monogrammed ones, or teeny ones. But that excludes most people's stockings, so don't listen to me....

My family (except for me, incidentally) has hand-knit ones which aren't exactly stunningly beautiful, but they are personal and special. My mother in law made my boys' stockings that have Chinese silk on one side - Ishmael's even has dragons for his Chinese zodiac sign! My brother in law (sister's husband) has an enormous one that is twice the size of anyone else's in our family and we ridicule him mercilessly.

I think these kantha stockings from Little Moon Clothing are beautiful, available here. I like the earlier version (I'd saved an image from their Instagram last year, inset) even better! World Market also has some that I love this year, like this embroidered floral one, and this llama one (eeee!).

A fellow artist/seller on Instagram @OurTribeMarket posted this photo of her family's stockings and shared their tradition of adding a new piece of trim each year. Isn't that neat?! I love the way they look.

Traditional Stocking Stuffers
I didn't look up any historical stocking stuffers or anything, but I did want to mention some items that are on heavy rotation in our family. Part of the trick of stuffing a stocking well is to balance truly exciting things with some more affordable "space takers". One other thing I want to mention that I read somewhere is the "rule" of buying every-day-ish things that someone else can't really justify buying for themselves very often, like beef jerky! I'm never not excited to be given beef jerky.

Fruit and nuts - Growing up, we always got a larger piece of fruit and pistachios as filler in between small toys or other items. The fruit was often special, like a mango (especially if mangoes were hard to come by) or a pomegranate. We never had pistachios as a snack during the rest of the year, so that was a treat too, even though I would now put it into the "filler" category.

Unique collections - For a few years in a row, I got Jonas a netsuke (a small Japanese carving) and he got me music boxes, but we haven't stuck to that religiously. This year I bought all my boys an owl-related ornament because of the two owls that live in our yard, but annual ornaments from multiples factions of our family can become a little overwhelming so I probably won't do that every year.

*To the right, here, is a picture of what I put in my little boys' stockings last year. The Spiderman thing is one of those washclothes that expand in water. Once I've picked out some nicer things (action figure, stuffed toy, etc.) I usually go to the Dollar store and top it off with whatever little things I can find. The struggle for me is not buying junk just so I can fill a stocking, because you know I'm the one that is then driven crazy by the amount of useless little bobbles in our house.*

Self-care - My mom often put mascara or razors in our stockings. Even if we didn't need them right away, it was always nice not to have to buy those things for yourself. Those things were often somewhat of a luxury on their own during our years in China, too. Last year, she bought my little boys some soap in special shapes to make bath time even *more* exciting. If you have kids, I'm sure you know how much they love special band aids. And while it's not exactly self-care, last year I put a pack of batteries in each boy's stocking for their new and old toys that need them.

The fun stuff - Everything else requires some creativity. Some of my favorites are an issue of a niche magazine, rollerball perfumes from Sephora (though those will still set you back like $25), smaller-amount gift cards, pins and patches for denim jackets or bags, a handwritten letter or small drawing, a special pocket square or tie, "special things" for your spouse (interpret as you will), and specialty candies like my personal favorite, double salt black licorice. (Probably don't put that in most people's stockings though, they'll think you hate them, lol). Grocery Outlet has a good selection of Lindor chocolates, and sometimes fancy gummy bears and Haribo products too. For your healthy family members (blehhhh), Trader Joe's has the best and most affordable selection of dried fruit and nuts (I love the dried orange slices and chili lime cashews). Other specialty food items (like pomegranate molasses, for my Ottolenghi fans) would be exciting for the chefs in your life.

*Here's what I put in my husband Jonas' stocking last year. The rolled up cloth is a button-down shirt, the little brown bottles were supposed to be for his taxidermy collections, but I was having a really hard time finding the kind of thing I was envisioning. He's been using these little ones to hold tiny feathers he finds. The box that says "Andar" is a slim wallet that he really needed, and the thingy next to it is a carved gourd that I found at a thrift store. He really likes to drink yerba mate, which is an Argentinian tea-like drink usually drunk from a gourd. The jar is home-made passion fruit jam that my friend Coreen made, and that cheese has caramelized onions which is so good, but I don't usually buy it because the taste and smell stays with you for everrrr.*

This list has lots of ideas, my favorite probably being diaper genie refill bags. I never had a diaper genie, but I heard that the bags were a bit expensive and that's such a nice thing to not have to spend your own money on. One thing that I didn't see on there that I just remembered was a roll up measuring tape. I'm sure you could find a much cheaper not-vintage one than this, but it is super handy to have in your bag (at least for me). I also liked the idea of spices and flower seeds, among others. I also got a kick out of these "lumps of coal" although you could probably upgrade to pumice or some other fancy self-care version?!

Do you have fun stocking memories or traditions or ideas? Do tell!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

8 Things I've Learned about Hospitality

It feels so rare, and therefore special, to be invited to people's homes to eat, don't you think? I don't think it should be rare. The funny thing is is that when you start inviting people to eat with you, they'll begin to invite you over too, and before long, you'll find that you're eating with friends quite often, just as it should be, in my opinion. Hosting is an exercise in community building.

My mom has always been an incredible hostess. We have different hosting styles now (yeah, that's definitely a thing), but even as a kid, it was easy to see how grateful and warm everyone felt when they got to be in her home, eating her food, surrounded by the company she invited in. Once you experience that environment, you'll spend your life trying to recreate those evenings.

I've been cooking for a long time, but only recently began making an effort to host, or in situations in which we can't host, coordinate gatherings so that we get to see and eat with new and old friends regularly. Hosting used to feel very daunting to me, but it's become so enjoyable that I wanted to share some of the ways that I make sure that "communal dinners" (lols, how millennial Christian am I rn?!) are a regular part of my life.

(illustration by Donald Chaffin)

1. In the interest of regularity, I keep most gatherings small.  Sometimes I get carried away and want to invite all of my friends and loved ones and liked ones to the same gathering, especially when it's a celebration of some specific event. When I plan that kind of party though, I get very overwhelmed and decide not to do it. Instead of not having a get together at all, I am now trying to have more regular small gatherings and I also keep a list of people I'd like to invite over, and then if I know in advance that I'll have extra food or we don't have a crazy day planned, I'll just invite a person or a couple over to share the meal our family was going to eat any way. It's not always festive, but people will still feel special, and kinda like they're part of your family. If they ask and you agree to let them bring dessert or a bottle of wine, it gets a little like a party anyway!

2. A lot of hosting and organizing is about leadership and assertiveness - suggesting an idea and seeing it through. Being the one to coordinate others getting together and who can bring what, etc. This logistics part is what keeps a lot of people from throwing events, I think. This goes hand in hand with some of the other points, but sometimes just sending out a text saying, "hi friends, let's organize something!" is the difference between a gathering happening or not happening. I also then take the lead in suggesting a list of food or other duties that people can volunteer for (rather than assigning). So, the takeaways: 1) just ask!, and 2) follow up at various stages. Also, I've stopped waiting to "get to know people well enough" to invite them over. Sometimes the invitation is so that we can get to know them.

