Channeling Beverly

Last evening, Scott and I went to Scoogi’s, a local Italian joint that on Wednesday nights hosts a spiritual medium who reads cards and does a bit of channeling. She’s not exactly the Long Island Medium…but she seems to get the job done without the big platinum hair and the annoying L.I. accent asking perfect strangers: “who’s the ‘s’ who paaassssed, who’s paaaasssssed????” while she’s picking up her dry cleaning.

I had barely sat down when the medium said she had my mom with us. And after she did the typical “validating”, she talked extensively about how much time she and I spent together in the kitchen. I said, “Yes, when she was alive, we did spend a lot of time together in the kitchen”. To which she replied; “She’s there right beside you every time you cook or bake.” She also wanted to know the significance of “CH”. CH? I wracked my brain trying to figure out what mom was saying..cheesecake? Chunky peanut butter or cherry chip ice cream? I may never know. But I do know, at least, what she means about mom’s presence. Last year I wrote a story about the cookbook mom hand wrote for me and how much she influenced my life in the kitchen. I do really feel her presence especially when I make recipes she taught me, or when I use one of her utensils or pans. But I digress. The medium told me that when odd things happen when I’m cooking, it’s a way for my mom to let me know she’s there watching over me. Okay, sure. Well today Bev came through loud and clear. And was she annoying. I loved my mom, but she and I had very different approaches when it came to cooking. She burned stuff all the time and was notorious for having to substitute ingredients, (with varying degrees of success), because she had forgotten something at the store. She wasn’t what I’d call a careful cook. But she loved to cook.

Those who have ever cooked with me, know I am a really precise baker. I am a true boy scout; always prepared, except I’ll let anyone into my kitchen. I figure if I’m taking the time, making the effort, and spending good money, it sure as hell better turn out. So I’m careful. When something needs to bake for a specific length of time, I will set numerous timers in the event one of them fails. I have a “measure twice, cut once” mentality when I bake. I even make sure to use both dry and liquid measuring cups just to get it right. That is, I get I’m a bit of a freak.

Today since it was rather hot and muggy, I decided to throw together a Key Lime pie to go with dinner. I dug out an antique ceramic pie plate that was my grandmother’s and went to work. I prefer a regular pie crust over graham cracker crust and my usual recipe has me bake it for about 40 minutes. But this afternoon I went off script and decided to use the traditional recipe found on the bottle of my Key Lime juice. It promised to be easy and had just three ingredients. You can guess where this is going.

I lined the pie plate, made the filling and as I was pouring it in, realized that the recipe calls for it to bake only about 15 minutes before chilling it….that is, if you are using a graham cracker crust. I hadn’t even finished pouring when it dawned on me that I should have pre-baked the crust. I started thinking; “what would mom do?” I know what mom would do. She wouldn’t have realized her error until she went to serve the soggy mess and had to resort to Sara Lee for dessert. I got a hold of myself and thought; “No, what would Julia Child do?” as I frantically tried to calculate how long I should bake it for, and at what temp so that I don’t end up with an under-baked soggy crust and an over-baked filling. I had used the last eggs in the house and I just didn’t have it in me to go to the co-op and start over. Maybe it’s a sign I shouldn’t be making and eating stuff like this. Or maybe it’s my mom’s spirit playing a little joke on me. I guess I’ll have to see just how much she’s watching over me and what power spirits weld on this side. I picture both mom and Julia having a good laugh over this. I’ll keep you posted how it turns out.

Bottom line is, I will definitely think of Bev when we are either enjoying it, or sending it down the garbage disposal. Today, both of those scenarios work for me.      


The Sweet Smell of Youth

I was a driver the other day for Henry’s school softball team. As several of them piled into the car and settled in, my eyes started watering as the stench of stale sweat quickly wafted through the closed in space. I glanced around as I rolled down my window, trying to determine who the culprit was. At first I was pretty self-congratulatory as I recalled Henry taking a nice long shower the prior night, and remembered the wide array of deodorant, body spray and acne medicine containers that littered the bathroom vanity. There was also a scattering of nail clippings and a glob of toothpaste in the sink, but at least he had accomplished that task as well. I look after my son. I am a good dad.

