Author Archives: alisongulotta

Packing heat

My son has a friend who chose “Sriracha” as the theme of his seventh birthday party. Yes, that’s right; the boy turning seven loves hot sauce, and Sriracha is his personal favorite. I find this fact fascinating and impressive, and it’s always been interesting to me how people have strong feelings about particular brands of hot sauce. My uncle is passionate about Crystal Hot Sauce, my husband favors Cholula, my friend Ellen’s a devotee of Spicy Chili Crisp, and there are countless other people who swear by one of the overwhelmingly many other options. Frank’s RedHot has a strong following, and who wouldn’t recognize that iconic Tabasco bottle with its rhomboid label and octagonal redcap sitting pretty in many a refrigerator from here to Louisiana? Tapatío is a relative newcomer on the picante scene, and its popularity has enlarged over the past few decades to the point that it can be found for sale by the gallon, a generous upgrade from the original five-ounce bottle size. I feel like there are probably secret societies dedicated to specific brands, or at least scores of exhaustive and impassioned articles written to extol the virtues of one boutique pepper sauce concoction or another. I mean, predilections toward a specific admixture or another is certainly “a thing” in many a culture.

Thoroughly intrigued by this young boy’s fondness for Sriracha, I felt compelled (or perhaps challenged) to try it again and picked up a bottle the next time I ordered groceries. I tried it a few more times–with meat, cheese, and even a French fry–before deciding that my opinion hadn’t changed; though the sauce followed through as promised in delivering that arrabbiata punch of heat, I felt the spice eclipsed all other flavors potentially involved in the mouthful without adding enough dimension merit the expense. To me, it felt one-note: raw heat but lacking the kind of complexity that builds nuance or texture in a taste, and I resigned myself back into the shadows where people who don’t really “get” hot sauce hover.

And then one night inspiration struck, and I felt that it was important to take a tablespoon of Sriracha, a tablespoon of Heinz ketchup, and a tablespoon of Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard and mix them together, and that’s when a very, very beautiful thing happened. I call my creation “Trifectcha”, and it completely revolutionized how we do hotdogs over here. Still too spicy for the kids, it’s enjoyed exclusively by the adults and would pair well with anything you’d think to garnish with hot sauce. The unctuousness of the ketchup, the nuance of the mustard, and the piquant power of the Sriracha all hold each other in a beautiful balance, each flavor shining through but tamed just enough by the others to play its music at precisely the right volume. The equal-part proportions feel judicious, too, somehow, as if the conversation among the three constituents allows each fair audience on the palate, creating a flavor harmonic that uplifts each component as a result of the interaction with its counterparts.

The reason I recount this recipe story this is twofold: first, the sauce is so good that it deserves to be shared. And second, let it stand as a reminder on those hard days, when the moments of parenthood are so difficult it’s breathtaking, that there are so many wonderful things in this world that most likely never would have found their ways into our lives lest for the existence of our children. Simply put, this story began with attending a seven-year old’s Sriracha-themed birthday party, and its ending is delicious.

A helpful review by Mr. Pagan

One day recently I was reading reviews of a book that had been recommended by a friend whose taste in literature sometimes aligned with mine but diverged just as often. Whenever she recommends a book, I hit the internet to read the thoughts of others before deciding if the book in question is one I think will hold my interest enough to warrant seeking out a copy. I was on the fence about the one she’d most recently suggested, and the reviews were equivocal, so I was inclined to bypass it for the moment considering the scads of unread titles currently under my roof. But then I got to this one:

There is so much that could be said here, but instead I’ll write these lines and trust you to read in between them: You’d better believe I bought that book immediately.