3. I've also learned that hosting doesn't need to be grand - literally no one else cares as much as I do whether the candles match the theme, or whether there's a theme at all. To be honest, even a dish or two that flops will be overlooked when there's good company. Perfectionism will also get in the way of you getting together with people, so just set it aside and know that you're your own worst critic.

4. Let other people help. I believe in this practice for many reasons. For one thing, help is awesome: I love to delegate items that other people can bring if they offer, like dessert or a drink or a salad. But perhaps even more importantly, I think that letting people help is inclusive. People like to feel useful and appreciated, so use them and appreciate them! And don't say "I've got it covered" if you're actually frantically trying to finish preparing a meal. Have people chop vegetables, wash pots, or set the table. They won't mind, and it gives people a way to express their gratitude for being your guest.

5. I also believe in the power of the phrase "teach me." There are many things I am intimidated by in the kitchen (red meat, fish, bread) and other things that I've never heard of or not easily learned from the internet. Similar to letting people help, I think that genuinely wanting to learn from others and making space for that learning to happen - especially surrounding food - is an experience that can't be bought. It's a good way to get to know your neighbors and other people in your community or spend time with family members that you might not otherwise have a lot in common with. I also believe in "teach me" when it comes to volunteer work (which often involves food, in my experience). Sometimes it can be really humbling to be at the mercy of other people's good will, so I think that believing and treating people as if they have something of value to offer me is a natural way to show dignity and learn a recipe you wouldn't have access to otherwise.

6. Prep ahead and don't experiment with new recipes. I used to cook elaborate meals that I'd never practiced before, and by the time guests arrived, all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and be alone. Choose food that leaves you alive to enjoy time spent with people afterward. I break the "don't make new recipes to serve" rule frequently (and also, here's a shout out to my cousin Mark who is a fantastic host and was the one who gave me that advice), but for gatherings where I want to be as relaxed as possible (or other factors out of my control are making it stressful) I definitely go with tried and true recipes.

7. Provide atmosphere, but don't focus on it. I try not to obsess over the details, because then it becomes not-fun and I will easily talk myself out of a gathering in which I have to guess whether my guests are enjoying themselves. So without stressing over these things too much, I do think it's important/helpful to have appropriate music in the background (I tend to go with Motown if there isn't a specific theme or age to a group, because it's unlikely that anyone will hate it). I also serve alcohol when appropriate (which is all the time, unless your guests have religious or personal reasons for abstaining) because it always makes an otherwise regular meal feel like an occasion. Snacks or an pre-made appetizer before hand always make people happy, as does coffee with or after dessert. Finally, have some games in mind just in case conversation isn't flowing well or your guests don't know each other or there are kids! I do like having kid-free gatherings sometimes, but I also want to have a space where people feel like their whole family is welcome and they don't have to spend the evening babysitting their own kids. Some of our favorite games are Set, Spoons, Cards Against Humanity, or good old fashioned Duck Duck Goose with kids.

8. Clean up tomorrow. I know plenty of people are strongly in the "clean up right away" camp, but I like to relax after I've cooked a meal and have time to talk with my guests instead of cleaning. I try and clean as I go, but I don't worry about the dishes until the next day. Or often times, Jonas does clean up either to be helpful or because he needs a break from entertaining people. ;) Depending on the size of the gathering, sometimes people will insist on helping clean up, and then it can be fun if lots of people are cleaning and chatting, but generally we just skip that altogether. 

I used to think that hosting gatherings was going to be cost prohibitive. It doesn't have to be. I stick to recipes that I know I can do affordably (meat is usually not the main dish), I delegate alcohol, and I don't go crazy decorating (as much as I'd like to...). Hosting meals is almost always cheaper and more intimate (and even better tasting!) than eating out (goodbye, $15 cocktails...), and you'll probably get leftovers out of it.

Finally, I'll leave you with a few of my favorite recipes for gatherings:
1. This chicken with clementines and fennel never fails to impress.
2. A salad full of gross stuff like kale and brussel sprouts that is somehow amazing when all put together.
3. Deconstructed Thai-French food that is both fun and delicious.
4. A hearty (but not heavy) soup with great flavor that is perfect for winter.
5. Another bright flavored soup that is a fresh riff on a classic. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Fall Post 2017

Hello Fall, old frienemy.

I feel a special fondness for people who don't like fall, because sometimes I feel like I'm the only one. When I find out there are others, I feel like I'm in a secret club where we dare not speak of our shared beliefs, but bare our burden in silence, knowing we'd otherwise be martyred by popular opinion on Facebook.

I've thought of several new reasons that I don't like fall, but rather than the aesthetics of it, I've tried to really consider the genuine feeling of distaste that I have. Part of it is habit now. In fact, I've made such a big deal about how fall isn't my favorite that people reach out to be me at the beginning of the season to comment on my well-being, or check that I won't be outraged at a pumpkin patch outing. It's both funny and ridiculous. I hope that I am capable of behaving like an adult and not making other people miserable as a byproduct of my own non-preference for this season.

One very practical reason that I've discovered why I don't like fall is because pants. Yep, pants. I don't have very many pairs of pants because my legs are not of particularly standard proportions and I'm too cheap to buy special pants. The pants that I do have aren't very comfortable because they mostly predate the Exodus of Humans from my Hips. They're uncomfortable now. The result of this unfortunate blend of circumstances is that when the weather turns, I realize that I am going to be perpetually cold and/or resign myself to wearing layers of baggy or fuzzy clothing to prevent feeling cold. This takes the joy out of dressing up for me, and sometimes that's a big part of my mood.

(I haven't bought these things yet, but upon applying some thought, I'm considering: thigh high velvet socks, turtle necks under jumpsuits, and corduroy, palazzo, harem, and velvet pants as possible solutions to not turning into a giant blanket in cold weather.)

Fall also feels like an uncertain time to me. On the Central Coast, our fall weather is almost always hotter than our summer weather, though the mornings are chillier and hot weather is punctuated by wind and the occasional colder day. It's an oddly difficult transition to make in my head. Commercial marketing and the general population are talking about fall, settling into school, gearing up for the holidays, etc. After a few onery days or weeks, I usually manage to find a silver lining or two, ONLY TO BE CONFUSED as the weather becomes scorching hot and everyone wants to go to the beach. In the grand scheme of things, this is not the biggest issue in the world, but considering that it does require some mental effort for me to shift out of summer, I do not appreciate this process being interrupted and prolonged.

