The Fatal Bite

I didn’t go looking for drama; it came to me. In early 1984, I was at a very low and dark point in my personal and professional life. I went to work, came home, went to bed, got up, and repeated that process for weeks-no, months-on end. My only foray out of my apartment was to Mass on Sunday. I was not sleeping well, not eating well, and generally, not doing well. And then one Saturday in April of that year a friend came to visit. I was horrified to have an unexpected guest drop in on me and see the way I was existing. In fact, my half-decorated Christmas tree was still up (barely standing) in my living room, a carpet of pine needles surrounding it.

My friend took stock of the situation and sent me upstairs to shower and get dressed. “We are going out,” she said firmly. There was no negotiation allowed. I dragged myself upstairs and did as I had been instructed. When I came back down, my living room was spotless, dead Christmas tree dragged to the dumpster, decorations stacked neatly on my dining room table. That was when she made the announcement: “I’m on my way to audition for a part in the musical South Pacific and you are coming with me. After the auditions we are going out to lunch.”

Uh, no. No thanks. No way. Not happening. But, as friends come, this one is a real spitfire. At this juncture, we had been friends for ten years, after meeting in 1974 as freshmen during sorority rush at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.

My Phi Mu sisters and me at our National Convention in 1976, Charleston

Here’s my Phi Mu sisters (including my friend) and me (standing, first on left) at our sorority’s National Convention in 1976, Charleston, South Carolina.

She was involved in theatre back then, too. She was an actress, with a great voice, and lots of what I later learned was called stage presence. She had won the lead in the school’s musical as a freshman. Yes, she was good.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, I realized resistance was futile and I followed her to her car. She drove us to the campus of our alma mater and parked at the music building. We went in and she signed the clipboard for those auditioning. We then took our seats in the theatre. I have to admit that once there, it was fun sitting in the dark, cool theatre, watching the people go up on stage under the bright lights and sing a song for their audition. Sometimes, the director or the music director would speak to them or ask them to do something additional. A few were asked to dance a bit or read lines. I had never seen anything like it and I was intrigued.

Eventually my friend was called up. She did a great job (or so I thought, but what did I know, never having been in a play before). Then the most shocking thing happened. The woman with the clipboard called my name over the microphone. WHAT? I didn’t sign up for anything! I just sat there stunned. My name was called again. My friend literally raised me up by my elbow and said, “She’s here!” I blubbered something about just being there to watch but I soon found myself being “escorted” by my friend up the stairs to the stage, the music director shouting at me, “What piece are you singing?” My friend then said, “Oh, she didn’t prepare anything, she’s just going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’.”

I cowered next to the baby grand piano parked stage right, waiting for further instruction. The accompanist started playing and I just stood there, mute. The music director shouted, “Are you going to sing or what?” So, I sang “Happy Birthday”, badly and I am sure pretty off-key.

You can imagine my shock and surprise a few days later when I saw my name on the cast list, under the ensemble group, Frenchwomen’s Chorus. I was even more shocked to see my friend’s name in the same ensemble group. She was so good, how could we be given the same part? By this time, I had been “convinced” that this would be good for me: I would have a place to go in the evenings, meet new people, try something different, and have the opportunity to act and sing and dance. So, I was thrilled to see my name there, even though it was a very small part, singing just one song, “Bali Ha’i”, and later in another scene, singing its reprise. My friend was not so thrilled at being cast as ensemble but we vowed to hang in there together, me the novice, she the veteran.

Along with music and/or stage rehearsals every weeknight, there were costume fittings, shopping trips to purchase stage make-up and character shoes, props to find, sets to build and paint, and of course, the requisite nightcap at a local bar after rehearsals on Friday night. My friend was right. I made a lot of new friends and had fun while doing it. TheatreBug1-copyright200And, as they say, come opening night, when those bright lights hit me in the face and I basked in the applause during the curtain call, I had been bitten by the theatre bug.

For the next five years, I was a fixture with that theatre group. I joined the group officially, ran for office, headed up committees, volunteered for anything and everything under the sun, and auditioned for each and every play that came up, even when there wasn’t a part that was really right for me.

The place where my best high school memories took place, that's me in first row left, in white drum major costume

The home place of my best high school memories, marching band. That’s me in first row left, in white drum major costume.

Dracula

Cast of the Columbia Theatre Players’ 1986 production of Dracula. First row, far left in grey suit, me as Professor Van Helsing, a male role recast as female just for me!

