B. C. – Before Crying

Leaving Los AngelosI am writing this a day early. I normally write and post my weekly essay on Sundays but I am currently on a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore and filled with emotion, so Saturday it is.

In N Out BurgerWe have been in LA since Wednesday afternoon, my husband and younger daughter. Upon arrival we had dinner at In-N-Out Burger on Sepulveda, as recommended via Twitter by Food Network and NYC chef extraordinaire Alex Guarnaschelli. It was a very good burger, one of the best I’ve had, certainly the best bun I’ve ever had on a burger. I had the single, no cheese, but with “secret” animal sauce, which tastes an awful lot like McDonald’s “special” sauce for the Big Mac. The fries, meh. Sorry, Alex.

Brunch at Mel'sAfter this apparent LA right of passage, we checked in to our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn on Highland. This is the way people talk in LA and about LA destinations, be it a restaurant, a hotel, or an entertainment venue. First you say the destination and then you say “on …” and you say the street. We left our rental car with the valet and headed inside, struggling with beaucoup de luggage. To the random by-passer, we looked like any normal family on a sightseeing vacation over spring break, but we were anything but.

Beautiful Plants at HotelTom and I had packed light, one small carry-on each; I also had my ever present Vera Bradley school bag and Tom had his travel briefcase. We only needed a few changes of clothes each whereas our daughter had packed nearly all of her earthly possessions, including bed linens and towels. We settled into our room and found spots to park her two enormous rolling suitcases and large duffel. The hotel was nice, the lobby very fresh and modern, the room a bit tired but clean and pleasant. Tom and I left our daughter in the room to shower and sort through and reorganize her luggage while we headed downstairs to the hotel bar to have a drink. It had been a long day and an exhausting one.

Joan's on ThirdOn Thursday we had a leisurely morning in the room and then headed out to have lunch at Joan’s on Third, another tweeted recommendation from my BFF (not really, JK) Alex Guarnaschelli. I had tweeted several famous tv chefs and asked for recommendations for eating in LA on a school teacher’s budget. Alex was the only one who replied and both her recommendations were spot on. Lunch at Joan’s on Third was fabulous and reasonable.Joan's on Third salad trio

After lunch, we drove around for a bit and then happened upon the Samuel French Bookstore on Sunset Blvd., and being both book and theatre fiends, we parked and went in. We spent an hour or so in there browsing the published scripts of plays, librettos of Broadway musicals, and screenplays of movies and TV shows. We each picked out our selections and then bought some souvenirs for our older daughter at her home in Pittsburgh. Since we still had down time until our drive to Santa Monica for dinner with some East Coast friends and we were all feeling a bit jet lagged from the three-hour time difference, we went back to the hotel to rest a bit.

Samuel French Bookstore

Samuel French Bookstore

This is a perfect example of the way my family likes to vacation. We are foodies and we want to sample the cuisine and culture of the places we visit so we spend a lot of time beforehand researching the local food scene. We plan out our sightseeing itinerary the same way, with a lot of research and googling before we even leave home. My husband sets up a file folder with all the info we will need to do the things we want to do, see the things important to us, and eat and drink like the locals at the best – but not always the most expensive – places our destination has to offer.

Hollywood at NightConversely, we do NOT run around non-stop from dawn to dusk trying to cram in every single tourist attraction or photo opportunity found in the normal guidebooks or on recommendations from friends who like that sort of thing. We sleep in, dress, have coffee, and then go out for brunch. We do one main sight-seeing activity, and then stop for lunch at one of our pre-planned destinations. We do another sight-seeing activity or tourist attraction, and then we head back to the hotel for a rest before dressing for dinner.

Beauty at a Parking Garage

Beautiful flowers everywhere, even on the parking garage

We might spend an entire day in one museum, having lunch in the museum cafe, and then take our time wandering through the gift shop before heading back to the hotel to rest before dinner. Sure, this isn’t the ideal vacation for most people (“You can sleep at home, why nap on vacation?”), and we’ve had almost 27 years of married life to perfect this but it works for us, and we are thrilled to bits to be away from the normal stresses of everyday life. We don’t want to add any stress to our days away from home, so we don’t want to rush around and try to cram in everything a city has to offer in one three-day weekend.

 

Dinner at The Lobster

Dinner at The Lobster on Ocean, Santa Monica

Later that afternoon, as planned, we drove to Santa Monica and had drinks at my friend’s adorable and Disney-decked out studio apartment, complete with a studio apartment-sized sectional sofa, the absolute cutest thing I have ever seen. It was great catching up with her and her boyfriend, who was also visiting from the East Coast, over wine and cheese. She left DC a year ago to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in California where she could soak up the sunshine and indulge her obsession with all things Disney. Last summer, just before she and her father left to drive to LA with her PT Cruiser stuffed to the gills, she came over to my house and had lunch with me, while we talked about this big adventure she was undertaking, moving to the West Coast all alone, getting an apartment, getting a job, making new friends, starting completely over without her parents, her sister, or her boyfriend.

Black Pasta with Shellfish

Shellfish with Black Pasta (squid ink)

After wine and cheese, we walked to the Santa Monica pier to our restaurant, The Lobster on Ocean, where just after being seated, with the perfect timing of a Spielberg-directed movie set, we watched the sun set over the glorious Pacific Ocean.