But as Henry threw off the shirt he had worn all day and pulled on his new Under Armour sleeveless tank, I realized the smell had grown suspiciously stronger as the rumpled shirt landed next to my seat. The potent ripe scent was not emanating from the other boys. No, it hung over my own son like a heavy morning fog, but with an essence reminiscent of Durian fruit, beef jerky and burning tires. I leaned over and whispered that we needed to have another talk about what drives girls away. Henry, of course, rolled his eyes and dramatically mouthed for me to: “shut it”.

It seemed like just yesterday, that whether he had gone a day or a week without bathing, he always smelled like “new baby”; a combination of lavender scented talc and formula. And even with a drenched diaper, he still somehow smelled sweet.
It was twelve years ago that we first met him at his orphanage in Cambodia, placed in our arms by his nanny. And it was twelve years ago last week that we flew thirty long and exciting hours, carrying him through immigration to his new home. Even at nearly a year, Henry could not yet crawl; always carried around by Kat Minh and never allowed to flex his muscles on the tiled floor of the baby house. Now he runs and catches fly balls and kicks goals. He spits and laughs and can curse like a sailor and he sweats and yes, he stinks. When did this transformation happen? I fear I was too wrapped up in trying to keep my own mortality in check that I forgot to keep him from growing up. Unbeknownst to me, that ship sailed and now my baby is thirteen. What the hell was I thinking? I knew intellectually that kids grow up, but in my heart I was holding on to that little baby…our Buddha baby; so round, always smiling and so sweet smelling.

It’s time to face reality as we prepare for the teenage years and start navigating his foray into the world of high school entrance exams and his dreams of one day driving. I also realized that we’ve reached that milestone where his time left at home is less than his time he’s already spent with us. I can’t tell you the panic that wells up inside when I think about all the unfinished work we still have ahead. And don’t get me started on all the mistakes we’ve made that I hope we can still somehow fix. I’m sure there will be times when I’ll be tempted to sabotage his inevitable leaving, but then I’d be failing at my job; preparing him for new adventures. I guess for now I’ll focus on middle school and all the trials and tribulations that comes with that. Well, that and his personal hygiene.


Getting It Right

Yesterday was one of those mornings when my parenting skills were really called into question. And if truth be told, when I say morning, it started at one a.m. when I was suddenly awakened by my bladder and realized I had fallen asleep before checking in with my son Henry. If it wasn’t bad enough that he was still up at that ungodly hour, he was of course, playing a questionable M rated video game and requesting a burrito. Yes, a burrito. In the middle of the night.

We really like Henry’s pediatrician, but we don’t always see eye to eye. And in an epic fail he contradicted me at a recent checkup. I had explained to him that Henry was having trouble falling asleep, and also snacking late at night. I felt that “feeding the furnace” was part of the cause of his insomnia. He told Henry if he was hungry, even late at night, that a nice hearty snack might actually help him fall asleep. That was right after I asked him to explain to Henry the importance of not picking at his scabs. His response was; “Maybe, instead, you should focus on clipping his nails”. I just couldn’t win. But I’ve got to give Henry some credit, though, for watching my back. When the doc asked Henry what time he generally heads to bed, without missing a beat Henry replied; “8 pm”, with the conviction of a preacher. I thought, “8pm?, In what time zone?” But I wasn’t going to correct him since I already looked like a loser parent. As the doctor turned towards his computer, Henry looked up at me, flashed a sly grin and mouthed, “you owe me.”

My partner Scott, gets up quite early, generally about 4:45. And normally I lay there in a twilight zone between sleep and a slow awakening that finally gets me up around 6:30. But yesterday, between my one a.m. short-order cook shift and my clumsy fingers, I must have hit ‘off’ instead of ‘snooze’ on my iPhone and we overslept. A lot. I woke when our Italian Greyhound, Dexter, stuck his head out from under the covers and I caught wind of a smell that emanated from a dog who clearly had finished off Henry’s early morning burrito. And like Barbra Streisand’s final long-sustained note in Evergreen, the hang time of Dexter’s fart held heavy in the air like a stage reading of John Milton’s, ‘Paradise Lost’.
As I cleared my head, I noted the time, and frantically dressed myself as I searched for something relatively clean for Henry to wear. He was slow but seemed to rally a bit, buoyed in part by his morning ablutions consisting of copious amounts of Clearasil and a generous misting of AXE body spray. Honestly, our drill is normally a well-oiled machine.