Adjusting to fall is always a process of re-framing for me: finding how to tweak things that I don't like into things that I dislike slightly less, or simply declaring that something that I do like works for fall too. It's about realizing that the chill in the air also means a cozier bed and deeper sleep. It involves realizing that in terms of colors and decorations and appreciation for nature, natural doesn't always mean neutral, and also that unnatural is totally fine too. It's about embracing the drama of the fall lighting without descending into darkness. To those of you who are also very visual, maybe you understand how something so small could have such an affect. If you're not, I don't know what to tell ya... I get that this issue of fall colors and mood shouldn't really be a big deal. Yet I come back to this topic year after year because it truly seems to affect my life and I'm bothered that I can't seem to avoid it.

Fall feels lonely to me sometimes, because most people seem to lean into life, and I struggle to stay engaged during this time of the year. We have about 2 weeks left of cultural-fall (up until Halloween) and then everyone goes straight to Christmas mode, so with the help of some new (or old) pants, I think I'm gonna be just fine.

(Not-ugly fall photos from: 1) Pinterest - no better source available, 2-4) from @cannellevanille Instagram!) 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Arrows in the Hand of a Warrior

One of the biggest struggles of raising children for me has been grappling with the "could haves", "would haves" and "should haves" of what I'd imagined life would be like without children. Efficiency is my drug of choice, and children are not particularly efficient creatures. When I am most frustrated as a parent or with my life in general, I find that frustration often crystallizing into anger that my role and responsibilities as a mother get in the way of everything else I had imagined myself doing in life. 

In a perfect world, the roles and responsibilities of parenting intertwine with everything else and enhance "what I'd imagine myself doing", rather than it being either/or, but I rarely see it that way.
I feel guilt, shame, and disgust that my habit is to begrudge my circumstances surrounding children. It makes me feel powerless that this enormous, unplanned section of my life is always overriding the planned sections of my life. Never the less, I try not to punish myself for valuing efficiency. As long as I don't place circumstances above people or my desires above the needs of my children, there are merits to productivity. [image]

I think it's acceptable that my wants come before their wants sometimes too. Most often, it ends up being a trade off - there's something I want or need to do and since they're along for the ride and neither they nor I can really change that, I try and make it worth it for all of us. I'll sift through piles of junk to my heart's content and they get to bring a small toy home or a quarter's worth of candy for baring with me. Bribery without the term "bribery" attached to it (and not so consistently such that it feels like a right) is an underappreciated tactic. In other words, many things become permissible in the interest of efficiency. I'm fairly honest with my children with what I want and what I need, just like they take every opportunity to tell me what they want and need too. 

Recently, I have begun to see that having children can be an enormous asset in reaching the goals that I've been so worried were out of my reach because of having children. I'm not advocating for using one's children as a means to an end so much as realizing that it seems like they are a blessing in spite of my tendency to view them as a distraction. 

I am not generally a shy person, but I do find myself frequently stuck in social situations that I'd rather not be in. Children are the best excuse for all sorts of things. I don't have to make as much eye contact because I have to keep an eye on my children. It's been nice talking with you, but I really have to leave now to get my kids down for their naps. I can't come to the party because one of my children has a cold. Etc. etc. Of course, most of those situations are not inconvenient at all if we're invited to something we want to attend, but it sure is handy to have legitimate excuses to get out of things. 

I don't feel guilty about using my family in this way. In fact, I find it endearing, like we have a pact amongst introverts to have each other's backs. My dad always let us use him as an excuse to avoid things ("I can't give you my phone number because my dad forbade me", or "I can't go any higher for this item I want because this is my dad's money", both of which he'd happily say to me in advance so that I could say those things honestly) and I will do the same for my sons if they want or need it. 

On the other hand, everyone's favorite thing about me is my children (Edit: I know this is not really true! I appreciate everyone who wrote to tell me so ;)). I might begrudge this, except it tends to work to my advantage too. Recently I've had several opportunities to meet and spend time with women who I've met under unusual circumstances. I am trying to learn Arabic and in general broaden my experience of life in America. The only way I know how to do this is to go directly to other people and ask in the most incredibly awkward way if they would teach me to cook. So far this has not failed to start friendships, but the lubricant is always my children. I set up time to meet with people and they never fail to add, "and bring those kids!" or "how are the boys?". 

As much as I've resisted and bemoaned my status as a stay-at-home-mom-by-necessity, I suddenly see my flexible schedule as a huge gift. The boys are old enough now that we can get in and out of the car without too much trouble and leave the house within 10 minutes of deciding to leave the house. For those of you with kids who aren't there yet, I see that tear of envy trickling down your cheek right now. This forced flexibility has afforded me the opportunity to forge relationships and spend time with people that I would not be available for if I had the jobs I have so intensely longed for and worked toward. 

As I begin to invest in these cross-cultural, sometimes cross-lingual relationships, there are frequently lulls in conversations. Luckily, watching my boys play while sitting silently with someone else is a fairly natural thing to do. There's even the option to talk to the kids when you can't figure out how to talk to adults. Adults are able to talk to children in a way that is also commenting on life or getting information across to adults within earshot. Children are a source of humor and they're also a glue. Children are bridges. 

I look at my sons in this new light and I feel admiration. I see this symbiotic relationship as the beginning of a partnership with them, where we're a team achieving goals with our interpersonal dynamic as a strategy to get there. I marvel at their sweetness and openness toward others and their willingness to trust me.  

I enjoy this feeling of mutual benefit from my relationship with my kids. I often don't feel the emotional tenderness that I suspect other mothers feel constantly, and I resent this, but also find it cloying in others (mostly because I find it very difficult to relate to). I struggle to muster tenderness or doting emotions, but I am beginning to feel the warmth of pride and teamwork. Parenthood is a transaction. Not really one that I can refuse to make, but not one that is of no value to me either. It's also not a transaction in that I don't stop giving, even if I'm not receiving. 

I'm worried that this will all unveil me as the self-preserving human that I am. I don't know how to mother, much of the time. I only seem to learn things and appreciate things in terms of how they affect me, rather than being selfless. I don't know if I'm doing this "right", but seeing the lifestyle of a suburban mother in America as having value beyond the sentimental (which I just don't feel) has been a brutal battle, and I feel that I'm finally wrapping my greedy little fists around its throat and getting things done. Less in spite of my children, and even perhaps because of them. [image]

I knew there was some verse about children and arrows, and thanks to Google, I am now reminded of the full verse, and it makes me feel like a BAMF. Psalm 127:4, "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth." I've considered my glaring youth at the time my children were born to be more of an arrow in my neck, but as usual, I am wrong. Now, I can almost feel the gleam in my eye upon internalizing the words in Psalms. It's a rush of power, and a promise of worth in terms that I understand worth. I need not mourn my seeming inability to relish the mom-life part of motherhood, but instead my sons are coming with me and standing at my side as I prepare to fight. Praise be to God, from whom all weird, unknown, sometimes humanly untimely blessings flow. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Adventures In EstateSaleLand

My Love Affair with Old Stuff
I can only hope that 80 years from now, when my own descendants are overwhelmed by a lifetime of my collections, some unknowing kid will walk in off the street and be amazed at everything I've hoarded and love it dearly too. It's all just stuff, after all, but some of us really love it beyond its intrinsic value.