Sunset on Santa Monica Pier

Beautiful sunset over the Pacific

Dinner was delicious, and even better, the fun stories and laughter at our table while my husband and I enjoyed the company of these three young people, my friend and her boyfriend and our younger daughter, all at the beginning of their adult lives, where the road stretches ahead on what seems like an infinite path, filled with endless possibilities for happiness and success. They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t care. They have their devices, Google, and social media, and they can find out what they want when they want, learning on the fly so to speak. I am envious of their station in life while also satisfied that some of that is behind me.

Mel's Drive-InOn Friday, we had brunch at the famous Mel’s Drive-in on Highland and then drove to several apartment complexes near Hollywood, including the one where my daughter will be staying temporarily with a friend while she finds a roommate, a job, and an apartment of her own. Now you can see why this trip was not just a normal vacation over spring break; this was mama bird and papa bird crossing the country and returning home without baby bird to an empty nest.

Tacos at Guisado's

Authentic tacos and delicious!

After our apartment hunting, we returned to the hotel and rested a bit before going out for our final dinner together in LA. For this selection, we went with the recommendation of a friend of my older daughter, who has been living in LA for a few years. I sent her a message via Facebook asking for recommendations for Mexican food, and she sent us to Guisados on Santa Monica Blvd., for what might have been the best and most authentic tacos I’ve ever had. Back at the hotel after dinner, we presented our baby bird with a little memento, a picture frame containing a family photo of us four taken on Easter Sunday when we were in Pittsburgh last week visiting our older daughter. Easter Sunday Family PhotoAt the time, I posted the photo on my Facebook page and captioned it, “Our last family photo for a while,” which was both heartbreaking to type and to see in black and white on my Facebook page every time I checked my notifications for my many friends who responded to that sentimental tearjerker of a caption.

Succulents Thriving in CA weather

Succulents thriving in the LA weather

In the weeks running up to this trip, I’ve had a few trial runs for this morning. While out walking the dog or driving alone in my car, I would go through the mental scenario of dropping her off at her friend’s apartment, helping her in with her luggage, hugging her goodbye, and then starting to cry. Once in the car, and out of sight, I would imagine myself sobbing openly, the same way I did when we left baby bird at college for the first time, in the most dismal and decrepit dormitory room I’ve ever seen, a single room turned into a double because of overbooking on the school’s part, so small in fact that the girls had to decide which pieces of their standard dorm furniture to eliminate so they could both fit in the room at the same time.

Puccini with LA souvenir

Puccini with his LA souvenir: a cow’s hoof from a farmers’ market

Dropping off big sister the first time was also terrible but at least we had baby bird with us to take home for two more years. Now it is just the two of us, and the dog of course, but as much as I love that little 16-pound ball of fur, un-house-broken shenanigans, and barks, it is NOT the same as my darling daughters.

 

Lindsey's Apartment BuildingSo on to today, and B. C. We got up, dressed, packed, and checked out. We headed over to her friend’s apartment on Sanborn, and all four of us made our way up to the second floor of this beautiful old building with our daughter’s copious amounts of luggage. Her friend’s home was also a studio, most decidedly not Disney-decked out, but sparingly curated with artsy posters, books, and a free-standing “cat tree” for Ziti and Willow. She then took us downstairs and out back where we found a “secret garden” of sorts, expertly planted with herbs, succulents, and flowering plants and lovingly cared for by two guys who live in the apartment above.

Maddie at Joan's on Third

Our beautiful, smart, talented baby bird

It was a beautiful, peaceful respite in the middle of LA. I can see our daughter sitting out there, with her laptop, writing away on one of her screenplays or scripts. Her friend seemed like a really nice person and when we thanked her for taking in our daughter temporarily, she commented that when she moved to LA six years ago after college, a lot of people had helped her get started so she wanted to pay it back. How lucky we are that the world still has people in it who want to pay it back or pay it forward.

Saying Goodbye

All smiles, BC

And so, after many trial runs, it was time for the real deal. We three walked downstairs to the rental car, where we hugged and I cried, and she got a little pink as well. We promised to text when our plane landed and she promised to call and text and stay in touch with us while she gets started and gets settled in her new home away from home. She ran through the events she had planned for the next few days, I think as reassurance for me that she had this and she was going to be okay. We kissed again and I got in the car and pulled away, and as I had imagined and practically scheduled for myself, I began to sob. I cried all the way to LAX (which by the way is on Airport Blvd.) and every time I thought I had regained control of myself, a new wave of anxiety, fear, and panic would sweep over me, reducing me to sobs and puddles of tears. So many what ifs and things out of my control. So many things to worry about. So many miles between us.

 

Almost Home

Approaching BWI

Once at the airport, bags checked and through security, we headed straight for the food court area for sustenance, both liquid and solid. My husband, who had somehow managed to remain quite stoic throughout the whole cutting of the cord, said, “You did good.” After a cold beer and a hot pizza, I felt better.

On Board Selfie Coming Home

Just us returning home

Mama bird and papa bird then sat alone at the gate, watching younger parents with their toddlers, tweens, and teens, negotiating the use of devices, checking battery power, doling out snacks and drinks, all the while feeling empty nest in a very poignant way. Later today, when we land and carry our small bags to our car, we will touch base with baby bird and check in with her on her first day living in LA, spreading her wings and reaching for the stars. Godspeed little bird, we love you. ❤️

 

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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.