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July 2016

Welcome NPR Readers: A Few Thoughts on Parenting, Procrastintion, and Mortality


My dad died of prostate cancer eight years ago. I was thinking of this today, because I received very sad news this morning. Michael Crawford, someone I did not know well but who I was proud to call a friend, died yesterday of the disease. I had learned a week or so ago through Facebook, that he was terminally ill, and I wanted to see him before he was gone. But even a delay of a few days was too long. Crawford was a remarkably talented cartoonist and artist (Michael Maslin’s blog Ink Spill can fill you in), and his passing reminded me not to procrastinate.

My father was a complicated man who kept his complications to himself. I don’t think I’m any less complicated than he was (being a man, and above all, his son), but I am not going to harbor my complications. I’m going to air them out. It’s the only way I’m going to make sense of them. And I know that my chief complication has become universal: It is no longer clear what is expected of a father these days.

When my dad was raising a family, I think, it was clear to him what he was supposed to be doing—mostly making money and acting as a moral compass for the family. Those things are expected of me, too, but that is where the certainty ends. I’m also expected to a little more, such as make the lunches, make the dinners, balance the check book, pay the bills, tend to my daughters’ homework, take the kids to soccer, and, and, and; I’d go on, but not even the whole Internet itself has enough space to list all the responsibilities that are mine.

In my dad’s day, these were things handled by my mom, who banged out dinners every night, or skipped over the rest of it. Things like homework, sports, and college applications were if not entirely self-directed, pretty loosely supervised. These days, you practically have to pry the pen from the parent’s hand if you want to see a child’s college-application essay. What is expected of mothers has shifted radically, too.

There is no model for what parents do these days. We are all making it up as we go along. Which, I suppose, is what our parents did too, but it was easier back then. Think about the car. All they had to worry about were seat belts. I remember installing our cars seats when Nina and Pinta were young, and being told that the local fire department gave classes on how to do it correctly. And forget about having them sit in the front seat. Even they know that one has to be thirteen or something to sit there safely, because of the airbag. There is just so much more to keep track of now.

But I’ll stick to what I know best, which is my own experience, with art and the kitchen. My dad could not have modeled the right behavior for me had he even wanted to. The only thing he knew how to do in the kitchen was to make coffee. I on the other hand, have many ideas about how to feed one’s family. I was recently interviewed for a post on the NPR blog about cooking for busy families. If you’ve been reading along here, you know some of my strategies. If you want more ideas, check out their post, here.

The Three Secrets to No-Stir Polenta

2016-07-10 color spoon page #0

Polenta has a terrible reputation for requiring endless stirring. But no-stir polenta is not some mythical unicorn. It’s within reach*. And the benefit of no-stir polenta is that you can have a lush and delicious side dish (and, even, a proper entrée, if you top it with roasted beets and cheese, or something equally rich,) with very little work. You just need to know a few small secrets.

  • You have to start with good cornmeal.
  • It will take a long time.
  • You will need to do some stirring.

About that cornmeal: Go with what tastes good to you. I’ve tried various reputable brands but they did not please the missus. I found one at my local coop that’s marked “New York State Cornmeal.” I know nothing more about it, other than it has a sweet and deep flavor that pleases. Enough said. Do some experimenting.

About the amount of time you will need: Bank on a good 50 minutes to more than an hour.

And you will need to stir the pot. Not continually, but every ten minutes or so. Here are the instructions:

No-Stir Polenta

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 teaspoon salt (note that I use a little less, but this often leads to the question, “did I salt the polenta?”; do what you think is best)
  • 1 cup cornmeal of choice
  • 1 Tablespoon (or more) of butter
  • ½ cup (or more) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Bring the water to a boil.

Add the salt.

Whisk in the cornmeal very carefully, practically a grain at a time.

Stir for a good minute.

Cover the pot and turn down to a simmer.

Every ten minutes, stir the pot for a good minute, scraping up off the bottom that which sticks.

Repeat until the polenta is cooked. About 50 minutes to an hour. You can tell by taste and consistency. When it tends to stick to itself, and pull easily from the side of the pot, it is done.

Stir in the butter and cheese.


*I did not invent this method. Far from it. Marcella Hazan and Mark Bittman each have recipes for it, the former somewhat reluctantly and the latter somewhat gleefully. I’m sure if you looked further, you can find others. The beauty of cooking, of course, is that no one invented fire. It’s just there, and I’m here to help you figure out what to do with it. Same for cornmeal.