Have you met our new baby? If you've seen us these past three months, chances are the answer's yes. I didn't think to send out an announcement, and frankly, I'm a little sketchy on the vitals. She probably weighs in around six ounces, measures a good eight inches, and arrived, oh gosh, maybe late July? Name? Like I said: Baby.
Zoë cares for Baby like Liberace did bling. Maybe more. I don't understand it, entirely. Partly, I think it's that little kid love of anything with big eyes and tiny toes. She's keen on stuffed animals, too. We have an avalanche of plush critters, and she'll often coddle a pig or puppy all morning, fingering its velvet nose, chattering on in a whispery little falsetto. (The boys love them, too, since they're the only projectiles mother-approved for use in the house.) But Baby's in another league.
When Baby goes missing -- it's 1 p.m., say, and she's been M.I.A since lunch -- Zoë does a bang-up impersonation of Giotto's angels, all soaring agony and despair. When Baby turns up again, their reunion has the breathless happy hysteria of forty-year-old twins, separated at birth, brought together at last. Maybe it's a mother hen thing, a(nother) rebuttal of that cute little Seventies notion that gender's just a silly social construct. Maybe they share common interests. After one of their recent heads-together chats, Zoë popped up all smiles and said "Baby likes shoes!" Maybe it's a phase. Maybe Bush will be indicted.
All I know is, Baby long ago traded in her "toy" status for honorary family member. I marveled over how well these two play, but these two get along famously. Most mornings, Zoë's first words are "Hi Bay-bee!". The rest of the time, it's "Hi Bay-bee! Hi-Baybee! Hi Bay-beeeeeee!" Baby joins us for breakfast, for field trips, for camping in Ohio's shedding woods. She's a fine co-pilot, a dedicated (if sloppy) sous-chef, and an extraordinary Florence Nightingale. Hang nail or scraped knee, Baby always, always makes it better.
And Zoë gives as good as she gets. Somehow, she knows to tuck Baby's little bald head snug under her chin, to croon rock-a-baby, to hush soft nothings into her pink plastic ear. I don't expect you to believe me when I tell you -- scout's honor, cross-my-heart, Nature wins this round by a big ol' whopping landslide -- that I did not teach her any of this.
In fact, I actively scuttled the whole baby business from the get-go. I'm not sure why, exactly, except that I place tremendous value on consistency. Last Christmas, Zoë's poor papa and I stopped by our neighborhood toy shop. We both went our separate ways to browse, and when he turned up a short time later, he had a wonderful, carefully considered armful of dolls for me to choose from. I gawked. I balked. I think I surprised us both with, how shall we say, a wee ranting diatribe. Against the 3 he'd picked, or for that matter, any of the 300 in stock. I just couldn't fathom why, when we hadn't given either of the boys a baby doll for their first Christmas, we would go all soft and squishy on Zoë. It seemed, I don't know, presumptive. And like we were abandoning her to the Pink Side, before she even had words or walking feet to escape.
We settled on a stuffed squirrel.
On such compromises strong marriages are built. Also, on not saying "I told you so" when Zoë finally gained words and steps and strength enough to nearly leap from the cart when she spied the doll aisle for herself this past summer. Turns out she no more needed a baby than she needed oxygen. In retrospect, any of those original 300 were lovelier to look at. But in the end, Baby entered our lives the same way some of my own most favorite things have: on impulse, from Target.
My high-minded self wishes Baby were more of a charming, homespun affair. Head-to-toe polished cream cotton, say, with nubbly wool pig tails and french knot freckles and pebble-round, shiny floss eyes stitched in DMC 503. Nix the two-tone pink polyester pantsuit, bring on the billowy button-up sheath. Pin-tucked linen, maybe, or some dreamy little kokka print. Could be off the shelf, maybe Ava2 or little miss Zoe. Better yet, one of these hip, handmade lovelies. But that first model would require a home equity loan, and that second would require skills. So for now, we have Baby by Circo.
Which, if I'm honest, is just right, right now. Baby has all kinds of winning personality traits that my dream dolls just *sniff* don't. She's small, for one thing, perfectly scaled for a two-inch fist to clutch any which way. Also, her suit is wash-and-wear. And with the life Baby leads, the wash is often where her suit lands. Best, though, is Baby's tough exterior. Call it mother's intuition, but something tells me ivory cotton wouldn't play nearly as well with squashed frozen blueberries as molded polymers do.
