Sunday, March 15, 2009

Somewhere in Between

“Graduate school!” the stranger exclaimed, his voice coated with amusement and disbelief. “When are you going to join us in the real world?”

“Well, I’ll be unemployed in September. That seems like the real world to me,” I replied.

“Wait, how old are you? You look like a kid.” His stream of questions was endless. I couldn’t decide if I should be creeped out by this man who I’d met about five minutes earlier when we both sat down on the train, the cheerfully named Skokie Swift that runs along the Yellow Line between Skokie and Chicago.

“I’m twenty-seven,” I said. I started to think this man was equal parts friendly and nosy.

“You married?”

I laughed. “No.”

“What, you have trouble meeting men?”

“No, I’m in a serious relationship.” I immediately resented that I felt compelled to defend my not-married status, as though being single and unattached were a very bad thing, a label to be avoided at all costs.

“You think he’ll propose?”

Okay, I thought to myself. This is just getting ridiculous. “No, I don’t think he’ll propose.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re happy the way things are now.”

The stranger, this friendly, nosy, 48-year-old man stopped for a moment, perhaps stumped by my answer. I’m glad the “we’re happy” argument works like a charm—it’s hard to push someone about her relationship when she says calmly, with an even voice and unruffled feathers, “Because we’re happy.”

I really love Chicago, even these bizarre conversations that occur because one person’s path crosses another’s for a brief moment in time. I am, in all honesty, deeply ambivalent about leaving this city that has become home to me. This city of skyscrapers and fancy hotels; of lakeside sunrises and food from every corner of the globe; of three kinds of trains; of busses that crisscross the streets in a checkerboard pattern; of the Orange Line that zips me out to Midway airport en route to places like Michigan and Arizona—the very same Orange Line that rushes Matt into Chicago and into my arms…I am deeply attached to this city, the first place where I had to spend my hard-earned money on things like toilet paper and electric bills. I feel like I grew up here, in the sense that I came to Chicago young and fresh-faced and childlike in my 21-year-old innocence, and here I am now, old and wizened, one foot out the door on my way to the real world.

“When are you going to join us in the real world?” I have always wondered about this idea that graduate school is not the real world. Who started this rumor? It sure as hell feels real to me, what with the deadlines and pressures to produce, perform, succeed. My advisor sure acts like a boss, telling me what to do and expressing displeasure when it isn’t done on time. My paycheck is real, and I spend it at a real grocery store, buying real food. Does graduate school seem less real because everyone knows I won’t be a graduate student forever? To that, I say, “Thank goodness!” Who wants to be a grad student forever? The idea that in five and a half months—169 days, assuming I graduate by the end of August—I will be starting a new phase in my career, with the pressure and pain of graduate school fading into the distance…well, I can hardly wait. Even with my uncertain job prospects, I’m still thrilled to pieces about finishing what I started six years ago. Once those three little letters are behind my name, nobody can take my degree away from me. That’s a very sweet finish indeed.

But for now, I remain somewhere in between the beginning and the end. I feel like the month of March, dismal and grey, with the occasional ray of sunshine that peaks out from behind my cynical exterior. I hate March. March is somewhere in between winter and spring, a month that lasts far too long, and yet, when the green lushness of warm spring days finally settles into regular rotation, I realize that the earth needs March in order to wake up. Likewise, I need this time during which I’m still in school, working, earning a paycheck, and preparing for my springtime. I am waking up, opening my eyes, and getting ready for what’s next. All of a sudden, I have newfound respect for March.

These almost-spring days can be rather confusing in the kitchen. The sunlight lingers into the evening hours, but the wind is fierce and the nights are cold. We need good, sturdy food in our bellies, the kind that can sustain us until the farmer’s market returns and we trade our sweaters for short sleeves. But we also need food that whispers sweet nothings about picnics and sunshine, bare skin and iced tea. We need strawberries, paradoxically tart and sweet, their perfume the very essence of spring. We need asparagus, blitzed in the oven and eaten straightaway, its flavor the taste of new green life. We need maple syrup to remind us that spring will give to us a sweetness that lasts all year long.

