I’ve been thinking lately about how life always feels like too much or not enough. Sometimes it’s too much work, too many people, too much mess, too much food. Sometimes it’s even too much fun and I can’t put my overexcited mind to sleep at the end of the day. It’s all too much.
Then there are the days of not enough. Not enough interesting work, not enough love, not enough time in the day, not enough money or excitement. Not enough energy or enthusiasm. This business of too much or not enough makes me feel like Goldilocks, always whining and pouting, never content with life the way it is. Life is a delicious mess, and we all have to find our own way through it. If we’re lucky, we’ll even find ourselves marveling at how beautiful the chaos is.
There is a quote from Sigmund Freud that I think about from time to time. “One day in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” It reminds me that whatever trouble I may be working my way through in that moment, I’ve been through hard times before. And I’ve only made my way to this very moment by working through those hard times, by trying again and again, refusing to let myself give up. A change of plans, maybe, but give up? No. That’s not how I roll.
Yesterday was Life, Love, and Food’s third birthday. That’s three years of cooking, eating, observing, and feeling that have been spun into stories and recipes for this blog. Three years of flipping through cookbooks, sampling their offerings, and reporting back to you about the recipes worth making again. Three years of wondering what this blog might be—an end in and of itself? A bridge to new friends and opportunities? A journal, a conversation, a discovery of voice and the power of finding my writing stride? I think it’s all of these things, and more.
But what I want to tell you today is both happy and sad. I know I’ve said many times that I’m happy down here in Texas, and that’s still true. I love my job and the amazing opportunities it has opened up to me. I like the wildflowers and the heat, my little hippie grocery store and my new friend who works there. (He invited me to his art exhibit next Friday in Bryan! I am so excited to see it!) I love my local coffeeshop and their delicious coffee beans, milkshake-like Iced White Mocha, and the fact that Matt and I visit It’s a Grind every time he spends the weekend with me. (If you ever visit me during the hot season, I will insist that you at least taste the Iced White Mocha. It is outSTANDING!)
And I like the people down here. They are, I have noticed, a tiny bit defensive about this town and Texas in general, perhaps because there are many stereotypes about small towns in Texas—that the people are small-minded or racist, or that the only kind of culture that exists here is created by the cowboys, ranchers, and farmers. The other day, I was sitting at a microscope at work, doing my thing, and the acting chair of our department came into the room, looking for a professor who shares that space with our lab. This man is a leader in his field, a tenured professor who has been with Texas A & M for a long time. He is established. We chatted a little bit, and one of the things he said to me went something like this (I’m paraphrasing here): “This is an excellent place to be. We hope you’ll be happy here.” Is it just me, or does that sound like a recruitment pitch? I wanted to say, “I am happy here!” But I feared that would sound awkward, so I just smiled.
For me, the hard part about being here is not the small town, the cowboys, or the barbecue joints. It’s not the heat (yet) or the lack of a Whole Foods. What’s hard for me is that the people I love are not here. My family, all my Chicago friends—I left everyone behind to move to Texas. And the truth is that I’m lonely down here. It is hard to make new friends and even harder to live alone in a place where the social connections are few. Of the friends I do have, they are new and we’re still getting to know each other. We haven’t been together for years the way my old friends and I have. Without something or someone to hold me in place here, I feel like a tumbleweed, ready to drift away with the slightest breeze. It’s a tough way to live. I am not a nomad or someone who enjoys drifting. I love connection and sharing, feeling like I belong somewhere and with someone. I feel like I exist in a space between not belonging and belonging. It’s too early to say that I belong here.
This blog, my little writing patch, has kept me from drifting into lonely despair. There’s a lot of criticism these days about how we’ve all turned away from “real life” in favor of sitting in front of our computers, reading blogs and tweets and Facebook updates. One of my labmates is especially harsh about internet usage, and I do see his point. It’s true that there is an annoying quality to a Facebook profile that gets updated 20 times a day. I can’t keep up with that sort of thing, not without losing my mind at least. I fear the addictive nature of Twitter, so no tweeting for me. And I joined Facebook recently, fearing that I’d never get any work done ever again, but somehow I can manage Facebook. It’s fun to say hello to my friends and family in an easy, casual way, and I feel a little more connected to them, despite the distance between us.