I can't think of anything that gives me a thrill like digging through boxes and piles of old stuff. Vintage wearing and decorating is a dream for people who hope to never be wearing the same outfit as someone else at a party. I know that sounds so pompous and there are merits to conformity. Some things are treasures no matter how many people like them, but I find immense satisfaction in having genuinely unique collections and ensembles.

I'm sure there's a special term for the economic concept of rarity being associated with value (beyond supply and demand, because the demand is limited in this case), but suffice to say that the more difficult to find something is or the more in demand, the more I am elated to find it "in the wild", as vintage-lovers say. That is, in a thrift store or at an estate sale rather than bought from a vintage shop or online. Oh, there is such pleasure in a bargain or finding something of value that no one else recognizes as rare!

It's also an interesting and rewarding process (and it is a process, sometimes a long one) of retroactively learning the value of old things. For example, sometimes I will find a dress and later find the original ad or editorial in a vintage magazine! Or, since I'm relatively young to this planet and this country, there are many vintage toys or dishware or brands that I do not recognize from having had them as a kid, but I recognize them now because I pay attention to what other people get nostalgic for.

Beyond the personal excitement of all the things I find and collect and resell, I find it very meaningful to be a historian, of kinds. I feel this pang of sadness sometimes when I'm in the home of someone who has passed away or can no longer live in their own house due to their age. I look at their jewelry and feel sad, knowing I'll never hear the stories of what special anniversary or trip they got it on or what special events they wore it to or which piece was their favorite. The boxes of photos and the handwritten recipes that no one else wants are what really kill me. I know that I won't be able to know the stories behind them and I wonder why their own grandchildren and greatgrandchildren don't cherish these things (maybe they don't have any family left?), but I'm grateful for the opportunity to do a bit of honoring and cherishing myself and then pass them on to other vintage-lovers who also have a deep appreciation for old photos, especially.

When I'm in someone else's home, I often try and discover what their name was from scraps of mail or the inside cover of books or magazine subscriptions. Then I can walk around their home with more of a human being in mind and contemplate what their lives must have been like. It feels like the smallest way in which I can show honor in a situation that basically boils down to jostling elbows with other shoppers to snatch up all these things which were precious to someone at some point for pennies.

I've been to several estate sales that have really stuck in my mind as having part of a life-story that go along with them that I get to carry on in some small way. I wanted to share them here so that they can live again, at least in part.

First of all, God bless the men and women of the Depression era. They just couldn't let go of anything, and I'm glad of it. When I was brand new to estate saling, I went to one that had an entire basement of vintage toys and as much as I look back with awe and delight, I kick myself for all the things I didn't scoop up because I didn't know any better yet. I don't know why people save entire basements full of toy plastic food from the 60s, but you won't hear me complaining about it.

The Mini Madonna Inn
One of my favorite estate sales of all time was in Cayucous, a little beach town here on the Central Coast of California. It's about an hour from where I live, and estate sales that require a hike are always kind of a gamble because often times whoever is running the estate sale doesn't take promo pictures of the kind of things I'm interested in. It could end up being a wasted drive or a treasure trove, you never know. On this particular day there was a big storm. It was hard to drive and several trees fell down while we were inside the house looking through things! Again, I kicked myself for not having been punctual to this particular sale, because as it turned out, I have never seen a wardrobe quite like this one! Every closet in that house was stuffed with incredible clothing (usually estate sale clothing is windbreakers from the 80s and velour track suits). The interior decorating of the house, which was right on the beach, was wild and wonderful too. So often, it seems like elderly people mellow out at the end of their lives and what's left of their things are plain white pillow cases, canned soup, and padded sneakers. But not this house, ohhh no! Let me just show you some pictures.... (sorry, they were not taken with the intent of being shared so they hardly showcase the full glory!).

I don't know if this was the lady of the house (I think it is, after finding a recent picture), but it sums up the style pretty well.

Now for the house...

Everything was gaudy and dramatic, in gold, turquoise, and pink. 

The sign about the door says "Casa Costalot"! 

I loved this wallpaper.

You walked through this side garage from the street, then the courtyard, then the main house.

I know plenty of people will probably think this is the tackiest house they have ever seen, but that's why I make money off vintage stuff and you don't. ;) But seriously, there's nothing more fun to walk through than elaborate kitsch. How can you say no to metallic wallpapers, beaded lights, gilded beds, and resin toilet seats?! BUT WAIT, this story gets even better...

The last photo was the main closet. As always, I wish I'd been less frenzied (one of the boys had to poop, of course, so we got to test out those funky toilets) and had more time to go through each box and piece of clothing, but as things were, I basically just shoved everything in arm's reach that looked promising into a garment box that I pulled off a top shelf and emptied onto the floor. Sometimes my concept of respect is blinded by the goods, not gonna lie.

Anyway, I got to look at everything more carefully when I got home, and I found an itemized list of clothes on the side of the box. I was so excited and enthralled by this unusual house and its contents that I actually got online and tried to track down some information about the couple that had lived there. I bet you'd never have believed me that it was the HUSBAND who decorated the house and HANDMADE many of these incredible clothes for his wife!!!

Here is the list of clothes: it breaks my heart that I only have two of these items, the pants front the first line, and the red jumpsuit! This was not all in the box when I got to it.

The couple who lived in this house were named Arthur and MaryLee Fenderson. Arthur passed away on April 5, 2016, and as far as I can tell, MaryLee is still living, possibly in Canada. I actually found her on Facebook and reached out to her daughter, to see if I can pass along any photos of myself and others dressed in some of her clothes! I hope she enjoys it, she seems like quite a character. Here's one of two pictures of her I found on Facebook. There are several more of her and her husband's heads pasted on to various character's bodies, which are pretty hilarious. I wish I'd known them and been invited to their parties!

Arthur was born in 1923 and moved to California as a baby with his family, escaping the Dust Bowl. He served in the US Navy medical corps during WWII, spending his final year in the service in the Aleutian Islands, then became a dentist upon his return to the US. He and his wife moved to Cayucous in 1971 (I think the box with the itemized clothing list was from that move!) where he continued to practice dentistry until retiring in the early 80s. Apparently he was quite a jokester and a "natty" dresser (had to look that up, it means "stylish and tidy in every detail"). Art and MaryLee were members of several dance clubs, and Art was "an artist and a craftsman. He was Mr. Fix-it around the house and office, and often took on large construction projects at home, even building a sports car! He was an interior decorator with pizzazz. He was equally as creative with fabric, designing and tailoring beautiful 'Fashions by Darvin,' made exclusively for his beautiful wife, Mary Lee." (Here is the full obituary)

Are you crying yet, because I almost am. I feel so honored to make new memories in their special clothing. I hope Jonas and I are still that exciting when we're in our 90s. Thanks for being awesome, Art and MaryLee, your style lives on! 

