Mary, Sam, Frances, & Canned Tomatoes

I've cooked a lot of things since I wrote last. Will is elbow-deep in Anatomy (I'll pause here to let that mental image sink in) so I've been making dinner every night. My two best, I think, were 1. marinara with canned tomatoes, served in a soup bowl with a runny poached egg and a hunk of bread, and 2. roasted sweet potatoes glazed in a kind of vinegar-honey thing, with jalapeno/cilantro sauce and a dollop of greek yogurt. 

I did not take pictures of either of these. 

I did take a picture of a "Texas chili" I spent all day Sunday making a few weekends ago. We didn't have any of the ingredients when I began, so Will is now calling it the $100 chili. 

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It had chunks of steak, a little bit of dark chocolate, and fed us for about 12 meals, so I'd say it was a success. 

Spending a weekend cooking feels like those all-day games you play as a kid, where the imaginary world becomes more elaborate as you go and twilight settles just as you're starting to get bored. Cooking is adult play, I guess, like when Will was putting together our Ikea furniture and said, with genuine enthusiasm, "adult Legos!"

 A few nights ago, the day Sam's email detailed what he called "a no crust pizza," I made the canned-tomato marinara again, laid some slices of mozzarella on top, sprinkled black olives, and stuck the whole thing in the oven. We scooped it right out of the skillet with slices of crusty bread. .

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Sam thought that I might like to read about Frances McDormand in The New York Times Magazine, and he was right. I love Frances McDormand, and Jordan Kisner's profile of her is amazing. Some highlights include,

"McDormand had instructed me to meet her in the parking lot of a nearby cafe, and when I arrived she was sitting straight as a soldier, dressed in her 'hiking skirt' (ankle length, denim)."

and this:

"Shortly after returning from Paris, I received an email from her with the subject line 'My head shot.' It contained a photograph of her floating naked in a lake. She doesn't like having her picture taken, she wrote, but this might suit the magazine's purposes. Two months after that, she sent me a picture of herself at the dinner table with a head of cauliflower perched atop her like a crown."

They talk a lot about the strange circumstances of getting older, especially as a woman in Hollywood, and at one point Kisner references an essay called "Pause" by the poet Mary Ruefle, who writes about the grief she experienced at the onset of menopause. She felt her life was over and she realized that "people have looked at you your whole life because you are a woman and people look at women -- but now, suddenly, you are invisible."

"But then something magical happens," she says, after ten years of menopause and some murderous feelings toward her children and partner had passed. 

"You would never want to be a girl again for any reason at all, you have discovered that being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift anyone could have ever given you" because "there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself."

"She got it perfectly," McDormand responded. 

Mary & Sam

A week or so ago I made a challah. I actually made 2 challot (which Google told me is the plural form), and one is waiting, braided but unbaked, in the freezer. I am not Jewish, but my Jewish friend Amy gave me her blessing over text, so please direct any sacrilege-related concerns to her, as I did. 

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I baked a challah because Sam Sifton's New York Times Cooking email made it seem like a good idea. I feel like Sam Sifton is my friend. He emails me almost every morning, sort of like my dad does, with links to articles he thinks I might be interested in reading and gentle suggestions of food I could cook. He never pressures me to try recipes that seem out of my league or that I don't have the equipment for. Sometimes he includes anecdotes about himself, like in this morning's email: 

I used to work a late shift on Fridays, didn't get home until well after 9. Some of those nights, my wife would roast a chicken after work, and we'd eat it late, at just north of room temperature, with roasted carrots and a green salad and plenty of bread to mop up the drippings, sitting in candlelight, tired at the end of a long week. It was just so, so great.

I know how this feels, even though I've never tried to roast a chicken. I'm sharing my first apartment with my boyfriend in St. Louis, and I've started cooking because Will, who has always been the cook, is in his first year of med school and studies all the time. When we pull our stools up to the bar and I look sideways at him eating the dinner that I miraculously made, in the apartment we can miraculously pay for, with a whole big fridge to ourselves (goodbye, one-shelf life!) and a sink we can leave dirty dishes in, I keep having the same thought: I have never been this happy. The freedom of a Friday afternoon makes the feeling even sweeter. 