I parlayed my four years of high school band and two years of childhood piano lessons into being able to read music well enough to get a part in the chorus of the summer musical each year. I gave it everything I had but in return I received much more. While I never got a major singing role, I did get the female lead in two straight plays and had the opportunity to direct two plays during my time with that group. My five years of performing in front of audiences taught me self-discipline and problem-solving as well as improving my self-confidence and public speaking skills. Serving as producer for several of the large joint productions also gave me great experience at organizing a major event involving significant sums of money. Being the editor of the group’s quarterly newsletter gave me a creative outlet for burgeoning writing skills, as well as experience in marketing and public relations for a non-profit group.

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henleys e Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henley’s play The Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987. That is me seated on the right, second row.

In 1988, after over twenty productions with the group, I had to say goodbye to my friends at Columbia Theatre Players. My “day job” as a paralegal had also brought me success, and eventually, a cross-country move for a job with a Fortune 500 commercial real estate development company. Soon after, I married and had children, and my long evenings in a dark theatre came to an end, paving the way for watching our daughters in school plays and encouraging their creative talents.

After twenty years in the legal field, I decided to become a teacher. Hoping to find a teaching position where I could marry my love of theatre with my love of literature, I attended a Catholic schools job fair, with a large silver brooch of the Greek comedy and tragedy masks on my suit jacket. comedy and tragedy masksI stopped at all the booths of schools showing an opening for a language arts teacher. At one booth, a woman said to me, “Is that the symbol for theatre?” After I told her yes, she said, “Stay right here. I’ll be right back.” She returned shortly with her principal and they told me that the teacher who had directed their school plays had recently retired. “Would you be interested in doing that if you were offered a teaching position?”

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disneys High School Musical J

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disney’s High School Musical Junior, April 2015. That’s me in the teal jacket.

And, so, for the last eight years, that is how I have fed and nurtured the theatre bug that bit me so many years ago. It makes for a very long day, teaching all day and then holding auditions, running rehearsals, building sets, searching for costumes and props, coaxing shy students to project and sing out. After rehearsals are over, there are still lesson plans to make, essays to grade, tests and quizzes to create, parent emails to respond to. It leaves little time for leisure with family and friends, and energy for my own creative endeavors is short-changed. TheatreBug2-copyright200But, how can I give it up when I have been given so much in return? It seems that the bite of the theatre bug is indeed fatal.

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A Fresh Memory for Memorial Day

Vase with Red Gladioli, 1886,Vincent van Gogh

Vase with Red Gladioli, 1886,Vincent van Gogh

Frequent readers will know that my father passed away on Friday, May 8, 2015. On the following Tuesday, my brothers and I met with the funeral director to make the arrangements. There were not that many decisions to make, however, because in the 1990’s, unbeknownst to us at the time, my mother had made all the decisions for us. She and my father had gone to the funeral home and purchased policies to plan and pay for their own funerals. A series of questions had been asked and answered, down to what type of flowers she wanted on her casket, her favorite, the gladiola.

When we met with the funeral director for my dad’s arrangements, we were a bit surprised to learn that he had requested the American flag on his casket instead of flowers. We knew my dad had been in the Army, two hitches as he always said, but somehow it never occurred to me that he had the right to a flag on his casket. I guess I thought that was reserved for soldiers who had died in the line of duty or for fallen presidents. Who can forget the famous photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy accepting the folded flag at the graveside of President John F. Kennedy?

Jacqueline Kennedy holding folded flag from casket of President John F. Kennedy

Jacqueline Kennedy holding folded flag from casket of President John F. Kennedy

But on that day I learned that my father’s service to his country, albeit outside of combat, earned him the right to have the American flag draped on his casket as well.

There was a small catch, however, the funeral director needed his papers showing honorable discharge and period of service before he could request the flag from the Army, and he needed it by 3:00 pm that afternoon so that the flag would be on hand for my father’s funeral on Thursday. We dashed back to my brother’s home to retrieve the “metal boxes” where my parents kept all of their important papers, the same metal boxes that were the first thing loaded into the trunk of the car when evacuating for hurricanes throughout my entire childhood. Thankfully, they had been loaded into the car on that fateful day when they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, since everything that was not in that car was lost forever.