And then he learned a term from me

Lest my last post portray a false reality wherein life with kids is replete with educative interactions that smack of profundity and erudite edification, here I will elucidate a rather different sort of conversation between an eleven year old and his mother:

Alison: “Do you want to keep this word search or should I recycle it?”
Liam: “I don’t want to keep it. Do with it what you will.”
Alison: “Ha! Nice sentence.”
Liam: “Thanks. I feel like it’s from ‘Star Wars’.”
Alison: “Maybe it’s in ‘Star Wars’, but I bet it originated elsewhere.”
Liam: “What do you mean?”
Alison: “I mean I think that turn of phrase came from somewhere else originally.”
Liam: “From where?”
Alison (tired, multitasking): “I don’t know! Before Star Wars!”
Liam (laughing): “I didn’t know there was a movie called ‘Before Star Wars’!”
Alison: “Ok, now you’re just annoying the hell out of me.”
Liam: (laughter becomes uproarious)

It’s safe to say that parents don’t take pride in every discussion they have with their kids, but now that I think about it, I’m actually pretty proud of that one.

A lesson in laundry

One night, after I’d brought down a laundry basket overflowing with clean articles of clothing, my eleven-year old tripped happily down the stairs to come claim the wardrobe items belonging to him. He pawed through the pile as he is wont to do, extracting clothes that are so familiar as to be comforting, if not borderline beloved. He’s very possessive of and particular about what he wears, preferring a nearly outgrown T-shirt he’s had in his rotation for three seasons to a new one awaiting use in a cold drawer. Often I have to enforce retirement on a piece of clothing, declaring that anything size 7 or smaller must be relinquished and replaced with his choice among the sartorial selection prêt-à-porter in his room. He’s gotten better about accepting this variety of change, now enjoying the novelty and agency of choosing the next garments to work into his short list of favorite outfits. But he still relishes the reclaiming of clean laundry so he can arrange it in anticipation of days to come, instituting order and intention by pairing shirts with their self-assigned pants in semi-neat piles on his carpet. For him, I think it feels like turning to a new page on a calendar: here we are, ready and equipped to move through another set of days.

That particular night, standing at the bottom of the stairs with an armload of laundry, he said, “You know, it’s weird. Some of Summerly’s shirts look even smaller than Arlo’s in a way, even though she’s the same size as I am and a lot bigger than he is.” I responded that the reason for that is that tops intended for girls are often cut differently than those intended for boys. I had to explain what “cut” meant, of course, and then he asked why this is, to which I said that I thought there were two main reasons. One is that manufacturers and retail companies aim to increase their market by obliging people who have more than one gender of child to buy separate closets full of clothing under the supposition that the items aren’t interchangeable among children of different genders. I pointed out the pink ribbon inside the uniform shorts that Arlo wears, saying that those were probably intended for girls but the only difference between them and the other ones he wears is that coral stripe of grosgrain. We briefly talked about how pink was originally thought to be a color associated with baby boys and how colors really have nothing to do with gender, fundamentally or practically. He was still standing there clutching his clothing. “What’s the other reason that girls’ clothes are cut differently?” he asked.

I said, “Every individual person’s body is shaped differently than anyone else’s, so there’s no such thing as a typical body shape for anyone of any age. But they cut girls’ and boys’ clothes differently based on the assumption that girls’ and boys’ bodies are shaped differently from each other, even though that’s not always true or even relevant.” He turned then, apparently satisfied with the explanation, though obviously disgruntled at this erroneous generalization. “Well, that’s an unseen stereotype,” he said, heading up the stairs to his room. I heartily agreed.

I wrote down what he’d said, intending to ask him later on where he’d learned that term, but forgot until the next day after he’d gone to school, so I did a google search but didn’t turn up any leads. That afternoon as we pulled up in front of the house, I remembered to query him on the origin of the phrase, asking if it was from a book, or maybe one of his teachers had introduced the concept. “No,” he answered, “I didn’t hear it anywhere. It just seemed like a good way to describe what you were talking about.”

“Wow,” I said. “Nice! That’s really smart. I thought it was so cool that I googled it to see where it had come from!”

“You GOOGLED it?” He doubled over, laughing with comedic mirth. “You googled ME?! Now THAT is hilarious. A mom googling what her kid said! Now there’s a proud moment.”

Oh, my son. You have no idea how proud.