You see, since January, we’ve changed our morning routine. In the past, we fought intensely about doing homework after school to the point where it became a real road block in our relationship. I found myself dreading that daily battle. I would try reasoning with Henry, explaining that if he did it right away after school, that he’d have the whole night looming free and unfettered of that daunting task. Every day it was the same. I’d ask him to do his homework, he’d beg me to let him take a short nap. I’d forget the sleeping boy until it was almost bedtime at which point I’d wake him, beg, plead and barter, followed by me yelling, him slamming the door, and one of us ending up in tears. Usually me.

So I met with the school counselor and together we came up with a plan. I gave Henry the choice to pick when he would like to accomplish homework. As it turned out, Henry knew what was right for him. He’s a morning guy. Who’d a thought? So I get Henry up early and he does homework without any fuss while I fix him breakfast of scrambled eggs, some fruit and a can of diet coke. Not really. The coke is for me. I pack his lunch and then head out to warm up the car and turn on the heated seats. Henry drapes a blanket over the warm radiators and at ten minutes to eight, we race to school with him bundled in a toasty warm blanket. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

Yesterday, not so much. I pretty much did his homework; calling out questions as he shook a jar of bacon bits into his unbrushed mouth, washing it down with a swig of OJ drunk straight out of the carton. He sucked on a couple Altoids as we made our way to school arriving just in the nick of time. I think the lunch I packed was pretzels, a container of hummus and a couple dill pickle spears.

Today was a better day. Homework was completed, breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, nails cleaned and a wholesome lunch locked and loaded. Okay, it was a Lunchable, a bag of Fritos and a can of V-8, but the rest is all true. I probably won’t win any parenting awards, but hopefully when Henry’s older, he’ll remember the times when I got it right.


Are You Fixing Dinner, Or Is That Just Your Wet Barn?

If you know me at all it’s no surprise that one of my favorite hobbies is food. Essentially I love everything related to food; innovative kitchen appliances and gadgets, purveying foodstuffs, cooking and of course, eating. But I’m also a cook book and food magazine aficiondo .

I have a decent and diverse cook book collection, and while I rarely cook directly from recipes, I glean from them all sorts of ideas and inspiration. As a writer myself, I love authors like Ragavan Iyer and Lynne Rosetto Kasper who weave magical stories amongst their wonderful recipes. And I am impressed when a writer has a gift for transporting me to their mother’s kitchen or a Cordovan olive grove in Spain with their adept word smithing skills. There’s nothing better than a well-crafted description of a cheese that convinces me I’m smelling the pungent aromas of the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

Unless you count the summer when I was 11, and took a week-long kids “cooking-with-gas” class at NorthStar Appliances in Decorah, Iowa, I’m not at all formally trained in the culinary sciences. So I’m not particularly keen on food writings with overly technical language and I quickly lose interest in a story that tries too hard to impress me. Thus I love a great recipe with an interesting tale.

But I digress. While perusing the most recent issue of Saveur magazine a photo of a sumptuous dish caught my eye. Not recognizing what it was, I read through the caption and within those couple of sentences, I immediately knew my destiny. I would be making a Tartiflette. With this riveting description and beautiful photo, my plans were set in motion:

“Soft, pungent reblochon, a washed-rind cheese from eastern France’s mountainous Haute-Savoie, is at the heart of my obsession with tartiflette. This rustic regional casserole of potatoes, white wine, lardons, and the cheese, with its wet-barn aroma, is like a wonderful bear hug on a winter’s day. It’s a simple dish with no secrets or tricks, but it sings an homage to the Alps as it bakes, perfuming the kitchen as the rosy rind of the cheese bubbles to create a tangy crisp top.”
–Litty Matthew, Los Angeles based free-lance writer. Saveur, Jan/Feb 2014.