The Brocade Artist
Santa Maria has an old airport and back in the day, we also had a flight school where WWII pilots trained. There are a lot of old airplane hangers on the north side of town near where the flight school (now Allan Hancock College) used to be. I recently discovered that one of these hangers is a thrift store of sorts, and of course I went swimming in the piles and piles of stuff.

The most interesting thing I found was boxes and boxes and boxes of files. I had stumbled across years worth of notes made by an artist as she conceptualized paintings. Her name was Gloria J. Robertson, but I have not been able to find anything about her online except that she died at the age of 89 on July 14, 2016.

What first excited me about this unusual collection of files was that is was accompanied by decades of back issues of magazines, which are one of my favorite things to collect. Vintage fashion magazines are hard to find, but so they're wonderful because they're such a perfect snapshot of time. Gloria had hundreds of file folders, each with scrawled notes about which painting the enclosed magazine clippings were inspiration for, and which other files to refer to for more clippings of monkeys, for example. Her collection was basically several decades worth of analog Pinterest. Here's a picture of one of the many boxes/stacks of her files.

I wish that I was able to find out more about her life or see some of her finished paintings. Many of the folders included sheets of paper with rough sketches of forms and placements for her ideas, but it's almost impossible to tell from that sort of sketch what style of painting she did - most artists make extremely crude (that is, rudimentary) drawings to start conceptualizing their projects. She seemed to be very interested in fantasy and mashing up animals heads with animal bodies that they didn't originally match with. She was also either very into brocade fabrics or else I just happened to look through all the files in which she was drawing inspiration from brocade.

It was so strange and interesting to see a lifetime worth of thought collected in one place - it could almost certainly never make sense to anyone but her, and as much as I admired the feat she had achieved in its sheer scale, all I could think of while trying to sift through her files was that only someone as obsessive as she was would try and delve into her boxes of scribbled notes and scraps (that'd be me...).

I probably would not have worried about the file folders at all (and just gone for the whole magazines), except that after my first trip to the warehouse in which I bought most of the magazine collection, I realized that she'd ripped out pages from many of the vintage Vogues from the 60s (cue my cry of anguish) and made notes in the magazines too. After two or three weeks, I couldn't help but go back and spelunk for some of the lost pages inside all those folders. I did find a few of them, but if I never see another picture of a brocade couch for the rest of my life. I think I'll be just fine.

I also found a photo of good ol' Gloria. From the bits I could piece together from her artist's brain and this photo, I'd say she was a pretty interesting little lady. Thanks for the treasure hunt, Gloria.

A Personal Connection
As much as I love imagining what the lives of strangers must have been like and what untold stories go along with things that are now part of my collections, there's something extra special about wearing and cherishing pieces from people that I knew, even a little bit.

I have many things that belonged to my Great Grandma Peggy, which I wrote a bit about after her memorial in 2014. One particular necklace she had is now one of my favorite pieces of jewelry. She's been gone for several years now, and though she doesn't come up in conversation all that often anymore, I love having small things in my life to remember her by. Here is a picture of me wearing one of the more dramatic pieces I inherited from her (why, oh why were clothes ever designed with a seam running down the front?!). I have a picture of her wearing it, back in the day (70s, I'm guessing), but it's buried somewhere in my piles of stuff and didn't turn up quickly went I went looking for it.... Hopefully I can update this post with the photos side by side whenever I find it!

Since my parents have lived on Coventry Ct. here in Santa Maria, the residents of two of the six houses on this cul de sac have passed away. I wish I had gotten to know them better. I don't think I ever met the woman who lived on the corner, but my brothers pulled weeds in her yard a few times. When she died, another of our neighbors and his brother ran the estate sale, and I bought some embroidered napkins from Southeast Asia, some handwritten recipes, a pair of shiny black T-strap shoes, and a necklace of carved wooden parrots. There may have been some other things, but those are the things that stick in my mind. It was especially exciting to be in her house because I see it every day, but I'd never been inside. There was a fantastic sun room, I wish I could have bought that house. Her house and its contents signaled that she had traveled to many places, and it felt like a missed opportunity to never have gotten to know her.

A few years ago, our family friends had their parents (my age-mates' grandparents) move in with them, and in the process of that move, I ended up with several bags worth of incredible clothing. Earlier this year, my friend's grandmother passed away. Mrs. Toevs was a very small woman and I can only fit into her items on a good day, and in the case of the most incredible pair of Wranglers with giant green poppies all over them, not at all. If anything could motivate me to diet, it would be those pants. I'm thankful to have had a few opportunities to talk with her before she died and know a bit about her story (to my unending amusement, she completely earnestly referred to me as a housewife once). I feel as honored as I am lucky that people know that I would love nothing more than to have bags of older clothing that no one else will wear. Not only will I wear them, but I will love them, and as with all the others, I hope that my love for the clothes is a small token of remembrance for our loved ones who are gone, and for the ones that loved them. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Get Better Soon

I read this thought provoking and convicting essay about "Virtue Signaling" today which dovetailed so nicely with what I've been struggling to work out in my own writing. Virtue signaling is the practice of talking, talking, talking about how much we care, which is often frowned upon (the whys are explained more in the article). The main point of the article, however, was that more than the annoyance of being bombarded by causes and gut-wrenching cries from the non-oppressed, we no longer trust that our friends or celebrities or the average person on the street actually does care about what they're talking about, writing their sentiment off as a means to make themselves look better.

[image credit]

In reality, most people do care. But for me, I experience this chasm between genuinely caring and having any sense that I'm actually involved in bettering anything that I care about. I've been dedicating a lot of thought about why this is, and how I might change it.

I feel disconnected from what's happening; Charlottesville, or the tension that exploded there but is certainly not new. Pick your social disturbance - it bothers me, but I'm disconnected as things stand now. Why is that? I don't know many black people (zero close friends), few of my close friends are LGBTQ, I know very few Mexicans considering that my city is 70% Hispanic, and I know very few Muslims. It's been bothering me for ages that my Church is one of the most racially diverse churches I've been to here, with 2 Hispanic families attending the service I go to.
Why is this? Well, I rarely come in contact with anyone who isn't like me.
Why is that? I live in a neighborhood with people like me, my kids go to school with people like me, and you can only be meaningfully integrated into our church at this point if you speak English.

A Jehovah's Witness lady has been visiting me for several years now and I'm always amazed by the range of age and ethnicity in the people she brings with her (surely to show me off as the one person who takes her pamphlets ;)). She's picked up on the fact that I'm curious about the diversity of her organization so she brings it up often. I truly am amazed and put to shame by the lengths that JWs go to spread their message. Here in Santa Maria, they have members learning Masteco (a very difficult indigenous language spoken by many of the Oaxacan Mexican migrant workers) and Tagalog at the least. They have a Masteco church (?) plant here! I deeply envy their commitment, even while I know that much of their preaching must be motivated out of the fear that comes from not resting in God's grace.