I like to have a few recipes on hand to bridge the gap between winter and spring. Today’s recipe is one such example. It is, admittedly, inspired by at least four different sources: Nicole’s pumpkin pancake topping which I adapted to make this French toast topping, my (lame) attempt to make a healthy Nutty Buddy bar, Kath’s oatmeal made with pumpkin and eaten with spoonfuls of peanut butter, and The Peanut Butter Boy himself. That’s as many sources as ingredients in the recipe! I didn’t really set out to find this recipe; the recipe found me. That is, I made it on a whim and decided that it ought to be added to my permanent rotation. I had some leftover pumpkin-maple topping, and to make it a more substantial item in my lunch, I added a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. I’m rather pleased with my thriftiness, and I think you’ll be pleased with this sweet, creamy, unusual treat. Between the wintry pumpkin and early-spring maple syrup, it seems just right for these long, cool March days, a tasty reminder that warmer weather is on the way.

Crispy Crackers with Pumpkin-Maple-Peanut Butter Topping
Serve 2 as a snack; the topping makes ~1/3 cup.

I might be stretching the definition of “sandwich,” but this recipe is my contribution to The Great Peanut Butter Exhibition featuring all manner of sandwiches and sandwich-like things. To me, sandwich says two things: bread and lunch. Crackers are bread’s crispiest relative, and a cracker topped with jazzed-up peanut butter is a sweet ending to lunch. I think they taste best after a light main course, such as a bowl of soup or a salad. I had carbohydrate overload when I ate them after pasta. So plan your lunch accordingly!

You can pack the topping in one of those little Glad containers and it should be fine left out at room temperature for a few hours until lunch. Pack the crackers separately, and when you are ready to eat, assemble and devour.

1/4 cup pumpkin
1-2 tbsp. maple syrup
2 tbsp. peanut butter
4-6 Wasa brand crispbreads, such as sourdough flavor

1) Mix together the pumpkin, maple syrup, and peanut butter in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the topping as you like (i.e., add more of any ingredient).
2) When you are ready to eat, top the crispbreads with as much topping as you like and eat.


Anonymous said...

The best recipes are inspired from all sorts of places. I would say my definition of sandwich is also two phrases "edible plate" and "lunch", quite close to yours! This sounds deliciously simply, thanks for entering! And what strange old men they have in Chicago..

a said...

Sounds delicious! I love your pared-down recipes, you get such delicious flavors from simple combinations.

JD @ said...

I would say that the in between times in life are sometimes the hardest to get through. You know change is coming, but you cannot make it happen any faster. I have a problem with making myself wait. I get all excited and want to just hurry up to the next stage in life. Sorry about the odd guy on the El, but that is life in the big BTW, we are trying that roasted broccoli later this week!

Rosiecat24 said...

Hi everyone!

Nick, thanks for hosting another PBE! It's my pleasure to participate. And oh my, how I do love edible plates...

Thank you, Ammie! I confess that I feel a bit silly posting such simple recipes, but then again, I love it when someone inspires me with something that is very easy and very tasty. I treasure my collection of easy recipes, the ones that fill in the gaps when time and money are short.

JD, for me the hardest part about these in-between times is that I feel so unsettled, knowing that change looms just around the corner. It's like being a nomad, not knowing where home is. At least I have my kitchen to bring me comfort.

Hurray for roasted broccoli! I'm so excited for you!

As for that old guy on the train...he just made me laugh with his ridiculousness. I really wonder why he felt so entitled to dig into my personal life--did it not occur to him that I might not want to discuss my marital status with a complete stranger? What if I had been going through a painful, messy divorce and burst into tears when he asked about it? Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

LOL, that's a really funny story! =) I can totally see that happening.

Unknown said...

interesting story :) but this topping sounds even better!

Laurie said...

I got asked the "Do you have any kids?" question last week. It came from a regular customer at work, so he wasn't a complete stranger, though I do find the asking of such a question completely strange. I was tempted to counter with "What size are your underwear?", but was afraid he'd tell me!

Pumpkin, maple syrup and peanut butter. I wouldn't have thought of combining the three, but now that you've suggested it, my stomach is growling.

I too love those thrifty moments when everything in the kitchen just comes together.

Rosiecat24 said...

D, I'm just glad that guy didn't ask me out. I really had NO IDEA where he was going with all these very personal questions!

ttfn, I agree! Crazy urban life :-)

Laurie, I love that you have a counter-question ready to go when someone asks you a rather personal question! It IS really disarming to have an acquaintance poke his nose into your private life. You're right: this topping combination is weird, but it seems to work! I'm trying so hard to be thrifty these days, but I'd like to be thrifty without feeling as though I am depriving myself.

Hmm, now I'm wondering if a pumpkin-maple-peanut butter pie would work...would it be too decadent to throw some cream cheese in there too? Ooooh...yum.