So, the three of us started going through the two metal file boxes and sure enough, we found my dad’s honorable discharge certificates. We also found some other memorabilia, photographs, trinkets, and souvenirs, including some small tins filled with Indian head nickels my dad had found on the highway in Venice, Louisiana, after Hurricane Camille. After scanning and emailing the certificates to the funeral director, we packed everything back up in the metal boxes and continued with making the arrangements for the funeral Mass.

Honorable Discharge of Sgt. Roy P. Blanchard, June 2, 1953

Honorable Discharge of Sgt. Roy P. Blanchard, June 2, 1953

On Thursday, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, we watched the funeral directors unfold the American flag and drape it on my father’s casket. After the visitation, the flag was removed and refolded so that the pall could be draped over the casket for the Mass. The process was reversed after the Mass, and the flag-draped casket was carried out to the hearse by the pallbearers.

When we arrived at the cemetery, I was again surprised to see two soldiers in dress uniform standing at attention while my father’s casket was unloaded from the hearse, with the American flag secured in place. The pallbearers carried the casket into the mausoleum where my mother was already buried, with my father’s spot waiting there next to her. The funeral director asked which one of us would be receiving the flag. We all agreed that it should go to the middle child, my brother who, for the last few years, had lived with and cared for my father until his death.

As we were following the casket into the mausoleum, I spotted a bugle resting on the ground next to the flower arrangements from the church, which immediately signaled to me the playing of Taps at the end of the service. I am thankful I saw the bugle in advance, because it helped me prepare for the soulful lament that would follow.

We were directed to three chairs next to the casket. At the end of the brief service by the old Irish priest who had been a close friend of my parents, one of the two soldiers played Taps while the other stood at attention at my father’s casket. The two soldiers then removed the flag and in their ultra-precise movements, folded the flag while we waited in solemn silence. One of the soldiers then saluted the flag, and received the folded triangle from the other. He turned crisply and bent down to one knee in front of my brother, saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” He then stood, saluted us, and the two soldiers marched off.

we will never forgetTomorrow, the nation celebrates Memorial Day, which for so many means a day off of school or work, the opening of the neighborhood pool, or a trip to the beach. But this year, Memorial Day holds a different meaning for me. I shall reflect on those who have served their country, both in times of war and in times of peace. I shall contemplate those who lost their lives in service to their country, and those who came home to their loved ones, safe and sound. I shall remember my father and how he proudly talked about his time in the Army, both hitches, and his stories, both serious and humorous of his time serving his country, with the sound of Taps and the sight of that folded American flag burned into my memory. Happy Memorial Day, indeed.

À bientôt

On Thursday, May 14, 2015, I said my final goodbye to my dad or at least my final goodbye in this life. Being a faithful Catholic, however, I truly believe that I will see him again in eternal life, so perhaps Thursday’s goodbye was merely à bientôt.

Religious items from my father's funeral

Religious items from my father’s funeral

His funeral was beautiful. My brothers and I tried our best to include all the different branches of our extended families. An Irish priest, a longtime friend of the family, in his still thick Irish accent, celebrated the Mass, with another priest concelebrating. My older daughter was the cantor for the parts of the Mass and hymns, and my husband sang the responsorial psalm. My younger daughter, originally scheduled to read the first reading, served as lector reading both readings as my dad’s niece’s laryngitis kept her from doing the second reading. My nephews brought up the gifts, along with my mom’s niece and my parents’ godchild, my dad’s nephew. Pall bearers included my nephews and four men who were all very dear friends of my dad’s. Nearly a hundred people came to the church for the two-hour visitation prior to the funeral, and while there were many tears, there were also many light moments, reminiscing about my father’s legendary storytelling and practical jokes.

At the visitation, a family friend said to me, “Losing a parent is tough, but losing the last parent is something else, something greater.” He was so right. At my mother’s funeral, also beautiful with many family members and close family friends participating, I remember holding on to my dad’s arm. He cried throughout most of the Mass, and after that, he cried every time he went to Mass. He had been devoted to my mother throughout their nearly 53 years of marriage, but particularly so during the last fourteen years of her life, when he cared for her around the clock during many surgeries and medical treatments for heart and kidney disease. We all worried so about him and how he would cope with my mother’s death. The belief that they are together again is of some comfort, but losing him is the final ache in a series of pain that began with Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005.