With two poorly trained dogs living in my house, I can’t guarantee that the wafting scents will “sing an homage to the Alps”…but I’m confident I can pull-off the “wet-barn aroma.” And, despite myself, hopefully Tartiflette will be my new obsession too.



Feeding the Masses

I’d like to say that this is a “throw-back Thursday” photo….but it’s not.  It’s also not prop food from “Fargo”.  It’s dinner.  At some point in Henry’s short life he went to a pot-luck and had tater-tot casserole, loved it and now requests it from time to time.  Today was one of those times.  Having grown up in the midwest, I have cream of mushroom soup coursing through my veins and I was in junior high before I realized potatoes didn’t grow in the form of little cylindrical crunchy barrels.  So I know my way around a hot dish.  And since I grew up in a pastor’s household, potlucks and the ubiquitous hot dish was a way of life. It wasn’t just that they were a staple of every potluck, picnic or funeral luncheon, and since we didn’t have a lot of money, a casserole or hot dish was a way for mom to stretch her very tight food budget.  

A few days ago I posted about the handwritten cookbook that mom gave me shortly before she died.  And if you page through it, you’ll find many examples of hot dishes that mom prepared throughout our childhood.   Some good, others not so good.  But all came from my mother’s hands.  A couple of our family favorites included something we called “Russian Hot dish” which we had for the first time at a Russian Orthodox festival in northern Minnesota.  This inter-continental dish was made with ground beef, elbow macaroni and ketchup.  Another staple at our table was a nod to the indigenous population; “Squaw Corn”. This native dish was made with ground beef, bacon and creamed corn.  When we wanted to go “oriental” we’d have beef chow mein; ground beef, the bottom can of La Choy Chow Mein, rice and the top can of crunchy chow mein noodles.  If we wanted it a little bit spicy we’d sparingly drizzle a few drops of soy sauce on top.  Later on in life we had a special hot dish that was fancy enough even for company; “Malaysian Hot dish”  This was sophisticated on several levels.  The first being that it was an exotic array of ingredients but also it was a deconstructed hot dish. The components were artfully presented and each individual assembled it on their own plate.  Malaysian Hot dish was comprised of hamburger, rice, and small bowls of condiments: shredded coconut, ground peanuts, cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, pimento and I wish I had italics for this….crushed pineapple.  

But for me, my favorite hot dish was the one dish that happened at the end of the month; when the money was gone and even hamburger was beyond our budget.  It’s also the one dish my mom did not include in her book.  I don’t know if it held painful memories, or was just not one of her favorites, but I absolutely love it and to this day, I call it; “End of the Month Hot dish.”  It was simply Birdseye frozen mixed vegetables, béchamel sauce and homemade croutons on top made out of stale bread.  It was simple, wholesome and I loved the garlic buttery crunchy cubes of bread.  

I realize I sound like I’m making fun of my mom’s cooking, but her greatest assets were her ability to feed a family of six for under five dollars, and her sense of humor.  And she would have enjoyed my stories about our family.  As an adult, I appreciate how stressful it probably was for her to feed her brood on a tiny budget.  And who knows what sacrifices she must have made in order to feed us the occasional ham, roast or special dessert.  When she signed up for this gig, she probably had no idea what it entailed.  But we were always fed, sated and happy. 



