everything is perfectly normal…

…um, no it’s not – not even close.

Sunday night nearly ended with another dinner disaster due in part to my own ambition and in part to the limitations thereof. Basically, the lazy perfectionist strikes again. I took the báhn cuốn bait set out by my NYT Cooking newsletter and everything was peachy until the very end, which of course is always the tricky part requiring attention, patience and clarity. I swear I was paying attention, so 1/3. Food Taster came to my rescue twice – once to salvage rice roll batter attempt #2 and then to quietly make some backup rice. We got there, but words were said. Still, it really was just a normal Sunday night.

Warren G. Harding used the phrase “the return of normalcy” in his 1920 presidential campaign, much to the delight of his detractors who compared its grammatical iffyness to the term “jackasstical.” While normalcy was not in fact made-up, Harding was roundly criticized for not using “normality” when he described the the country’s nostalgia for pre-Spanish Flu, pre-WWI serenity. But you know, I’m kind of digging Warren’s vibe, accidental as it was. Perhaps normalcy is the only real response to staggering disruption, change and loss. Can life ever be normal again? Are we ever really the same? Normalcy is more like normal-ish, forever reshaped by experience and perhaps the best we can hope for. It certainly was in 1920, because he won the election with over 60% of the popular vote.

How does Warren G. Harding relate to Vietnamese the báhn cuốn? On the surface life looks a lot like 2019, but I find my outlook has become so quirky that it bears little resemblance to my former sleepy, scripted existence. That’s a good thing because I’m never going backwards – I’ll embrace normalcy, but not normality. Today it is perfectly on-brand for me to spend an afternoon shopping for woodear fungus and jicama followed by an evening cursing poorly translated cooking instructions. It wasn’t like this five years ago, but challenges, from serious circle-the-wagons emergencies to not killing every man in my house for blinking too loudly to simply tackling an exotic recipe, have reshaped my expectations and in many ways opened up my world.

pork belly burnt ends

Normalcy has been seeping in over the past year, but I only began to notice on major holidays, most recently Labor Day. Don’t laugh – I live in Georgia, was born and raised in the deep South, and my Labor Day dinner was centered around a pork belly recipe from some dodgy British BBQ website. Not normal. But this is not my first British rodeo, or derby, as it were. I translated the boys’ childhood favorite macaroni and cheese recipe from an article in The Economist, not exactly renown for American comfort food…or even food. We used to love trying to read those nerdy, esoteric essays with two young children around, but finally gave up our subscription when Kindergarten hit. At least I got mac & cheese out of the deal. And yes, for both recipes I had to convert everything from Celsius and grams to Fahrenheit and ounces. Worth it.

Maybe viewing the last few years through the lens of food & cooking helped me process change in easily digestible bits of information. For example, this photo of chiles en nogada popped up in my memories timeline and essentially marks at least one year of normalcy. But prior to 2020 my food memory is muddled in empty-nest-temporary-retirement-pandemic-mama-bear confusion that barely involved cooking beyond mandatory sustenance.

exactly one year ago I made chiles en nogada

When COVID-19 first entered our lives the idea of a global pandemic seemed to me more about uncertainty than total disruption. Confident I could adapt to anything, I wrote this about a month into the initial shutdown, a post full of well-intentioned, but preachy and misplaced optimism:

Most of us have navigated dark times in our lives on some level, either alone, as a family, or as a community. These days we often find ourselves staring at the same four walls while our schedules have vanished, our plans have been furloughed, and our dreams have been put on hold.
It is increasingly more of a challenge to employ perspective, but just maybe we need to ask ourselves 3 questions when facing the daily trials in this unknown territory:

Is this a tragedy? Is this a crisis? Is this a disappointment?

Almost everybody has been hit with disappointments this spring from canceled proms and delayed graduation celebrations to disappearing internships and ruined family vacations. Make no mistake, those are actual disappointments…
Unfortunately, we may have also have witnessed actual crises such as job losses, food scarcity, homelessness, or physical and mental illness. These circumstances push well beyond the boundary of disappointment into a full-blown crisis.
And sadly, we will see our share of tragedies – just watch the death tolls continue to rise locally, nationally and globally. Tragic. On any given day we may find ourselves dancing on the edge and that’s when it might be time for a reality check – ask yourselves each of those 3 questions before you react. Your answer could be easily qualified or it might fall somewhere in the margins, but this trick may help you find a little perspective.

April 2020

Reading it now I still can’t believe I was able to just throw out the term “death toll” so casually. We allowed that rhetoric to normalize. It’s not normal. That said, and since not everything is a tragedy, I would like to amend my premise to include a fourth question:

Is this an irritation?

This is a dangerous one because it can easily jump between disappointment and crisis when it belongs squarely as an opening act. It has been my go-to reaction for months, which is unfortunate but better than the alternatives. After all, a gloopy wad of Vietnamese rice flour was wildly irritating, but easily fixable. Still, my displeasure was evident to everyone.

In some ways I was prepared for the pandemic’s twin demons, isolation and panic – I admit there were moments when I downright thrived despite the shock felt in our entire socio-economic system. Too bad it didn’t last, but here we are. My little stroll down memory lane only prompted more questions – so how was I doing a year ago? Two years ago? Of course fall 2020 was marked by normalized events like shootings, wildfires, riots, shootings, protests, hurricanes, and shootings. But we also had a major COVID-19 resurgence, RGB/Supreme Court drama and an election cycle like none-other, all decidedly not normal in any way. I had only just begun to hide away in the kitchen.

September 2020: comfort food and mediocre photography

Even though my photos scream everything is perfectly normal, we’ve also established that I’m not – at least I hope not, nor are those who I hold most dear. I do live productively within acceptable social standards, I (mostly) play by the rules, and I freely admit I love the most glaringly average things like a traditional Thanksgiving, homemade birthday cakes and Friday night football. But I also embrace foreign cultures, unfamiliar religious customs and the nutty, novel personalities I meet from simply keeping one eye open. I’ve shunned more than an occasional social obligation, experimented with vibrant hair color and driven just a little too fast from time to time.

September 2021: a giant leap forward in both areas

And what if the last two years could be used a reset, a free pass to shed bad habits, toxic people, unfulfilling pursuits, or joyless professions? Total reinvention is a huge ask and not for everyone; maybe it’s simple renewal, broken into simple gestures, much like recipes.

September 2022: established normalcy

Sure I can blend-in and play normal for a while, but I will ultimately call foul and fight my way back to the surface. Chameleons, opportunists, and even unpredictable 50+ Aquarians are all happiest with one foot in and one foot out. Thanks to the last five years, that’s the kind of friendly, approachable semi-iconoclasm I aim for. Plus now I have a new favorite word:


The News Orleans States, 1920

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