As readers of my essays will remember, I lost my hometown to Hurricane Katrina, and along with my hometown, my parents lost their home and almost all of their possessions. My mother wasn’t feeling well preceding the mandatory evacuation order and did not pack to the same degree as she had for previous hurricanes. She later told me that she was lying on the sofa directing my father, tense and nervous about the storm, as to what to pack. Later, when unpacking her suitcase in a La Quinta motel room in Houston, she discovered she had mismatched pairs of shoes, pants with no matching tops, and an odd assortment of other items.

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

Blanchard home, post-Katrina, located in pieces on back levee, Port Sulphur, Louisiana

When news eventually arrived that the house was gone, and by gone, I mean totally gone-its remains were located weeks later on the back levee, broken in pieces-my mother was devastated and really never recovered from that. I recently learned from my mother’s sister, my beloved Nanny Pat, whose gift to my mother of a kidney in 1995 gifted all of us with twelve additional years with her, that my mother had said she really did not want to live through another anniversary of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. She died on August 23, 2007, just days before Katrina’s second anniversary. We all pretty much agree that she just gave up fighting as she had done for so long.

Everything changed after my mother passed away. In October of 2007, just a month and a half later, I realized I would never get another birthday card in the mail from her. My mother (as well as my Nanny Pat, who continues to this day in this family specialty) was a master of correspondence. She wrote to me almost daily during my four years of college, and sent many, many care packages. The contents were usually somewhat odd and I learned to open the care packages in the safety of my dorm room rather than in the student union where I picked up my mail. Once, the small box, heavily armored in scotch tape, contained about a hundred sticks of doublemint gumDoublemint gum (still individually wrapped, but loose, not in packages) and some personal sanitary products.

My mom sent out scores of greeting cards all year round. Hallmark was her favorite store, and no matter how poorly she was feeling, my dad’s offer of a trip to the Hallmark Gold Crown store was sure to perk up her spirits. Naturally, all birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays warranted a card, but so did the minor ones as well: Fourth of July, Halloween; if Hallmark had a card for it, a card was purchased. When family members married, their new spouses were added to the address book, along with their birthdays and special dates. My husband often remarked that he found it so touching, how my mom and my Nanny Pat never ever let his birthday or Father’s Day pass without Hallmark making an appearance in our mailbox.

My dad wasn’t much on correspondence although he would sign his name to any card my mom put in front of him. He was, however, very attached to his cell phone. While he never graduated to a smart phone, he and his flip phone were best friends. He was famous for calling people closest to him several times a day. While my mom’s cousin Anna was still alive in Glasgow, Scotland, he called her frequently. Once he pronounced his initial greeting, he immediately passed the phone to someone else. I will dearly miss talking to him and hearing his familiar “Whatcha doing?” which was always followed by a litany of what he had eaten that day, and sometimes, what he ate the day before. He loved to tell me exactly how he had cooked something. How many times did he tell me how he made his famous smothered chicken? “First, I rinse off the chicken pieces and dry them. Then, I lay them out on aluminum foil and season them with salt and pepper. Next, I brown them on all sides in a big pan with some olive oil. I set them aside and brown thinly sliced onions and bell peppers. When they are nice and soft, I put the chicken back in, add a little water, cover them with foil, and put the pan in the oven for about an hour. It’s so good it will make you slap your momma.”  This was always served with hot white rice and good French bread.

Food has always been an important part of the fabric of our family life. None of us were ever breakfast people, and lunch was usually leftovers or a sandwich (in my father’s case, a “half a sandwich”) but extensive discussions ensued each day about what would be cooked for supper. Most of the meals served at the supper tables of homes in southeast Louisiana need to be started early in the day and simmered for a long period of time. Red beans and rice with smoked sausage or ham needs to cook for hours. My dad’s smothered chicken also involves considerable prep and long, slow cooking. Gumbo is not a dish to throw together after work on a weekday night.

My parents also loved to eat out. My dad would first order his glass of red wine and settle in to study the menu, cover to cover, all the while asking what everyone at the table was going to order. He was always a gracious diner. I don’t think I ever saw him send anything back to the kitchen or complain about a dish served to him. He was not exactly a picky eater, but he was not very adventurous until he quit smoking in 1995. He claimed that his tastes changed after he quit smoking, that food tasted “more alive” and then he really branched out trying all sorts of things that shocked us, like Chinese take-out and delivery pizza. He loved to outsmart anyone at the table who was intent on paying the bill, often handing the waiter his credit card when he placed his order to ensure he would get the bill. The best you could do was to offer to pay the tip, and that was not always something you would win at either.