Textured Vegetable Protein. Have I ever spoken those words inside this house? I don’t think so. But that didn’t stop me from cooking it, feeding it to my children, and marveling over the fact that they all ate it without batting an eye. Now, if I had said those three words aloud, if I’d named what they were actually eating, who can say if the events would have played out any differently, but just to be safe I kept quiet on the true identity of the ingredient to see what would happen if the only variable in the situation were the ingredient itself, divorced from the knowledge that it was something with a strange name that they’d never had.

The origins of this story actually date back to a childhood anecdote in which my mother famously served us what she said was chicken for dinner, only coming clean about the fact that it was really tofu after we’d expressed displeasure over the meal. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be hoodwinked into ingesting more than the initial bite of the stuff; whatever way she’d prepared the tofu hadn’t rendered it chicken-like enough to inspire a psychosomatic response in which blind faith could coerce our taste and texture receptors to countenance the imposter vegetable in meat’s clothing. I wasn’t willing to run the risk of inviting my kids’ suspicion every time I served them something that was slightly different than usual, so I didn’t want to try to fool them the way my mom had done the night that tofu literally didn’t go down, so I thought I’d try preparing the vegetable protein in a way that would disguise it enough that no questions would even be asked.

As a way to stretch my dollar without compromising the protein content of the meal, recently I’d cooked some quinoa in beef consommé and mixed a cup of it into a pound of ground beef to make hamburgers, and no one rejected it, so I was cautiously hopeful about this next experiment. I finally settled on making a faux Bolognese sauce to serve with tortellini, thinking that if I turned the vegetable protein into as close a rendering of burger meat as possible, perhaps the experiment would succeed. So I took a page from my dad’s canonical cookbook and, after rehydrating the protein using some of that magical hot beef consommé (Campbell’s, condensed, without adding water) in place of water or vegetable broth as Bob’s Red Mill suggests, I seasoned it with a few shakes of Worcestershire, a few shakes of onion power, a few shakes of garlic powder, and a few shakes of pepper. After adding a jar of pasta sauce, there it was: Fauxlognese sauce, ready to go in two shakes of a cow’s tail. And no one asked a single question or suspected a bait-and-switch operation had even taken place in the kitchen that day.

Emboldened by this little victory, I thought I’d really push the envelope and infiltrate that most sacrosanct of menu options, the holy ace-in-a-hole, knee-jerk crowd-pleaser, the crown jewel go-to dinner for many a parent. That’s right; I went there. I stormed Castle Pizza but with stealth, sending my protein-packed troops in disguise, a Trojan Horse of nutrition right into the thick of things, hidden not under cover of darkness but of cheese. The extra Faulognese from earlier that week, repurposed surreptitiously as pizza sauce, once again raised no questions or complaints. Feeling dangerous, I told the kids I was calling their dinner TVPizza, to which one of them queried, “Why? Are we going to eat it while we watch TV?” Sure, kid. Tonight we’re showing “Crouching Protein, Hidden Leftovers”. I’ll make the popcorn, which may or may not be laced with a few shakes of nutritional yeast.

That time my husband channeled Ebenezer Scrooge

The day after we took the photographs for our Christmas card this year, I came across an amazing deal online that was about to expire. Not wanting to miss this opportunity to save money, I created the photo collage for the card and went ahead with the order before showing the finished image to my husband. I knew he cared about the card but trusted that he’d approve of how I’d designed it and that I’d wanted to take advantage of the limited-time promotion, and I hoped he wouldn’t be upset that I hadn’t showed him a proof before committing. I know I certainly would want to sign off on our family card before it hit the press, but the savings opportunity was too good to pass up, so I threw a chef’s kiss to karma and placed the order in a hurry to make it to school pickup on time.

