When I leave work at 5:30, it has just started to snow, a hard, fine sugar that glazes the roads. I take the long way, carefully, and savor driving through the sparkling mist in the half-light of dusk.
At home, the dog meets me at the door; she trots to the edge of the back stoop, and she puts her nose out into the weather. She turns her head, gives me a look that says, clearly, “Never mind!” and hurries back inside.
I feed her. I change into a soft old navy blue sweater and pull-on pants. I start a pot of soup.
The soup is a hearty recipe from a dear friend, Kathie, and it goes together quickly. I follow the recipe exactly. Well, I do, except that I have five cups of broth made from the bones of Sunday’s roast chicken in the fridge, and I put that in instead of the water that’s called for. Which is just as well, because, instead of a package of wild rice mix with its tangy flavor packet, I use the leftover rice from a big batch of risotto. And I discover a little cup of French style green beans from last night’s dinner, so I throw those in–with a hefty helping more from the bag in the freezer–instead of broccoli.
Other than that, though, it is EXACTLY Kathie’s recipe, and it begins, quickly, to burble enticingly. It blends sautéed onion and shredded carrot, the nice lean chicken, the broth with the fat skimmed off. It is hefty on the vegetable matter–even the broth was a long simmer of celery and carrot and bay leaf, herbs and spices and bones with shreds of meat a-clingin’, onion and leftover corn and one sad tomato. For the most part, I think, Tara would approve of this soup.
Tara is our wellness coach at the College; every Wednesday she meets with us, and evaluates us and talks to us. She demonstrates good stuff to us.
At our first meeting, she takes our measures. Considering them, she sets the curriculum: we’ll work, she says, on body mass indexes, cholesterol, and nutrition. We’ll learn, Tara tells us, to incorporate activity into our days, to do exercises that relieve the stress in our backs and our necks, and to walk until our heart rates reach a nice healthy thumping pace.
We nod and smile and look at each other plaintively.
Tara is an inspiring person, glowing of mien, joyously giving, and there is no way we can doubt that what she tells us is what we should do.
So we begin, and we encourage each other: I pack celery sticks for snacking, enough to share. Linda brings baby carrots; Jaime stashes a six pack of little Greek yogurt cups in the staff room refrigerator. We bring our sneakers to work; in the afternoons, at 2:00 or so, we lap the building, striding down the hallways, romping up the stairs. For the first circuit, anyway. We elevate our heart rates.
Tara talks about changing habits rather than dieting, so I set myself two immediate goals: increasing the helpings of fruits and veggies I eat each day, and building three thirty minute sessions of heart-pumping exercise into my week. I’ll start, also, practicing better portion control, and, as time rolls on, when I use up a bag of flour or a loaf of bread or a box of pasta, I’ll replace that soft white starchiness with something whole grained and hearty.
I am determined. I am committed.
I am home on a snowy cold night, and I am–sorry, Tara,–going to make cookies.
The soup bubbles merrily. I get out the peanut butter, the eggs, the flour, the rich dark brown sugar. The butter. I pull out my old red-checkered cookbook and check the instructions. I mix up a double batch of peanut butter cookie dough.
By the time I am done, the boyos have arrived, safely home from their excursion to Westerville, 50 miles away. The roads were fine on their way there. They kept an appointment, browsed through a bookstore, stopped at Panera for dinner. By then, the snow had begun to fall, and they drove sedately home. Mark brought a beautiful little loaf of sliced, crusty, rustic bread. It is the perfect thing to go with the steaming soup. I ladle out a bowl and take two small slices of bread from the bag. The boyos shed their snowy jackets and stomp off their boots in the back hall, and I grab my cozy murder mystery and take my lovely supper to the table.
Despite my variations, the soup is as good as I remember; the bread is a fresh and chewy treat, and the book is a tantalizing, comforting read. Refreshed, I turn the oven on to 350, pull the baking sheets out of the cabinet, and begin shaping little meatballs of peanut butter cookie dough. It’s a learned task; I must have first done this well over fifty years ago, when my mother taught me that the cookie jar should never really be empty.
She was not an extravagant shopper, my mother–and the family budget applauded that: we did not have soda pop or potato chips or ice cream treats in the house very often. But we always had baked goods. The cookie jar was full or it was being replenished; and sometimes there was also a cake or a pie. Our friends liked to visit. They were each on a first name basis with the cookie jar, and they knew where to find the glasses to contain tall drinks of milk.
No more demonstrative than she was extravagant, my mother showed she cared by baking for us. A house devoid of home-baked cookies was an empty home, indeed.
That’s especially true, I think, on a night when the furnace has to struggle and chug itself to life and the snow’s so cold it glitters. I set up trays of peanut butter doughballs, dip a fork into sugar, and flatten the balls with criss-cross tine marks limned in sweet crystals. I slip the first two trays into the oven; in moments the smell of warm peanut butter floats through the house. The dog comes out to sit by my side as I type, hopeful, keeping me company, trotting at my heels when I pull two sheets from the hot oven and replace them with two more.
She gets the leftover burger, the dog does, but no cookies. She considers that, and then, a canine pragmatist, accepts. Mark and Jim appear in the kitchen, take themselves little stacks of cookies warm from the oven, slide back to their electronic universes, munching.
“These are GOOD,” they say. I try one, too, and I agree.
Outside, in the full dark, snow still falls, getting more defined and less sugary. The wind picks up. Drifts pile up in the shelter of the hedges. This is a storm so strong the weather gurus have named it; I watch the deepening glitter and fantasize that work tomorrow may be cancelled. Mark goes quietly through the house, opening cabinet doors that shelter pipes; the warmed air will cradle those conduits, keep them from freezing.
I pull the last two trays of cookies from the oven. With a spatula, I slide the cookies onto a platter, adding them to a burgeoning mountain. I clean the last of the baking things, setting the cookie sheets face down on the warm stove to dry. I divide the soup into little containers, and I look around my kitchen.
Some deep-seeded need to fill the larder, to batten down against the storm, is satisfied. Maybe the snow will stop within the hour; maybe it will continue all night. I hear the vigilant snowplow scrape by; I acknowledge, sadly, that a snow day tomorrow is an unlikely thing. But whatever happens, there is soup in the refrigerator; there are cookies in the jar. My family is safe and warm, protected from the elements.
Tomorrow I will chop more celery sticks to take to work; I’ll do some solitary Saturday laps around the building. I will keep to my goals. But I will not regret the cookies, those warm and fragrant amulets that keep winter’s breath at bay.