So I had an idea as I ate my challah and thought about how Sam Sifton is my email friend. The idea is similar to a movie you may have seen called Julie & Julia, featuring the delightful story of Julia Child as portrayed by Meryl Streep and the less-delightful story of Julie, played by Amy Adams, a writer who wants to cook her way out of her own whiny and uncertain personality and into the gregarious certainty of Julia Child. The movie ends on a supposedly happy note, when Julie's sense of self-worth and the success of her marriage dangle on the tenuous promise of a pending book deal. The real Julie is actually even more of an asshole than the movie makes her out to be, as you can see by reading a review of her new book

Still, I thought it might be fun to lightly copy her idea (while avoiding her neuroses) and write some blog posts in response to Sam's emails. I'll make some of the recipes and read the articles like I always do and write a little bit about it here. Might be fun. We'll see. 

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Wild Horses in the Badlands

I haven't blogged in a little while, and I regret not being able to write about the amazing things we are seeing every day, on foot and out the car window. If there's anything I've learned about storytelling, though, especially when blogging about a long and winding trip, it's that omission is key. That falls under a category of similarly important life rules such as "Your Mom Doesn't Need To Know Everything" and "You Can Put Salt In But You Can't Take Salt Out."

In that spirit, I am going to tell you about one thing we saw in North Dakota, possibly my favorite experience of the entire trip. 

The morning of this magical happening, Will and I both woke up on the wrong side of the air mattress. The night before, Will had said that he was the kind of tired that "doesn't get better from a good night's sleep," and I had to admit I felt the same. We started the trip with a fire in our bellies to see it all, and the fire was finally dwindling.

We had driven an unimaginable amount of miles, moving every two days or so, rarely knowing where we would sleep that night. A couple of events derailed us - I lost my phone and my driver's license, Yellowstone was incredibly crowded and hot.

One night we ended up in a campsite seven miles up a bumpy and deserted road, scattered with bullet casings and one very sinister amputated hoof. It was windy and cold, the soil was too hard to stake our tent down, and when we opened our can of Manwich meat we discovered it was just the sauce. 

Anyway, by the time we got to our campsite in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, we were too tired to pretend we weren't tired anymore. 

That is when the God of Travel sent us some wild horses. 

The landscape in Teddy's park is strange and colorful, the striped rocks decorated with shrubs and munching herds of bison, the flat ground spotted with prairie dog "towns" of mounded holes, hundreds of prairie dogs watching you intently from both sides of the road.

We were driving through the park to get into town and run some errands when the little group of wild horses, supposedly descended from long-ago ranch stock, trotted across our path. They were all different colors, so beautiful and sleek-muscled, with one spindly-legged chestnut pony tagging along at the heels of his chestnut-colored mom, casting glances up at the adults before mimicking their movements. 

The horses picked their way down a rocky slope and we watched from above as they drank from a brown pond. Absorbed in my picture-taking, my heart jumped when I heard a loud neigh behind us. We turned and saw, too close for comfort, a huge broad-chested horse with another multi-colored crew following him. 

I, for one, was scared. We had been watching YouTube videos of bison attacking tourists and this horse seemed entirely capable of tossing me into a tree. We hurried, heads down, back to the car and watched in safety as the pack by the pond trotted single-file up a thin ribbon of trail to join the new recruits.

They made quite a sight, surrounded by that striped landscape, all different colors themselves, munching grass by the road. The little one flopped on his side to nap at his mom's feet, occasionally rearing up his head to gnaw at an itchy spot the way dogs do. We watched them for a long time.

Filled with feeling by their beauty and a desire to run my hand along one smooth, muscled side, I signed us up for a morning horseback ride at the stables in town. The experience was not quite the same - I got the wheeziest, fartiest horse in North Dakota. Embarrassingly, I spent the trail ride laughing cruelly at Will because I thought it was his horse that was making all the noise. 