At any rate, she really got me pondering something extreme. Far be it from me to be out-missioned by a Jehovah's Witness. As I've been thinking about this and struggling through learning a language myself (very poorly) for my degree and in the wake of Charlottesville, I saw one of those little Instagram motivational things that read something like, "Your life will not change unless you change something that you do daily". Initially it made me feel guilty about my iPhone use, but it stuck in my mind and I'm trying to think bigger.

We - I - don't stretch ourselves because we don't need to. We already "have it all", so there is little motivation to change anything. We lay the burden of bridge building on those who are learning our language and trying to get into our schools and neighborhoods, and then maybe we'll end up being friends once they are more like us. These are my observations about my own life after contemplating for a long time why I don't have interactions with anyone that lead me to feel personally invested in the larger struggle going on in our nation, and frankly has been for a long, long time.

Do we really want things to change? I mean, think hard about it, be truly honest with yourself - do YOU want to change? I don't really. I'm pretty happy with what I have and where I am. What's happening "out there" hasn't changed my day to day life at all. But if for no other reason than selfish self preservation, I can see that if I don't take a serious interest in the Gospel - which is meant to be shared - and being loud about what I believe my country should be, then the life I've been resting on will not be available to my children. Some of the harm that is befalling our country is because we have wronged others. Not only do I need to stop wronging others, I need to actually start being proactive about reaching out to others.

For me, there is danger in making my civic duty a box that I can check - I cared (check), I wrote an essay (check), I made a statement (check), I gave some money (I'm not thattt committed), I called a senator (check), I attended a rally (also haven't gotten even this invested). But for me as a white woman who is not currently scrounging for pennies, those are all reactionary steps and they don't really change my perspective or my involvement in a lasting way. From personal experience, what changes me and what lasts in my life are relationships. So how can I build relationships that really make me "an ally", not simply a bystander with a megaphone?

The number one thing I'm trying to remember is that given my privileges, I can and should choose not to use them sometimes. For me personally, that means that I don't have to be the one talking just because I can talk without getting into too much trouble. I can talk less and listen a lot more, because whatever it is that is going on here is not something that I understand on a personal level. I shouldn't pretend that I've felt the pain that many are feeling right now. But I can listen. And then, I can get serious.

I can learn a language so I can go to them instead of waiting for them to come to me.
I can move to a neighborhood or a city where being forgotten by the government or having to put extra effort into educating my child becomes my problem too.
I can travel (which is certainly a luxury) so that I can remember that there is a lot more to the world than my version of it, and so that my children can grow up with an intense knowledge of the same.
I can send my children to public schools and hopefully a dual-immersion (English-Spanish) program so they grow up with slightly less of a barrier between the world they were born into and the world that many other Americans experience.

I'm not saying these steps aren't drastic or hard - I'm saying that anything less than drastic or difficult isn't really going to change our hearts. Is the Gospel worth that trouble to me? Because it is going to be troublesome, but I dare say we are not called to mediocrity.

In asking you to care more and care harder, I'm not trying to say that you don't care at all as things stand now. There are important things that I don't care about enough to do or say anything significant about - I believe in at least some version of climate change, but that's not a battle I've chosen to invest in. I believe that life begins at conception, but I will never picket Planned Parenthood and don't plan to write so much as an essay on my views on the matter at this point. Those are not the fights I'm choosing to pick. It's taken me a long time to realize that no amount of berating can make other people care as much about the things that I have chosen to care deeply about. In a spiritual context, God lays different things on different hearts, and it's really none of my business to judge you for not doing the things that I'm called to. I trust that there are things you care about that you're thinking about and trying to do something meaningful about. But, if you are like me and expend energy talking about how torn our social fabric is and are wanting to support people who are not as well off as you, may I suggest that we - I - need to step up our game and get better soon on a day-to-day basis. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Dressing Boys in Style (on a Budget)

I enjoy finding clothes for my sons to wear much more than I expected to. I take pride in the fact that people notice how nice they look, even as my personal style has become largely characterized by granny sweats and bags under my eyes. It's also rewarding to see my boys take an interest in their appearance and express their personalities through what they wear. I'm not a very girly-girl in some ways, but I was really looking forward to dressing a girl at some point. When I had two sons, I thought that I was going to have to wait until my siblings or friends had daughters in order to play dress up, but Ishmael loves nothing better than when I buy him new clothes and he proudly picks out his own outfits too.

On the other hand, I did not expect Ishmael to take such an interest at such a young edge, expressing distaste for some of the clothes I would like him to wear. It's hard to know when I should let him do things his way, and when to put my foot down about my boys wearing certain items they don't want to wear "just because". For example, not wanting to wear vintage sweaters is understandable because they're often itchy (I can usually talk them into putting something on just for a picture), but if they can't tell me why they don't like something, especially if they were fine wearing it last week, I'm more likely to override their preference. This often ends in tears, which is frustrating for everyone, so we're still working on how to navigate some of these personal style vs. hygiene vs. practicality battles.

I don't want their appearance to be something that either I or they obsess over. I want them to be comfortable and able to actually live in their clothing, and I don't want to raise them thinking that people who don't enjoy putting a lot of effort into their outfits are "less cool" or lazy or whatever other labels I might be tempted to affix to the less clothes-loving population of parents and children. Style has everything to do with personal choice and personal taste. It's 100% valid to put your energies elsewhere.

From that, it follows that the most basic key to dressing boys in a stylish and interesting way is to actually take great interest in the task, and that's not a priority of everyone's. (Why can't cleaning the house be a passion of mine too?!) Although it's much easier than it used to be, I still think that dressing sons in a practical yet non-dorky way takes more effort than it does with girls. It's certainly doable, but I thought I'd share some of my tips and tricks for those who have commented on how much they like what my boys wear. Oh, and this should go without saying since we're the near-penniless children of missionaries and hippies, but I'm very much a budget-conscious stylist/shopper! I don't have an actual budget for clothes at this point, but almost never do I buy something at full price. I buy clothes for the boys as they need them or if I see a good deal or something especially cool. They do have a lot of clothes, but what Ishmael has gets passed to Ira, and what Ira grows out of we pass on or save for cousins or resell.

First of all, my ground rules are no white and no text. It truly boggles my brains why people bother even making children's clothes in white! Or is it only my children who stain everything they touch?! Putting boys (and I assume girls, too) in white clothing might as well being burning dollar bills, in my book. I also file this under "dressing practically" because it's sad for parents and children alike to have to say "please don't play in the dirt" or "lean over your plate!!!" (10,000x) just to try and save a white shirt. I did buy Ishmael one shirt that has blue crocodiles on a white background because I loved it so much (so does he) but I make him take it off at every mealtime. Clothing shouldn't restrict play or other daily activities, in my opinion. Some exceptions are made for special occasions, but then you have to be willing to see an item ruined on the first wear. I've more or less given up wearing white or pastels as a parent of toddlers either.