Later that evening, I checked my email to find a notification that the order had been processed, along with a thumbnail depiction of the front of the card. I took a screenshot, cropped it, and sent the picture to Brian so he could have a look at what was on the way. At the time, we were both home but in separate rooms and out of the other’s sight, so there was no way I could have known that he had his phone on hand, but he opened the message upon receipt only a few seconds later and immediately responded. He sent another message about thirty seconds after that one, but by then it was too late; that moment when the blood both bolts to the brain and plummets to the stomach happened instantaneously, and with fingers ionized by adrenaline, I’d already opened the photo to see the disaster for myself. At that point, his second text broke through, transmogrifying horror to relief spiked with spite. The most practical of jokes can only be played when a person knows another so thoroughly as to place a barb directly on the bullseye of her Achilles Heel.

Here is the evidence of such savagery (my text is in blue):

Anyone know where I can get enough coal to fill one man’s stocking?

Take $2 and call me in the morning

One day I walked past Liam’s room to see him on the floor, counting all the cash he’d saved to help determine which Legos on his wish list he could afford. Practically nothing is as expensive as retired Lego sets, so in order to purchase the ones he wanted, he asked if he could dip into his “save” jar, and I said he could spend a few dollars from it.

A little while later he came downstairs and said, “Mommy, I have a problem. I want to spend three of the dollars in my “save” jar, but all I have in there are my Sacagawea coins from the tooth fairy [he put theatrical emphasis on those two words and attempted an exaggerated wink], and those are special so I don’t want to give them away.” I suggested that he exchange them with me for paper dollars so I could keep the coins safe and reissue them to him at a later date. He agreed to that course of action and retreated to his room to pore over his lists of Legos and crunch some more money math.

That night around 8:00, when I was at peak readiness to have the children put away for the rest of the evening after a long day of uninterrupted togetherness, he came downstairs to ask if he could do the money exchange. I said he could, quickly, and directed him to my fabric box disguised to look like a book in which I “hide” my on-hand cash stash. He opened it and looked through the contents, commenting that he could only find two singles among the bigger bills. I spied a five-dollar bill in the bowels of the book when I looked over his shoulder, so I said, “Just take the five and get out of my kitchen,” to which we all had a laugh.

After he’d gone upstairs and I’d heard his door shut, I looked at Brian, who’d overheard the exchange, and half-jokingly said, “They all just need to go away.” (The word “temporarily” was implied and understood.)
Brian: “You’re starting to sound like Barty Crouch.”
Alison: “I don’t know who Barty Crouch is.”
Brian: “He’s Barty Crouch’s father.”
Alison: “I said I didn’t know who Barty Crouch is.”
Brian: “I know.”
Alison: “Now you need to go away too.”
Brian: “I will if you give me five dollars.”

P.S. Upon conducting some perfunctory research, I realized that Brian had been referring to a character from the world of Harry Potter. In scanning the “early life” section of the biography of Bartemius Crouch, Sr. on the Harry Potter Wiki Fandom site, I came across a quote attributed to the character Sirius Black, who said this about Barty: “Should have spent a bit more time at home with his family, shouldn’t he?” Well, I can tell you one thing that’s certain beyond any shadow of a doubt: in that respect, at least, Barty and I have absolutely nothing in common. In fact, when it comes to alone time, I’ll actually pay for it.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” –Ophelia (Act IV, Scene V)

One day last spring while we were in the backyard, something flew over our six-foot white vinyl privacy fence. It hadn’t arrived under its own steam, like a bird or an insect winging its airborne way; no, the trajectory of this dead weight deposit suggested that it had been propelled up and over with some force behind it. I was prepared to become privately infuriated (while acting merely annoyed in front of the kids) by someone throwing a banana peel or–heaven forfend–a doggie bag into our yard, but when Summerly went over to discover the identity of the fence-jumping item, it turned out to be two behemoth stalks of rosemary, bristling with thickset leather-skinned spicules, each stem as long and elegant as the quill of a peacock feather but bearing the unmistakably piquant and woodsy fragrance of the herb.