But our spirits were definitely revived by the run-in with the wild horses and our plodding, rhythmic trail ride in that beautiful place. 

Now we are on our way towards Chicago and then on to Ohio, where I will see my dear friend Kelley Russell! 

May the God of Travel send you a pack of wild horses just when you need them the most. 

Love, 

The Mary Traveler

From Sin City to Yosemite

We found a coupon for a hotel in Las Vegas in a Denny's in Arizona, and the next thing we knew we were in Sin City. I had some expectations that this would be a glamorous detour, ignoring the facts that we were staying at a Howard Johnson's for $45, Will doesn't own a tuxedo, and we're the kind of people who would consider eating breakfast at Denny's. 

We bought some $6 beers, I lost $7 at a slot machine, and we watched the Bellagio fountains perform their choreographed water show to Celine Dion. I have to say, it actually did feel a little glamorous. After all the red rocks and RVs and oatmeal by the fire, I was happy to gape at Prada's window display, look around at the lights, drink some rum and coke out of a Howard Johnson's paper cup, and debate which hotel Britney Spears stayed in. 

Will has admitted that some of the National Parks feel like Disney World to him, with long lines of traffic and overpriced food. The "Old West" themed tourist traps outside each park only enhance the feeling. I argue that if the parks were empty we would be griping that Americans don't know what's good, and that they're probably all lined up at Disney World. It is actually encouraging, in my view, that so many people of all different ages want to see the parks enough to make a vacation of it. 

Even so, Las Vegas was a funny sort of relief. It is bright and tacky and crowded and weird, with naked women pictured on passing buses and a homeless person at every corner. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. Everyone knows Las Vegas is vaguely depressing- that is almost part of it's charm. That's why you can stay at a motel and still feel thrilled by the Bellagio. 

But a day or two of Las Vegas is definitely enough for me. The next morning we drove to Yosemite, our favorite place so far. The serenity and scale of the park gave me goosebumps. 

There is so much more to tell, but I don't want to bore you. Just a few more tidbits:

We have been listening to a podcast called "Up and Vanished," which at first I found amateur-ish and now am completely addicted to. We camped in a solitary spot near Yosemite, in a clearing of towering sequoias, and I got good and scared in our tent, in the dark, with an image of missing woman Tara Grinstead in my mind. I made Will come with me when I went to spit my toothpaste. You may know by now that an overactive imagination is both my pride and my folly. I recommend the podcast to anyone with less of a tendency toward childishness. It's definitely scary. 

We are thrilled and amazed to have driven all the way to California from North Carolina, and we are now outside of San Francisco (thanks to our host Marianne!) 

Today, while stopped at a red light, we saw a teenage boy get a paper cut twirling a Mr. Pickles Sandwich Shop cardboard arrow. I'm not sure how to translate the humor of this moment into writing. 

That's all for now. We'll be in California about a week! In the meantime, listen to the podcast so we can talk about it, and be careful with your cardboard arrows. 

Sending my love,

The Mary Traveler

Small Spaces and Big Places

When I was a kid, I liked small spaces and being alone. 

If I am ever framed for murder, the Daily Mail will certainly refer to this blog post - "as a child, suspected killer claimed to like 'small spaces and being alone.'"

But I really did. Sometimes I would pretend I was locked in the downstairs powder room. After I came to terms with my fated solitude, I would take the opportunity to think about my interesting life, examine the decorative soaps, and decide which snacks I would like in my imaginary mini-fridge to sustain me during captivity. 

Camping is a similar pastime. A vast landscape, a small tent, and lots of time. Also, snacks.

And weirdly, the hugeness of the West has the same kind of effect a powder room can. It's the limitlessness, the same infinite possibility I felt as a kid when left completely alone to my imagination. The landscape just seems to go on forever, and every turn in the road surprises you more. 

Our surroundings are Hollywood Mars, the North Pole, and the Promised Land all mushed together. And there is so much space - open, undeveloped land as far as the eye can see. A literal tumbleweed rolled past us. There was a sign that read "Eagles on the Highway." 