I feel so fortunate to have spent nine days with my dad in April, helping to get him out of the rehab facility he had been in and get him back home with my brother. My brothers and I worked together to make important health decisions for him. During that time, in spite of the stress and difficult decisions, my dad and I had such a good visit, shared some good meals, and had some nice chats. I was able to tell him thanks for being such a great father, for teaching me so much, for giving me a strong work ethic. None of that made it any easier when the news did come on Friday, May 8th, that he was gone. It is and will be for a long time incredibly hard. À bientôt, mon père, à bientôt.

Grace on the Field

As many of you know, I teach middle school language arts in a Catholic school located in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. Yes, I spend all day with pre-teens and teens, awash in adolescent hormones, Axe body spray, egg-shaped lip gloss containers, and poor grammar brought on by texting and IM’ing.  Six periods a day, a surfeit of shuffling Sperry-wearing seventh and eighth graders file in and out of my classroom for forty minutes of literature, vocabulary, writing, grammar, and a fair dose of my unbridled enthusiasm for reading.

I love teaching language arts; that is, I love everything that happens “inside the bells”. I love the energy of the kids as they come in and settle in to their desks. I love telling them about my favorite books and my favorite authors. I love teaching vocabulary and unlocking the vagaries of the semi-colon. I love connecting the literature we read to major world events and historical eras. I particularly love the Victorian era, complete with its formality, rigid social class system, and of course, great pieces of literature like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Importance of Being Earnest, both of which I teach to 8th grade.

After the final bell of the day rings, however, well, let’s just say that the next three or four hours are not exactly what keeps me in this grossly underpaid and overworked occupation. As much as I love teaching English and literature, the expectation is that the students demonstrate their new-found knowledge of literary devices, story triangles, figures of speech, and the like, in a never-ending stream of assessments such as compare/contrast essays, tests and quizzes, personal narratives and research papers. These things take forever to grade. My husband (not a teacher) keeps telling me to make my assessments more objective so they will be easier and faster to grade, but in order to prepare them for high school they must learn how to write a decent essay and that can’t be accomplished with multiple choice or true/false questions.

As dismal as this nightly ritual of endless grading may seem, there are other things “outside of the bells” that I dislike much more. Je déteste le recess duty! Recess duty (one day every other week…I know, quit complaining) consists of standing outside, swatting gnats or freezing, walking up and down an asphalt driveway overlooking the school’s artificial turf soccer field, while watching 140 middle school students for thirty excruciatingly painful minutes.

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet...no outdoor recess this day!

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet…no outdoor recess this day!

Winter months, especially the winter we just experienced here on the East Coast, brings respite in the form of “indoor recess”, with the field barren and empty, often blanketed in a carpet of white velvety snow. When the weather is good, however, out we go. Occasionally I will strike up a conversation with a group of sixth grade girls who are sitting on the school steps, but it is really their time away from teachers and school work, so eventually I move on. If there was a bench, I could tolerate it. If there was a bench and a book, I would be ecstatic. If there was a bench and a book and a cup of tea, well, I would be in heaven.

But, alas, no bench, so instead I walk the driveway and survey the soccer field littered with various balls, nets, and dozens of pairs of Sperry slip-ons, kicked off to make running and kicking easier. Some days I focus on one particular group and watch them play. A few years ago, a group of 8th grade boys regularly gathered to play touch football, and one bright and sunny spring day I watched them intently for about fifteen minutes. I knew those boys well, having taught them for two years. Half of them were in my home room, the other half just two doors down in the science room for home room. As with any class, some of them were good students with the academic skills to do well, some were decent students who worked incredibly hard, and some were students who struggled daily with reading comprehension, writing, grammar, and of course, with maintaining any sort of interest level in the literature they were assigned to read.

Of the latter group, on that bright and sunny spring day, I watched one particular 8th grade boy catch the football and run like the wind the entire length of the field. He ran with long easy strides, perfect posture, ball tucked securely in the crook of his left arm, head tilted back, in a style reminiscent of “the flying Scotsman” eric liddell quoteEric Liddell, born in China to missionary parents from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was brought to fame via the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. With his unorthodox running style, Liddell captured Olympic gold for the track team of Great Britain at the 1924 games in Paris. He did it in his own way, however, refusing to run in a heat for his “favored distance”, the 100 metre, which was to be held on a Sunday, being the Lord’s day of rest. So, instead, he ran the 400 metres, which had never been his best race. The qualifying heats for the 400 metres were held on Thursday and Friday, and while not the fastest he qualified. In the final event, with the crowd cheering him on, however, he threw back his head, lowered his arms, and finished the race in first place.