But blogging is what I love most. I do spend a lot of time on this blog: thinking about what to say, writing and editing my posts, taking photos, trying recipes so that I may share them with you. To those who scorn blogs and other personal communication via the internet, I want to say, “Yes, it is entirely possible to skip out on much of ‘real life’ by sitting inside, staring at a screen. But have you ever tried to make friends after moving to a town all by yourself? Have you ever packed up your whole life for your career, in the hope that this new place will eventually feel like a home? It’s hard, this business of building a new life somewhere. It’s lonely. And when you’re not in school any more, it’s even harder. My blog makes me feel less lonely. My friends read it. My family reads it. And a lot of other people read it too, people who may be trying their best and struggling in the same ways that I am. So please don’t mock me or my blog. Because it’s something that I built and love, and it makes me feel like I’m not all alone down here in this small town that I never would have chosen if my career hadn’t lured me down here.”
This blog is a labor of love for me. I feel the same way toward it as I feel toward feeding people: yes, it’s work, but I love it deeply and unconditionally. Even if the only person for whom I’m writing or cooking is me, it’s still worth it. In the end, everything you do must come from you. Even when other people urge to you do something, you have the final say about it. To be an independent person is, to me, among life’s greatest and most rewarding achievements. But I think a person can be both independent and a member of something bigger than themselves—a family, a team, a community. I know that I can survive down here by myself, but to really thrive, I have to keep building my connections, one conversation, one invitation at a time. And I have to be patient as these connections are built by reciprocity. As I said on Facebook recently, I think patience is the answer to about half my problems. (Peanut butter is the solution to the other half.)
I had a friend over for dinner recently. She was the first person besides Matt to visit me at home, and it was a lovely evening. We drank Chardonnay while we made dinner, a tofu scramble studded with vegetables and English muffins sneakily pretending they were garlic bread. And for dessert, I pulled something I call “Texas Fudge” out of the freezer, and we ate bite after chocolatey bite, the almonds and wheat berries giving way between our teeth.
Texas Fudge is a recipe I dreamed into existence after a brief affair with classic no-bake chocolate cookies using a recipe very similar to this one. No-bake cookies are, to my mind, candy that masquerades under the name “cookie.” Very sweet, with a chewy texture from raw oatmeal, no-bake cookies are for me an occasional indulgence, something I tend to make after dinner when my sweet tooth suddenly demands a prize. They are easy to make and even easier to eat, so after licking the spoon and pot, I try to limit myself to two or three so as not to fall into a sugar coma right in front of the stove. Then I tuck the rest away in the fridge or freezer and enjoy them as lunchbox or after-dinner treats.
The only problem with no-bake cookies, as my friend Daine pointed out to me, is the texture. I love oatmeal, but the texture in no-bake cookies is not oatmeal at its best—it’s just too chewy and fibery in the mouth. In Texas Fudge, the oatmeal is replaced with sliced almonds and cooked wheat berries for a mix of crisp and soft-chewy. Instead of cocoa powder, I use real chocolate to add flavor. Finally, Texas Fudge is stored and eaten frozen. It’s a soft confection, and the freezer keeps it fresh and shapely. I love the way it tastes straight out of the freezer, cold chocolate melting in the mouth, yielding a rush of sweetness and the savory almonds and wheat berries. Because this fudge is so sweet, I think it needs a good pinch of salt to balance it, so I’ve written that into the recipe below, thought tonight I forgot it and instead sprinkled a bit of table salt over the still-soft fudge. Later on, after dinner, I sat on my patio with a small piece of fudge and a tumble of strawberries, and together we watched the sun set. I love this place.
Adapted from a recipe for Quick Peanut Oat Cookies (also known as classic no-bake cookies) from my Great American Recipes card collection
Serves about 6-8
1/3 cup cooked wheat berries
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp. milk
2 tbsp. salted butter
1/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
2 tbsp. natural peanut butter (creamy or chunky—your choice)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt, or more to taste
1) Line a large rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
2) Drain any excess liquid off the wheat berries by placing them in a very small strainer, such as a tea strainer, and using a spoon to push down on them. Place the wheat berries and sliced almonds in a bowl and set aside for now.
3) Place the sugar, milk, and butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently to help them combine as the butter melts. Bring everything to a vigorous bubble (not quite a boil, in my opinion) and keep it bubbling for a minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate chips, peanut butter, vanilla, and salt.
4) Pour the molten fudge onto the middle of the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Use a wooden spoon to spread it out to a thickness between a quarter and a half inch (or so). This is not a precise step. The goal is to make a thin layer of fudge on the paper, but it needs to be thick enough so that it can be removed easily from the paper after the fudge is frozen.
5) Pop the whole thing in the freezer and let it harden for an hour or two. After that time, take out the fudge, peel the parchment paper away from it, and break it up into serving-sized pieces—maybe 2-inch squares or so. Store the pieces in layers in an airtight container in the freezer. I like to use pieces of parchment paper between layers to make the fudge pieces easy to remove. Enjoy, especially straight from the freezer!