Actually, Baby's best trait might be the trust she inspires. At 21 months, Zoë has a mind of her own. Unlike Baby who, strictly speaking, has air between her ears. Therefore -- how can I put this delicately -- it is often helpful to model good choices through Baby's esteemed character. Let's call it lip syncing for a good cause. When Baby suggests it's time to buckle up or get dressed or sit in this nice cubic square foot of space called an airplane seat another 4 hours, she speaks with authority. And Zoë listens. And does, almost anything Baby says, almost always. It's a fine line, lovey-as-puppet-dictator, and I tread it very carefully. Still, when Zoë forgets the shoe rack is only for unoccupied boots, say, it's handy to hear a little firm disappointment in Baby's voice.
Mostly, though, it's all warm fuzzies with these girls. I catch Zoë feeding Baby cheerios when nobody's looking. When I'm driving, I hear the random mwop mwop! of tiny toddler kisses on Baby's bald noggin'. And all day long, I find them all tangle-armed and wrapped up together, Zoë murmuring "hugging, hugging".
At moments like these, I give thanks for two big brothers. Because even though Zoë has a slight case of baby brain, she holds her own among the Y chromosome set. She knows proper plane-flying protocol (swoop over head, fwoooosh! through pursed lips), shouts Bast Off! when the countdown hits zero, and burns Hot Wheels rubber like nobody's business. She may have gone over to the Pink Side, but she's drag racing through its glittery streets in a pale rose bulldozer.
And if in coming years the diggers cede ground to dolls? Hey, whatever floats her boat. Every kid deserves to be besotted by something. I did dolls too, once. Although these days, I'm far more besotted by Brussels sprouts. Particularly these Brussels sprouts, seared and bacon-spiked and braised in cream until swoon-worthy. We had them with our Thanksgiving meal, where they held their own next to turkey and countless carbs and gravy so heady with sherry and giblets and porcini it probably could have been dinner all by its lonesome. They're better still next to a Christmas ham (if you're looking...), their nutty sweetness playing brilliantly off the salty sweet meat. But I like them best of all some anonymous fall day, as dinner, straight up.
They may look like mere vegetables, but between the butter and bacon and, yes, cup of cream, they eat like a feast. And it's hard to feast better, or simpler, than this. The only real work is in peeling and trimming those tiny little cabbages, but it's that mindless sort of task that passes quickly and pleasantly in good company. Then, all that's left is to halve the sprouts, sear them fast and hot until deepest brown, and walk away while they braise low and slow. In a half hour, give or take, some strange alchemy turns sweet cream and cabbage into edible cashmere. The sauce turns thick tawny gold, the sprouts go all sweet tender velvet, the bacon and lemon amplifying everything until there are far more flavors than ingredients. And if you think it strange to call a heap of Brussels Sprouts dinner (a simple salad and wedge of sauce-soaking baguette is nice, alongside), you haven't tried it. You could, I suppose, toss them with pasta, if you must, to feel proper. But it would only be a waste of noodles. You'll be so besotted by these sweet babies, you'll just go picking through the fussili to find them.
Bacon-Braised Brussels Sprouts
adapted from All About Braising, Molly Stevens
Sear well (lay flat and don't stir until you smell the caramel) and season attentively (taste and adjust lemon and salt until every flavor sings), and these are divine.
Vegetarian? Skip the bacon. The original recipe used only cream, and I've made and adored that version also. Equally, differently sublime.
1 pound Brussels Sprouts, outer leaves removed if bruised, ends trimmed, sliced in half (quarters if especially large)
3 slices good quality bacon, chopped
1 Tbs. butter
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 lemon, squeezed
salt and pepper
Melt butter over medium heat in large skillet. Add chopped bacon, and cook over medium-high until just crisp and fat is rendered, 5-10 minutes. Leave 3 Tablespoons fat in pan; remove rest.
With heat on medium-high, add Brussels Sprouts, cut-side down (do your best; don't obsess). Sear sprouts, 5-7 minutes, or until well-browned on many surfaces. Gently flip and shuffle sprouts with a flat spatula, then sear another 3-5 minutes, until these surfaces are also browning.
Pour cream over sprouts. Use a heat-proof spatula or wooden spoon to gently scrape up brown bits and brown glaze on bottom of pan. Bring to a gentle boil, then turn to low, cover, and let simmer, 15-30 minutes, or until braising cream is the color of caramel and sprouts are tender throughout.
Squeeze 1-2 Tbs. lemon juice over the top, stir gently, and taste for salt. Adjust seasoning until divine.