In his school uniform of navy Bermuda shorts and a navy sweatshirt, his white athletic crew socks sharply contrasted against the bright green artificial turf, my student was the very epitome of grace in action, relaxed and happy. No one could catch him, in fact, after half a length of the field, they all but quit trying. When he reached the end, he turned in a semi-pirouette, and started back, running in the same graceful style, back to his group of friends he had left coolly behind. He was all smiles, very different from his gloomy look in my classroom.

As I watched him, I realized I was envious of his obvious and natural athletic abilities. I never played a sport, other than a few miserable weeks one summer when my mother attempted to “make” me play softball. In high school I lifeguarded at the pool in my hometown, but that was more people-watching than sport. Sure, I jumped in to save the odd child, over-confident and under-skilled, slipping beneath the surface, head bobbing up and down, but I was a strong swimmer so it didn’t require much effort, and hardly a display of athleticism. Another summer, as an adult, I traded English lessons for tennis lessons with a wealthy Iranian exchange student whose family had fled when the Shah’s regime fell. The tennis was just a bit more successful than the softball, but neither was as enjoyable as watching Wimbledon or the French Open from the comfort of my living room.

No, my natural talents are for letters and words, not rackets and balls. I love reading and writing, and I find vocabulary truly fascinating. The graceful athlete down on the field would rather be anywhere other than a language arts classroom. I wonder where he will end up as an adult. He is in high school now and I wonder if he is finding success as a high school athlete. Will he go on to play college sports? Will he figure out a way to be successful in the language arts classroom as well, so as to keep his grades up to stay on the team?

Watching him run that day, I truly hope that he finds a way to work it all out. I hope he ends up with a career in sports, coaching or commentating. I hope he spends many, many hours running the length of a field, deftly weaving in and out of contact with the opposing team, his long, graceful strides the envy of all watching, especially his middle school English teacher.

My Name is Michelle Ardillo and I am a . . .

It’s Saturday morning. Early spring. Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, the sun is shining. Right now, I should be doing laundry or changing the sheets on the beds or at least unloading the dishwasher.  I could be grading papers or doing lesson plans, mapping out the remaining six weeks of school (but who’s counting, LOL). But, instead, I am alone, in my pajamas, in a darkened room, crouched in an uncomfortable position, wasting away hour after hour of my morning.  Alcohol?  Drugs?  Online gambling?  Online shopping?  No, these are not my addictions.  Instead of taking care of household chores, instead of running errands, instead of taking my dog for a brisk walk in the beautiful sunshine, no, instead of these worthy things, I am tapping and swiping away on my tablet, happily connected to the world-wide web of epicure, dazedly surfing the culinary net, reading food blogs, and trapped in a vicious never-ending battle to read every last recipe on earth and what’s worse, to “pin” them to boards I will rarely ever visit.  I am hooked on the world of food.  Hello, my name is Michelle Ardillo and I am a foodaholic.

You see, I love everything there is about food. I love to cook and I love to eat. I read cookbooks like novels, cover to cover, pouring over the photographs and editor’s notes about how to serve this or that dish or what advance prep can be done. To say that I have an extensive collection of cookbooks would be somewhat of an understatement. cooking bookshelvesWhen we did a major book reorganization a few years ago, including building an entire wall of bookshelves in our home office, I moved all of my cookbooks to the wall of bookshelves in our living room, which is closer to the kitchen. My collection of scripts and librettos were moved downstairs, along with my collection of books on the royal families of some of the world’s monarchies. It might be weird to some people to have a wall of cookbooks in their living room, but it seems perfectly natural to me.

If I eat something I really like in a good restaurant, you can bet that I will be trying to recreate that dish at home. For years I tried to replicate the veggie chili from Silver Diner, to no avail. I made some really good batches of veggie chili, but not a single one was exactly like Silver Diner’s. I have been successful though. I am very, very close to the taste and consistency of the hummus at Lebanese Taverna. I once attended a theatre group committee meeting where someone had brought a fruit platter from a grocery store and in the center of the platter was a tub of “dip”. It was delicious. All of the different fruits tasted great dipped in that white creamy concoction. It took several tries but I was able to recreate that one: cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, and almond extract. So, and I say this as modestly as I can, you can imagine how successful I am when I have an actual recipe in front of me.