Tater Tot Casserole

Tater Tot Casserole

Baking With Beverly

Shortly before my mom died back in 1988 she gave me my most treasured belonging. In her distinctive script and teacher-like print handwriting, she wrote out some of her most favorite recipes in a simple notebook. This very worn and food-stained book also includes helpful household tips, table prayers and words of wisdom. If you page through it you’ll also find a few recipes where the ink has washed away from having edged into the bath water while I was reading it late at night in the tub. Most of these recipes are etched into my memory and I really no longer need to reference them. But over the years, I find I pull it out often, because of its transformative properties. Seeing the notebook pulls me back to those times when we cooked and baked side by side in her kitchen. If I press my nose against the pages I pick up the faint smell of flour, almond extract and chocolate, and I can still taste her Danish puff pastry, her German chocolate cake and her own mother’s Schaum Torte. When I read her words, I can again hear her voice inside my head, which over the years has become harder and harder to recall. In those raw weeks and months after her sudden death, I would have never thought that my memory of her would ever fade. But over the past twenty-five years time has taken its toll on those memories. I want so much for both Scott and Henry to know her in some manner. So I bake and I cook those special things that I can connect to her. And when Henry wrinkles his nose at the sweet and sour cabbage I place before him, I tell him my mom made it for me when I was his age, and someday he too will learn to relish it. And one day he’ll look through my book and connect those recipes to me as well. My mom grew up on the south side of Milwaukee and on occasions when we visited her family, we’d be treated to O&H Danish Kringle. And when we moved far from there and my mom missed its flakey goodness, she found a recipe for homemade kringle which she tweaked and mastered to make it her own. This year Henry discovered the goodness of Kringle, and while O&H is really fine, it’s not the easiest thing to come by way out here. So this afternoon, I brought out that well worn book and started a batch of my mom’s own Danish kringle. For a while today, mom and I baked side by side in my kitchen, and my hands became her hands gently kneading the dough. And when Henry takes a bite of Bev’s Kringle, maybe on some level, not yet apparent to him, he too will be transformed.

World of Pure Imagination

Recently some people in my life have had some amazing things happen to them. In the span of seven days my friend Raghavan Iyer won an Emmy for Asian Flavors, my cousin Kristian Berg’s documentary POUSTINIA took home first prize for doc short at the Woodstock Film Festival and Scott’s choir won $10k and headed to the finals in LA. And even Henry made the first goal of the season for his school soccer team. It seemed to me that the stars and planets are all aligning.
It’s time for papa to play the lotto.
But of course, what they all did had nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with talent and hard work. But I’m going to ride the coat tails of this good fortune and see where it takes us.

Speaking of the lotto. Let me first say that I was not one of the winners of that recent $400 million lottery jackpot. Well, actually no one was, except for several who picked five correct numbers and won one million. But I really believe I almost won. Granted, I did not have a single matching number. But in my mind, I was close. It wasn’t as black and white, as winning or losing. I like to think that my numbers were somewhere in between…hovering in proverbial limbo just biding their time before they are whisked away into lotto heaven.

I’m not really much of a gambler, and have set foot just once in a Minnesota Indian casino many years ago. Because I hated the idea of simply throwing good money away, I limited myself to two dollars worth of nickels for the slots, and walked away with nothing. Don’t get me wrong. I felt the adrenalin rush; the rapid heartbeat, the flush that crept up my neck in moments of triumph as I periodically won back a few nickels. But back then my money didn’t come easy and I could not afford to let much slip away so I called it a night.

Recently I was standing in line at a grocery store service center and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the woman in front of me in line. It took me a minute to figure out that the numbers she was rattling off with the precision of a mathematics professor were being entered into the lottery system by the patient woman behind the counter. I could tell that based on the sequences that they were birth years, and other significant dates. When she finished and the cashier gave her the total, I was a little taken aback by what to me seemed like a large sum of money. I determined she was an employee and this was payday and she had taken about a fifth of her take home pay and put it on the line in hopes of scoring it big. I’m certain if Suze Orman had been the eavesdropper, there would have been some concerned words exchanged. Even to the most pedestrian investor, hers promised to be a rather foolish retirement plan.

But there is a part of me that gets it. When a person is making such a small amount of money, the little that they could actually put away for retirement might seem to be an act of futility. Sort of like bailing out a sinking ship with teacup. And let’s face it, winning the lottery and making a ton of cash on talent alone carry the same odds. Though of course the guy who was one of the big winners recently is certainly not worrying about retirement anymore. He’s laughing all the way to the bank. Take that Suze Orman.

