Everything changed last week.
Not in a bad way. Not even in a big way, I guess, at least on the scale of global warming or contested elections or my hair on one of our more humid days. But everything in our little daily lives, the warp and weft of our every waking hour (and a few of our sleeping ones), changed.
Zoë, you see, decided to speak.
Actually, that's a slight exaggeration: she's been quite verbal for months now. Since May, anyway, Zoë's been a master of "ba". Also, "bo". With this dandy little set of phonemes, she's pretty much had her way with baths and balls, bottles and brothers, bowls and butter. Which, when you think about it, is really all a girl needs.
Well, and shoes. "Shoose" made the short list, too. But that's not really a word; that's a life force.
And that was fairly well it, three little word-lets and not a baby sign in sight. Which isn't to say Zoë wasn't communicating. She's understood most everything we've said for ages, trotting napkins to the trash, fetching hats, separating goats from coats in her corner-bitten copy of My First Words. Also, she's been wearing a single pointed index finger with the devotion Chanel felt for her little black dress, and for all the same reasons. It's endlessly versatile, always appropriate, Everywoman's one essential. Just add one knock-out accessory, an urgent string of "eh eh ehhh!", say, and you'll have the world at your little pink fingertips. Wretched excess, really, all those other sounds and syllables.
Never mind that I've known many babies who have words by nine months; sentences by twelve; crazy wonderful toddler paragraphs by fifteen. Heck, I've raised one. These are the kids who learn language on the installment plan. Who mosey along, pointing to anything and demanding a label for everything and devouring sound effects like Cheerios until, with an Oink-Moo here and a Beep-Honk there, they're talking. This is a very nice path, with lots of positive reinforcement for parent and child both, save only the part where you must fib a bit in the baby book since you really can't pinpoint when the babbling stopped and the articulate position piece on why it's a bad idea to put the blocks away before bed time began.
Other kids, they wait. And wait. And wait some more, for a full vocabulary or a better handle on grammar or the PediPed Fall 2009 Footwear Collection. Whatever. As our third and last, there's been no worry and little hurry. We knew Zoë would take to talking, eventually.
Besides, she's had other skills to master. Patiently tutoring herself in the art of little legos, for example. Not the big toddler bricks, though we have a crate-full. Not the mid-size mega blocks, either, though she can manage those just fine. The itty bitty, Ages 5 and up, stifle-a-yelp-when-you-step-on-them legos. Wouldn't want the big boys having all the fun, now would we?
Fine-tuning her independence.
So the whole talking thing didn't phase us much. Still, we all looked forward to the day she'd graduate from fluent Caveman.
And then, last week, Click! She took one of those giant steps that only babies of a certain age and the occasional astronaut can manage. (I still experience those clicks! now and again, but it's usually my back giving out, or my patience, or both.) Not suddenly, exactly; seventeen months is hardly suddenly. But overnight, absolutely. Wednesday was Zoë as usual, rolling her "ba", yogurt in her "bo", and a sweet slow rock at twilight with a "ba-bo" full of warm milk. By breakfast Thursday, she'd welcomed each of us to table with "Morning!". It was like she'd snuck out for a late-night cameo on Wheel of Fortune, and scored a sweet deal from Mr. Sajack himself on the Complete Consonant and Vowel Collector's Set. Recession sale, probably. Or maybe she's just been paying attention. All day, words spilled out: library, cow, man, chicken, cup, trash, eyeball. Phrases, too: up please, more please, up please, all done, up please, up please, up PLEASE! Emphasis she's had down for some time now.
Child psychologists call it "hitting a developmental milestone", but I've always preferred HOOOO-boy. Because, well, you know. Surely I'm not the only parent who's stuffed that darling, too-tight romper back in the drawer, hoping it will be just a little less snug next week? Kids are a one-way road: no backtracking, no U-Turns, no exceptions. And whether they get there over months or overnight, speech is pretty well the last exit on that great stretch known as babyhood. Pass this mile post, and you're squarely in Toddler territory. I would be sobbing right now, if I weren't so dang excited for her. Imagine! Tasting words for the first time, separately, together, not even knowing yet to thrill over bus stop chit chat and Mary Oliver's quiet splendor and the simple exquisite fact of the Sunday New York Times.
By the time we harvested our first broccoli for dinner that night, it was almost familiar already, that tiny scratched soundtrack by my side, stuck on "ba-koli! ba-koli! ba-koli!". I was a little disappointed that she wasn't as enthusiastic about eating it as saying it. But I wasn't at all surprised when she asked, arms wide open, after more corn. I wanted "more please", too.
Not just because it was fresh and from around here, the way corn should be. We've eaten a lot of Ohio corn already this year. We've fried it into golden fritters; tossed it raw into salsa, for its sweet crunch; stripped kernels into Tom Ka Gai in place of the usual miniature canned cobs. Those were good. This was great. Bathed in caramelized butter, blistered ever so slightly by high heat, kicked up another notch with the tang of feta and the bright cool of mint, this was everything corn had always dreamed of becoming when it grew up. And then some. It took Zoë and I several servings, but eventually, with the platter nearly bare, we got to "all done".
Brown-Buttered Corn with Feta and Mint
Serves 4 as side dish
Adapted from Gourmet, July 2009
The original version left the corn on the cob, and turned the toppings into a compound butter. I find corn much easier to eat off the cob, and butter endlessly better browned. Mint was wonderful here, and a little unexpected, but basil would be equally, differently lovely. Be sure to use a good, whole feta (not pre-crumbled; it has none of feta's toothsome texture or tangy flavor), preferably sheep's milk. Costco's water-packed, 20 ounce block of Valbrese is my go-to feta.
We served this as a side, but I would happily call a big bowl dinner.
4 ears corn
3 Tbs. butter
4 oz. feta, crumbled
1 small bunch mint, slivered
salt and pepper to taste
In a large saute pan, set butter to brown over medium-high heat, 4-8 minutes. Butter will melt and then bubble for several minutes, before the milk solids finally begin to turn color. Keep an eye on the butter as you prepare the other ingredients, watching for little flecks of gold, noticing a nutty rich scent. Once the milk solids (flecks) are amber, remove pan from stove until corn is ready.
While butter's browning, shuck corn, then strip kernels from cob. Set the cob on end in a shallow bowl, and run a thin, sharp knife (paring or chef's) down the contours of the corn, narrow tip to wide base. The bowl captures most of the fall-out.
Add kernels to browned butter, and return skillet to heat. Saute over medium-high heat for 5-8 minutes, until kernels are coated and browning in spots. Add crumbled feta, and cook another 1-2 minutes, until feta melts. Taste, and adjust salt and pepper as needed.