Arches and Zion blew us away. Today I will gaze into the red-rock depths of the Grand Canyon and imagine, try to imagine, what I would put in my mini-fridge if I found myself trapped at the bottom. 

After the Grand Canyon will be Yosemite and then on to San Francisco! Also, shout out to my mama who got her Master's degree yesterday.

You go, mama. 

Until next time, 

The Mary Traveler

Pretzel Brain

Last night at the Cardinal's game in St. Louis, Will and I sat behind an adorable family of six - two very nice and tired-looking parents and four kids under the age of 12 with personality to spare. They provided some alternative entertainment for those of us less interested in baseball.

The youngest little girl had her attention fixed on her soft pretzel, which she ate for an hour straight without any of it actually disappearing. Her strategy was not so much to actively chew but rather to let the pretzel dissolve naturally, and her lips and cheeks were speckled with light brown clumps of paste.

At one point, crouched beneath her folding seat with the soggy end of the pretzel in her mouth, the little girl asked her mom if the game was going to start soon. The mom took a long look at her daughter before giving her a smile and a short nod. It was the bottom of the third inning. 

I tell you this story (writing from our adorable Airbnb in St. Louis) to provide you with the clearest possible metaphor for my mindset since graduating college. And to explain why, a year out of school, I have decided to spend the rest of my waitressing/tutoring/babysitting money on a road trip all the way out to California and back as if I too have plans to attend medical school in the fall. 

My parents have given me a slightly worried smile and a short nod - I'll figure it out. My grasp on reality is soggy but at least I'm absorbed. 

The trip has been wonderful so far. We began in Davidson with a walk down memory lane, then went on to Nashville where I bought a Mara Hoffman bikini top for $10 (cue applause) and ate some BBQ. Now we are in St. Louis.

I have fallen in love with St. Louis and its old-fashioned charm, its free zoo and huge green parks.

It's the kind of place where you half expect to see a journalist wearing a hat and wielding one of those large cameras with an exploding flash on top. The kind of person who would say "see here" as a way of interjecting.

I've been describing the city's aesthetic as an Industrial Revolution/World's Fair vibe. 

And we've had a lot of fun. A couple of lovely strangers gave us our baseball tickets for free (amazing seats). We ate Ethiopian food, Will's favorite - spicy, stew-like meat and vegetables that you scoop off your plate with a porous pancake called injera. We found an apartment for Will, and hopefully for me too (job prospects pending).

We have plans to spend the day at Ikea tomorrow, which might seem weird if you've never been to Ikea before. It is a department store of domestic daydreams and delicious meatballs. 

Next it's on to Colorado, and then a string of National Parks.

 My soggy little pretzel-brain is loving every minute of this adventure. The innings of my life cycling by, I am crouched beneath my seat, facing the wrong direction, deeply engaged, and not bothering my mom.

Lots of Love, 

The Mary Traveler

Back At It - Roadtrip Edition

Y'all might remember when I wrote this blog before - once in Florence, Italy, where I took pictures of my pasta and was sometimes afraid to go outside, and once more in Cambridge, England where I discovered the glories of mushy peas and participated in some very calming albeit cult-like meditation. 

The Mary Traveler also experienced a little sputtering start and stop the second semester of my Junior year, when I worried about graduate school and tried to put together Ikea furniture. 

I didn't blog these past few months when my boyfriend Will and I were in Uvita, Costa Rica working in a hostel. I can catch you up on that pretty fast:

I loved the chickens. 

I loved the ocean. 

Will learned to surf, I laid on the beach, and we both did a lot of thinking about the future. 

Now it's on to another adventure for Will and me. We are driving cross country from Charlotte to California over the next month and a half before moving to St. Louis, where Will is planning to go to medical school and I am planning to make a plan. 

Will and I will meet in North Carolina on April 27th to start the drive. I'll be glad to see him again in real life, where if he's upside down he knows he's upside down.

I am excited to share the journey with you and thank you, as always, for following along. 

Love, 

The Mary Traveler