On the subject of clothing with text on it, it's very difficult to do this "right", in my opinion, so we just stay away from it altogether. Text on children's clothing is usually ridiculous ("TRUCK LOVER" or "Auntie's favorite red-headed wonder".... please! This is cute to no one but you) or inappropriate. There are certainly snarky or funny words on kid's clothing that I think is funny sometimes, but the fact is that it's not the child choosing to make this statement, it's the parents. Snarky or funny things on shirts almost always offend someone, so why make your child the object of that sort of attention when they don't really understand the message they're wearing across their chest anyway? To be honest, I generally extend this rule to myself too. I very rarely see someone else's shirt with text that I think is tasteful.

I think my only other advice, beside where to find good boy clothing, is not to confine shopping for boy's clothes to the boy's section of stores or websites. I "cross dress" my boys all the time, and no one knows, including my boys. Clothing made for girls is often slimmer and more colorful, which are both style choices, not really gender-related. Putting my boys in girls pants is a life-saver - both of my sons have long skinny legs and no rump to speak of, so their pants are often much too big in the waist but not long enough. Target sells pants that have that nifty elastic-and-button system inside the waistband so that you can adjust the waist, but if you have trouble finding the right proportions in other brands, definitely take a look in the girls section. I do double check to make sure that back pockets don't have floral stitching, rhinestones, buttons with overly feminine designs, or lining that is obviously for girls. Girls also have a much better selection of leggings, which is very helpful especially for younger kids (crawling stages) because regular pants and jeans tend to be bulkier and have strange proportions that make movement (and even getting dressed) more difficult for babies. To this day, Ira prefers the two pair of [girl] leggings he has, a black and white geometric print and a red plaid, to all his other pant options.

Now, I will share some "secrets" of where to shop for cool clothes for boys. I am not shy about asking people where they bought something that I see their kids wearing. I screenshot it on my phone if it's something I see on Instagram, and then I search for a gently used version online. Some accounts (like @fancytreehouse) have already tagged the brands they're wearing, so you can tap on the picture and find all the sources. Sometimes in order to get a cheaper price you have to wait a while to until the item is out of season of several collections old (like at Target or GAP for example, which have limited runs of each style), but I don't mind that.

I used to buy a lot of clothes for the boys on Instagram from other moms who love to thrift or who are selling off clothes their kiddos have outgrown. Since Instagram moved to the algorithm system about a year ago, buying and selling on Instagram is not as convenient, but many sellers have moved to other platforms where you can still find them, and there's not as many people trying to go after what is still available on Instagram. If you haven't bought on Instagram before, the basic rules are commenting on something you want with a comment like "sold" or "me please" and then the seller will send you an invoice via paypal (after you provide your email via direct message). I haven't utilized this very much, but if you know what you're looking for, you can search Instagram by hashtag, such as #minirodiniforsale.

I don't think I've ever bought clothes for the boys on Ebay, and maybe one item on Etsy, but that's an option. Etsy is expensive and Ebay is hard to navigate, in my opinion, and hard to find items on. I prefer the Kidizen app which is exclusively for children's items. You can enter the sizing and gender preferences of your children (or not - you don't have to set parameters) and search all kinds of kids clothing, mostly gently used. You can also search by keyword or hashtag if you know exactly what you want. Many sellers are willing to negotiate on prices or bundle (a discount for buying multiple items) if you ask (same on Instagram). Some, particularly on Instagram, are willing to trade as well. I use Kidizen to resell too, but I like being able to specify the size I want which you can't do on Instagram. There is SO much cute stuff in the 12 month to 2T range in vintage clothing and even regular clothing, but kids tend to be harder on their clothes in the 3T-5T range, so less vintage clothing from that size bracket has survived the past several decades, and less of it is in good enough shape to resell, even if it's a modern brand. Snatch up something you like if you see it in that size!

I do love to thrift shop, but I don't find many clothes (especially in the 3-5T range) that I like for my boys while thrifting. You have to sift through a lot of junk to land on anything good, and I don't usually have the time or energy. The last time I was in the Whittier Savers thrift shop, they had organized their clothing by gender and size and I actually found quite a few great pieces! But that is rare for me. Also rare, but sometimes you hit on a great pile of stuff (vintage, mostly) that has come in as one donation. If you find one thing you like, it's worth checking on the racks close by in case there are more items donated by the same person. The rarest of all, in my experience, is finding a good stash of vintage kids clothing at estate sales, but those are usually the best - in good condition and all in one spot! I like many vintage styles (often well made and not dorky), but vintage sizing is often considerably smaller than modern sizing. If you're buying vintage online, make sure to go by the actual measurements provided (almost all vintage sellers will offer them), not the vintage tags. Another cool thing about vintage is that not many people want it, so once you have a trained eye and/or dress your kids in vintage, people will start bringing it to you.

Consignment stores or events can be good too. I haven't utilized the stores around here very much (they are quite small), but especially when I was shopping for smaller sizes, the Moo La La Boutique that happens twice a year at the Santa Maria fairgrounds was amazing. There are a few sellers who have styles I really like, and the clothes are tagged with seller numbers, so you can kind of shop by style in that way. I find that foreign brands (Japanese and French, in particular) are often stylish and they are affordable on consignment, especially since most people don't want to buy something they don't recognize, so these really good pieces can be on the cheaper side! Having a non-mainstream style can be challenging, but as I mentioned above, you have less competition when you're trying to buy stuff and it's so exciting when you do find things you like!

I do find some things at GAP, HandM, Old Navy, and Target too. They all have good sales from time to time, so I stock up on basics like tshirts or solid colors or shoes to mix and match with the more unique things I find elsewhere. For some reason, I have a bit of a mental block against used pajamas, but luckily there are some pretty cute ones at GAP, for example.

If you pay attention when buying used clothing on consignment or online, you might start to notice some boutique or even designer brands that you lean toward as well. Again, I never buy these brand new, but if you hunt around, you can usually find affordable used ones. Some that I like are Harajuku Mini (was a line at Target), Tiny Whales, Prefresh, Tea Collection, Mini Rodini (pricey, even secondhand!), and Zara. I'm sure there are more I'm forgetting. My favorite Instagram shops sort of morph as my kids grow and our styles change, but we love @chalkmarks, @lovedthreads, @pipsqueaksinplaid, and @mini_fresh_hawaii to name a few. Both chalkmarks and minifreshhawaii are very popular, so you have to be very speedy (and turn on notifications for their shops on your phone) if you want to buy from them. I think I'm following about 1000 shops (not all for kids, but many are) on my Instagram shop account @retroriot, so if you're really committed, you can start there and see what catches your eye.

