Does that ring anyone's bell? Maybe if you roll back the clock a little? A little further? No, more. I mean decades... Well, anyway. How about middle school P.E.? Bueller?
When I was in the seventh grade, and first enrolled in gym class, our teacher introduced the Athletic Stance. The way I remember, it went something like this: You stand, feet apart, shoulders loose, arms down, knees bent slightly, head up, eyes out, alert. The idea was that if you arranged yourself just so, you'd be ideally positioned to respond to just about anything. Volleyball liner? Pivot, bump, set, spike. Birdie barely clears the net? Lunge forward for the save. You could never predict what your opponent might do, but you could always be ready for the unexpected.
I can't recall taking up the Athletic Stance again after, say, 1984. (Probably because I never took up athletic anything, but that is neither here nor there.) Still, the idea has always stayed with me, mostly because it seemed so useful, at least as it relates to life, and lists.
These days, my Athletic Stance looks rather more like my to-do list. Which, you might argue, looks rather more like the recycle, seeing how rumpled and graffiti'd it is by week's end. Not that it's much to look at in the beginning, given my penchant for margin notes and truly awful handwriting. Never mind all that. My list lets me pivot.
My list, all two columns, all twenty seven lines, is a week's worth of ambition, marshalled into 8 1/2 x 11 inches. (Yes, all eleven. Header's just another way of saying margin.)
I keep it to one page by design, partly because I know my limits, partly because I know my life. Some days, life hums along neatly as planned. Schedules unfold, vacuums come out, baths happen before bedtime and you don't run out of milk. These are the days I feel wildly accomplished, high on clean rugs and the thrill of four strike-throughs. And then I breathe deep, and dig in for tomorrow. Because it's bound to be a doozy.
Call it Karma or Murphy's Law or motherhood, take your pick, but the pendulum usually swings back in short order. The unexpected occurs. Good, bad, neutral, other. And productivity, at least the sort spelled out on Sunday, flies out the window, return TBD.
A sweater, almost done, comes up twenty yards short of yarn. Spring colds take out your youngest for a week. Tornado sirens blare at two in the morning. (False alarm, again. Thank heavens.) Outings that by all rights should go awry, don't. Outings that should be absolutely textbook, aren't. Silly putty stows away in a three-year-old's sleepy hand. Then re-appears, post-nap, in said three-year-old's hair.
Airfares home, out of reach for weeks on end, finally dip just enough to snag (hoo-ah!) tickets. Your neighbor appears with a flat of just-picked basil. Kids forget how to sleep, umbrellas need outings, you discover your family room's front row to a bird's nest. Things come up. Good, bad, other. Stuff. Life. (Pesto.) My list keeps my knees bent, my eyes up.
As I write this, I realize it sounds entirely backwards. Lists, after all, look rather like plans, which to hear Woody Allen tell it, are divine code for 'up-end everything!'. My lists are plump with plans. I swallow my hubris, often.
But mostly's not all, and that distinction is everything. Scattered between Pay Bills and Boys' Haircuts there's, well, some weird random junk. Like Read. (How did this come to require list real estate? There were years I inhaled three books a week. Right now, I'd be tickled with one each month.) And Banjo. (Because my 2-chord rendition of 'Bile Dem Cabbage Down' is still full of hiccups and "interesting" variations.) Or the incomplete run-on, Dominoes, Checkers, Birdhouses, Bicycle. (Because when we hit the witching hour, my brain goes off-line. I need good ideas, stat. Ideally in black and white. My weekday lists aren't anything as long as my summer opus, but a half-dozen tags can make or break and afternoon.)
I know, right? Who needs written reminders to play? What can I say? I'm a grind. When the view from Thursday looks nothing like Monday, my instinct is to get a tiny bit apopleptic. I'm always mindful of bamboo's proverbial bend, precisely because I'm so totally an oak tree. Flex is not in my nature. So it's in my notebook.
Sun finally shining? Pivot left: go swing. Week wiped clean of school? Pivot right: arts and crafts. Surprise pocket of silence, right after dinner? Lunge for the door, on pussycat feet.
Because Walk Around the Block's been on the list all week. Actually, the past three weeks. And spring doesn't dawdle like I do. Let cherry-blossom gawking roll over one more time, and they'll all be gone, confetti underfoot. The Pasque flowers arrived right on time for plastic eggs, but their lease expires around Mother's Day. The daffodils are gone, and every other early bulb, also, and were it not for Zoë spotting cheap ranunculas at the market, our table would be looking a little lonely between blooms. At least our compost pail is benefiting from the downturn.
I'm apt as ever to lose all track of time, to look up and wonder where April ran off to. One minute, we're surrounded by tiny, tight buds; the next, every sidewalk is littered in pink. I need the unexpected to keep me on my toes, ready to react, agile, aware. That, and some silly, essential reminders wedged between the ordinary must-do's and ought-to's.
I'm inclined to think cooking works out the same way.
Serendipity strikes in the kitchen, I find, at least as often as in life. Maybe more so. This past week, I made deeply mediocre peanut butter cookies. I gave over a Saturday afternoon and a full pound of sharp cheddar to crackers that proved seriously inferior to Cheez-It's. I tried (again), and failed (again), to find our perfect madeleine. I made split pea soup from Easter's ham bone, with peas that flat-out refused to relax. Just-purchased split peas, from the bulk bins, at Whole Foods. Impeccable pedigree, inexplicable density. Three hours of simmering delivered warm crunch. Two more hours, and they softened around the edges. Seven hours later, I threw in the towel and rang the bell and served up rich, if rather toothsome, helpings.