In our cable package we have two food channels, Food Network and The Cooking Channel. Of course, there’s also PBS and the many great chefs we’ve been introduced to over the years: Julia Child (rest in peace), Jacques Pepin, Pierre Franey (also rest in peace), Lidia Bastianich, Sara Moulton, and many others. I’ve watched entire series of cooking shows on PBS and then I just have to have the companion cookbook so I can make the dishes from the shows. As documented in a previous essay, my autographed Jacques Pepin cookbook is creased and greased from frequent use.

I’ve learned a great deal from watching all of those shows. Once I watched a show where the chef “spatchcocked” a whole chicken. I was fascinated at this technique of butterflying a chicken, opening it like a book, removing a few bones and making a few slashes here and there, and thereby reducing the roasting time significantly. I don’t remember which television chef first taught me this technique but I have watched the process many times since, expertly done by Martha Stewart and British chefs Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. spatchcocked chickenI recently cooked this for my dad and brother while visiting them in Louisiana. This method ensures that the white and dark meat cook evenly and it also makes carving a whole chicken a snap.

I love to try new foods and go on culinary adventures to try out cuisines from other countries. I am very lucky to live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area where I can dine on food from many different cultures: Lebanese, Greek, Japanese, Indian, Spanish, Thai, Salvadoran, Moroccan, Peruvian, Belgian, and of course, the more prosaic cuisines of China, France, Italy, and Mexico.

For two years I lived in Belgium and a major adjustment was the loss of American television. I had to say goodbye to my cooking shows and not seeing my favorite chefs was akin to withdrawal. Without a satellite dish we had access to only two English-speaking channels (BBC1 and BBC2) other than CNN International. Each afternoon a very popular cooking show, Ready Steady Cook, would come on (except when it was preempted during snooker tournaments, major horse riding or horse racing events, soccer, cricket and of course, rugby championships, it is a British television network after all).  It was somewhat like Chopped, the popular cooking competition show on the Food Network. An audience member was called to the stage and would dump out a brown paper grocery bag with “mystery ingredients”. The guest chef would have to prepare a starter, entrée, and dessert from the contents of the grocery bag, and the staples in the on-stage pantry. While more game show than cooking show, I did learn a lot from it. One chef, James Martin, always made a soup from whatever was in the grocery bag, and to this day I still follow his method for starting a soup: sauté a sliced onion in a little olive oil and a bit of butter. When soft, add other aromatics such as garlic, fresh herbs, celery, or shallots. Add the main ingredient (peas, squash, potatoes, carrots, etc.) and cover with chicken stock or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the main ingredient is cooked through. Puree with a stick blender or in a food processor or serve as is. Viola! This simple recipe can be adapted to almost anyone’s taste or dietary requirements.

Often during prime time, there would be a “cookery show” as the British say, most often Delia Smith, the doyenne of British cooking, the Martha Stewart (without the stock problem….and I mean NYSE stock, not the chicken or beef kind) of the UK, or Rick Stein, a British chap who can film an entire show on one kind of fish.  Having only the BBC to turn to for TV cooking during those two years meant that I acquired new best friends in the world of cooking. Gone were my lazy Sunday afternoons watching a Julia Child marathon on PBS (freshly ground WHITE pepper, not black), or the slightly flirtatious Jacques Pepin, or the loud-mouthed Emeril Lagasse cooking his “adopted” Louisiana foods (not a Cajun, he grew up in New England, for goodness sake!), or the simple earthy home style cooking of Lidia Bastianich.  Instead, I got to know Ainsley Harriott, whose 6 foot plus frame could barely contain his Caribbean excitement for life, James Martin spinning sugar for his dessert creations, Nick Nairns showing off Scottish game and seafood to its finest, and the spiked hair of Gary Rhodes making a Sunday roast look like the most exciting dinner one could possibly imagine.

Of course, it is better to be addicted to the world of food than alcohol, drugs, designer handbags, or shoes.  To my friends, I am somewhat of a 24/7 food consultant.  It is nothing for me to answer the phone to hear “What is a Dutch oven?”  “I’m out of self-rising flour, what do I do?”  “I need an appetizer to bring to a party.”  Other than fighting a losing battle with the scale and my cholesterol, there are other real benefits to specializing in one particular area of study.  Without a doubt in the world, I know I could win The Weakest Link, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, or even Jeopardy, for goodness sake, if (and this is a big IF) all the questions were food related.