Happy hunting! 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

6 Week Night Meals I Love

Several months ago, my mom instituted a new house rule in which every adult (and teenager) in our multi-generational household cooks 1-2 nights a week. She and I both have two nights a week, and my dad, my husband, and my little sister each have one night a week. It is amazing. It takes the stress of the unknown away (our nights of the week are set), it lightens the load that was mainly on my mom and me before, it gives other members of the family an opportunity to practice and branch out in their cooking (good and fun for them too, if I may be so bold), and it makes the nights that I do cook easy to turn into something more fancy or exciting or complicated than get-something-on-the-table-before-bed-time. I highly recommend some version of this system if at all possible in your household.

I have a giant collection of Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart, Food and Wine, etc. magazines and at the beginning of each month, I take out all the June issues, for example, and pick out some things that look good. Jonas and I are starting to think of saving for a down payment on a house or apartment or trailer and even though it's a really small step, we're trying to have our 3 meals for the week planned in advance so I can shop for everything we need in one trip. This ends up saving us at least a small chunk of money because I'm the more seasoned shopper, plus the less often we walk into a store, the less we buy.

Keeping a list of things that sound good, whether it's from a magazine, website, or just a craving, makes meal-prep less stressful. When everyone is hungry, it seems to hinder my ability to come up with food that's quick and good, but when I'm looking forward to something that sounds good, I'm more likely to plan ahead (and be able to incorporate what we already have at home). We've also been trying to host more often and not worry about making some extravagant 5 course meal, but instead sticking with the hits that we already know and love. I love to make new things, but it's really nice to cook recipes I'm comfortable with or can prep ahead of time so that I'm not exhausted by the time our guests arrive.

Anyway, those are some ways in which we've been focusing on eating well lately, but I still love a good one-pot, weeknight go-to recipe. Here are a few that I come back to over and over again.

Poke Bowls
My family LOVES poke bowls (click here for recipe), and they're not hard. We buy frozen tuna from Grocery Outlet, and I prefer to cut it when it's only barely thawed because otherwise it's kinda gooey and hard to handle. You'll have to let it marinate a bit longer so it can fully thaw though. You can get furiyake (a seasoning of small bits of nori, sesame seeds, and other things) at well-stocked Asian markets or even at Daiso (Japanese dollar store in major cities) or just cut up seaweed chips and toss with sesame seeds. We use white rice instead of the black rice this recipe calls for, and we customize the toppings to our liking. I usually add a fried egg for those who want it, and make a quick pickle or add kimchi. The marinating of the tuna doesn't take that long, but all the prep (especially if you have more rather than fewer toppings) can get a bit time consuming. You can do prep ahead of time or buy pre-cut veggies and toppings to save time if you want. I also like to take paper menus from poke restaurants to get more ideas of new toppings or combos. We like to add sriracha mayo on top!

Caesar Salad
Maybe this is boring to everyone else, but I have always loved Caesar salad. I buy croutons, but since this is a 2-ingredient salad, I indulge in a home-made dressing. This recipe is my go-to. To make this into a full meal, you can add shrimp or grilled chicken. If there's leftover dressing, I'll often use it in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches the next day.

Sausage Basil Mustard Pasta
Recipe here. I first started making this when a mom in an online group I'm part of said it was her go-to weeknight meal. It gets a bit spicy for my boys if I use spicy sausage and add the red pepper it calls for, but I love it. Ishmael really likes this pasta too, which is always a good reason to put something on heavier rotation. It does call for white wine and heavy cream which I don't always have on hand, but I often substitute heavy cream for half and half, and as long as I've bought a cheap bottle of wine in the past few months, there's usually some left over.

Tater Tot Chicken Pop Pie
I'm embarrassed that I rely on tater tots so much, but they're delicious and the thought of making pie crust is never a joyous one for me. I guess I could buy them, but then I feel guilty knowing I could actually make them fairly easily, plus my mother has probably never bought a pie crust in her life, and so I guess we just don't do that in our family. I do love a good store-bought puff pastry, but it's too expensive to buy for a weeknight. I don't stick to the original tater tot pot pie recipe exactly, I just dice whatever veggies we have (or use a bag of frozen), chop up chicken (cook before putting it in the oven), and throw those into a bechamel sauce with grated cheese (not in the original recipe). Then dump a bag of tater tots on top and bake until golden (30min?). If you're not in the habit of making bechamel sauces, it's actually way less snobby than it sounds. You can find easy recipes on Google, but basically you melt some butter in a pan (like several tablespoons), slowly whisk in a slightly lesser amount of flour (in small increments, so that it stays smooth and well blended) and then quickly whisk in milk until you reach the desired consistency. You will have to keep adding milk if you keep the sauce on the stove because it thickens as it continues to cook. Don't forget to season with salt and pepper and maybe garlic salt if you forgot to add garlic and sauteed onion to the veggie portion, like I always do...

White Lady Green Sauce Enchiladas
These are so far from Mexican food that I'm not even worried about cultural appropriation (though to be honest, culturally appropriating food seems like nonsense to me). This is my own "recipe", morphed from something my mom made growing up. I make a bechamel cheese sauce (described above) and then dump in a big can of green enchilada sauce. My family prefers flour tortillas, but of course you can do corn if you want. To assemble, put some cooked rice (we use white, but you get fancy with Mexican rice or brown rice), cooked chicken, and a small ladle full of sauce, fold the tortilla closed, and repeat until the pan is full. Add the rest of the sauce on top, top with grated cheese, and bake for 30-45 minutes. These are actually pretty mild, verging on bland at times, especially if the ratio of cheesy bechamel to green sauce goes too heavily on the bechamel side. We put hot sauce and salsa on the table and let everyone season to their liking. You can put olives on top or sour cream or whatever else you like to jazz it up.

Several years ago, I visited a friend in Chicago, and stopped at a little Indian market. I got a packet of MTR Pulao Masala and it is the best. It's a mix, just like you would buy taco seasoning, but you end up with a nice and not-boring rice dish with nuts and veggies, and garnished with lemon juice. My boys especially like squeezing the lemon slices. You can get the packet on Amazon, or if you live in Santa Maria, FoodMaxx actually has a surprisingly good Indian section. I don't think it has this packet, but you could make a masala (spice mix) from scratch using what they have and then have enough for several recipes for future use. The first link to the product from the maker's website actually includes the recipe that's on the back of the package, so you can rip off the rest of the recipe even if you use your own mix. It has a handy ingredient list so you can make your mix as close as possible, too! It evens suggests you serve with raita (yogurt, cucumbers, mint) and naan (Trader Joe's has good options). All together, it's a very satisfying meatless meal.

Bonus: 5 more weeknight recipes from round 1!
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