But, by way of counter-balance, we also baked our first loaf of sourdough. The process was a bit dizzying, and I thought I'd killed it (twice), and was certain it wouldn't ever rise. But I didn't, and it did, and it was amazing. We churned out old faithfuls, pancakes, biscotti, meringues, and they performed admirably, just as always. And in some cosmic legume-level justice, I produced my first-ever great homemade chickpeas. (A tablespoon of baking soda in the soaking water! Thank you, Yotam Ottolenghi!)
Then I biffed our very first batch of rhubarb.
Monday, Henry declared the time right for rhubarb soda. (Off-list, but absolutely.) Tuesday, we snipped a parsimonious six stalks. We didn't dare take more; it's early, yet. None were any wider than my index finger. We admired their shimmer, anticipated our first sips, cleaned them and sliced them and tossed them with orange peel, juice and sugar. We put them on the stove, brought them to a boil, dialed down the heat, and promptly forgot them.
So much for ceremony.
When we came back to the kitchen a good half hour later, our rosy nibs were nowhere to be found. Rhubarb is fickle, if it's form you're after. On the one hand, you must cook it long enough to soften its crunch and sweeten its tart. On the other, should you cook your slices too long, they'll disintegrate into a stringy heap. And while I've never had much trouble keeping aubergines intact, rhubarb always puts me in the mind of Frances Lam's Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free!. You've a five minute window between nubbins and sludge.
By the time we returned to our pot of "poached" rhubarb,the window wasn't even visible, receding into the distance.
Fortunately, what we were after that day was ruby red syrup; total rhubarb collapse was no great tragedy. We strained the syrup, stirred in seltzer, and clinked our tiny glasses to spring. Then emptied them out in ten seconds flat (six stalks does not much soda make). It wasn't until then that I noticed the rest, the great heap of pink mash, still in the strainer. Had I followed my own directions, I'd have plump tender slices, just right for pavlovas or cakes or fools. But rhubarb is rhubarb, grand by definition, and seeing as this slump was all that remained, I figured we might as well give it a go. Pivot: spoon into bowls and serve.
We scraped our bowls clean. Oh, happy accidents!
What we dipped into was the apple sauce of my dreams, or, rather, what I always dream apple sauce could be, but isn't. Tart, sweet, vivid, intense, almost creamy, but minus the cream. It was also what I always imagined rhubarb might become, a stand-alone ode to spring's finest non-fruit. It's not that I won't eat a plain bowl of poached rhubarb, but those slices, that sauce, seem to beg for more. I happily oblige, adding crunch, cream, or both (and happily had two servings of crisp, just last night). But in the interest of packing more rhubarb into my days, I've always wished for a way without crust or crumb. Because rhubarb freed from the dessert cart is rhubarb I can eat at any (and every) meal.
We ate those first helpings warm alongside lunch, sandwiches of salty ham between fresh sourdough. That was fine. I polished off a second bowl standing at the fridge. (Bad, I know, but could you resist that pink?) I liked it best warm. I ate every last drop cold. I imagine it would sidle up nicely to roast pork, and can confirm it is lovely on warm crèpes. But mostly I intend to eat it as is, rhubarb straight-up, spring on a spoon.
RHUBARB SPLODGE (+ soda)
yield: generous 1 cup; 2-3 servings
It's worth noting that that cup up there represents this recipe's entire yield. That said, it fed three people, and well. It is vivid, and bright, and a small heap satisfies. And I'll certainly be doubling and tripling this as the season progresses.
Also, a few notes: If you use wide, inch-thick stalks, give the splodge a good fork-stir, after straining. Larger stalks are more fibrous, and benefit from a good tousle.
1 pound rhubarb
1 large, juicy navel orange, washed well
1/4 cup sugar + additional, to taste
Cut rhubarb into 1/4" slices, and place in small, heavy pan with lid. With a peeler, remove several thin, large curls of the orange peel's outermost layer, and add to pan. Slice orange in two, and add the juice of both halves. Add 1/4 cup of sugar, and place all on the stove. Over medium-high heat, bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb has completely collapsed.
Fish out orange peels (and eat them as chef's treat if, like me, you're so inclined), and give several good stirs to bring everything together. Taste for sugar, and add more while still warm, if you prefer your splodge a bit sweeter. We wound up adding an additional tablespoon; sweeter-leaning sorts might up that to two, even three.
For a traditional, pourable sauce, suitable for meringues or pound cakes, the end.
For a thick, spoonable splodge, the sort pictured above, set a strainer over a wide, shallow bowl, and pour everything in. Give a few half-hearted stirs, then let sit 10-15 minutes. Remove contents of strainer to a serving bowl, and enjoy, warm or at room temp.
Bonus: A Blushing Pink Soda...
I've mentioned this before, as a footnote, here, but bring it up again because you'll have rhubarb syrup left over. Also, because it's wonderful.
Set aside your ruby liquid, sweeten a bit further if you prefer (it will be diluted), and add seltzer, starting with 1 Tablespoon of rhubarb syrup to 4 ounces of water, and adjusting to taste. Sip as is, or enhance with a squeeze of fresh lime, and/or your favorite tipple.