If I am being honest, I sometimes do sacrifice a couple bucks for the almighty Power Ball lottery in hopes that some miracle will rain down and I strike it rich. I don’t think I have particularly good luck, as us Bergs seemed to miss the boat when luck was handed out. The times I’ve won anything can be counted on one hand, and the one I recall most vividly was a $3 gift certificate won from Burger V in Decorah in 1972. That bought me the fried shrimp basket and an orange soda.

A few nights ago while scanning the TV channels, I came across Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, and decided to leave it on in the background while I worked.
You gotta love Charlie, that despite living in almost abject poverty, he works hard and gives what little money he has to his family including his beloved grandpa Joe. But what stands out most, is his steadfast belief that everyone, even he, has a shot at the golden ticket. And anyone who knows the story, and understands Charlie, knows that he won the ticket not because of his station in life, money, or even luck. It’s because he’s got some great karma going on. So I take my cues from him.

So for me, I think of Charlie and rely on karma, to ensure my numbers are someday pulled out of the realms of limbo. I know that people who play the lottery dream about what they would do if they won it big. I’m certain they envision paying off their home, buying a slick new ride and maybe building a wing on the hospital or even erecting a new high school gymnasium in their hometown. They dream of paying off debt, putting family through college and walking away from their third shift dead-end job.

When the lottery hits a certain level, I too start to think about what riches of that magnitude could mean to me and my family. I think about what Charlie would do. I mentally divvy it up to family and friends, in sums large enough to make everyone comfortable and to make some of their dreams come true. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m wouldn’t be like Warren Buffet, living in the same humble home in Omaha he shared for so many years with his wife. I’d reserve a nice chunk of money for Scott and me to allow us to do all the fun things that obscene amounts of money provides. I’d buy us a brownstone in The Village with easy access to the theatre scene. I’d find a flat in London near the West End, and a beach house in Provincetown. And I have my own pet non-profits that I would support as well. I’d give to my church, our own NGO: Cambodia Tomorrow, Henry’s schools, our alma maters and our favorite museums. But I’d also give the gun lobby and Monsanto a run for their money. I’d support Planned Parenthood in the states that are cutting their funding to ensure women have access to reproductive care. I’d donate to the Clinton/Warren super PAC that would rival the Koch clan, Donald Trump or the Walton’s. And every state that is still fighting for marriage equality would see money pouring in from our foundation. I would want to change lives and piss people off. Though, as a result, I’d probably have to invest in a body guard and a bullet proof vest.

But my fantasy also includes inviting all of my family and friends to a huge party at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where ten years ago Scott and I exchanged our vows. I envision everyone seated at elegantly decorated tables eating a sumptuous meal, listening to great music and having an amazing time. The revelers would find two bars of chocolate at their seat. We would announce to everyone that they are to open the first bar and when they look inside they will find a fat and completely unfettered cheque for them to spend or save as they please. They can pay off their homes, their student loans, their debt or take a dream vacation. And then we remind them that they are all quality friends, with values and aspirations, brains and talents that are beyond anything we could ever imagine. We’d ask them to open the second bar which contains another cheque for the same amount of money. We’d challenge them to let their minds go crazy and with that money, do something really great with it. Invest it in a worthy charity. Establish an NGO. Pay it forward to someone in need. Start a school in a third world country or send an underserved child to college. And then I would invite them back in a year and report how that money has changed their lives and the lives of other people. Wouldn’t that be fun?

As I mentioned earlier, I take my cues from young Charlie. I don’t believe in luck or lucky numbers and I have no formula or superstitions about where or when I buy a ticket. But in my own weirdo mind, if I simply speak what I’d do with the winnings then maybe, just maybe, the lottery gods will take notice of my master plan and say; Yup, this time we’ll pull Steve’s numbers. And like Charlie, who plunked down several shillings for that winning chocolate bar; to win, you have to get into the game. So I play. At least once in awhile. Don’t get me wrong. I know the only sure-fire way to make it in this world is through education, long hours and lots of hard work. And every day, profound good works happen through the efforts of volunteers around the globe. But you can’t fault a guy for a little fantasizing. And in both my fantasy world and the glaring light of real life, I believe in spreading the wealth. So it would behoove all my friends, to cross your fingers for the lottery plan. Because if I win, we are all winners.