Well, this was something. I approached the fence to find one of our neighbor children, a little boy named Isaac whose company our kids enjoyed, peeking through the slats to watch how his homegrown gift would be received. We gushed over the rosemary, thanking him profusely, which I suppose sent the message that we were in the market to inherit clippings from his mother’s entire herb garden, and for the next ten minutes or so he made multiple trips to and from his house, launching sprig after sprig of aromatics over the fence. “Spearmint!” he called. “Chocolate mint! Thyme! Oregano!” and each time one of our kids thanked him and collected the greenery until we had quite a pile of herbs on the back porch. Reading into the message that was being delivered via flying plants, we invited Isaac into our yard to see our bunnies, who were running around in their outdoor enclosure. He seemed delighted by the entire scenario, perhaps because he’s a homeschooled only child at the near-end of a pandemic, and the gregariousness of our human threesome plus our rabbit threesome served to provide a novel change of setting.

He stayed until his mom came to fetch him for dinner, but before he went he asked me, “Would it be okay if I come over sometimes and knock on your door?” I said, “Thank you for asking, Isaac. Sure, that would be great. And if the kids can play, they’ll come out, and if they can’t, we’ll tell you it’s not a good time but we can try again soon.”

“Ok,” he said. “Just so you know, I like to check on my friends most days. Like every day or every two days, I just like to check on them to make sure they’re okay. Is that okay with you?”

Oh, sweet Isaac, surely you haven’t read “Hamlet” yet, seeing as though you’re only eight years old, but how fitting it is that the inception of this new friendship found its roots in a gift of rosemary and that the day concluded with your promise of attentive consistency, an oath of commitment. If checking on your friends every day or so just to see how they are is how you do friendship, that is definitely more than okay with me.

Part 2: A point of contention

At some point that evening, after we’d returned and unloaded all of the special sticks and everything else from the car, I also unloaded the contents of my pockets, carefully setting aside the snub-nosed pencil while it awaited its burning ceremony, and there it sat for a few days while the machinations of the school week ground along. On Saturday night, after our youngest child was tucked tiredly away, the older kids came downstairs to hang out with us until 8:00, something we’d never done before but were willing to try as a once-in-a-while occasion. Because our pet bunnies had been hutched up for much of the day, I let them out for some kibble and a romp-around while I futzed about in the kitchen waiting for 8:00 to roll around. Summerly was sitting at the counter writing a note to a friend when one of the Holland Lops careened around the kitchen island and proceeded to try to climb inside a cabinet I’d opened to put away a mixing bowl. “Gosh,” Summerly said, remarking on the rabbit’s behavior, “They’re so…” and I offered up, “Exploratory?” Without looking up from her paper, she replied, “Perfect word, Alison. Perfect word.” I said, “Did you just call me ‘Alison’?” to which she responded without glancing up from the words on the page, “Maybe. Maybe not” in that characteristically wry way of hers.

This struck me as hilarious in that moment, and as I usually do when one of the kids delivers a zinger or memorable tidbit, I reach for a pencil and write it down on one of my many notepapers positioned in places that are usually within reach. Just then Liam happened onto the scene, ambling through the room to exchange one book for another, and looked over to see me scribbling down his sister’s most recent quip, only to stop dead in his tracks and exclaim, “Mommy! What do you think you’re doing?” I must have looked at him quizzically because he pointed a finger at my hand and leaned backward for dramatic effect. “You’re using the pencil!” he said. “I don’t believe what I’m seeing. I thought you were going to burn that thing!”

I looked down to realize that I had, in fact, used the dastardly object, having absentmindedly sharpened it the night before along with a handful of others I’d decided were in need and deposited on the counter next to where I’d left the scrap that had been notoriously excommunicated at the music lesson. “You’re right, Liam,” I said, dropping the cursed object as if it were hot, “I don’t know what I was thinking! Well, what do you make of that?” and he tucked the book under one arm, looked me directly in the eyes with a wicked twinkle, and proceeded to deliver a perfectly-timed slow clap. I’d never seen him do this, nor did I know that he was aware that the “slow clap” was even a thing, and the comedic quality of it was so spot-on that I once again reached for a pencil to jot down the essence of the interaction. “Mommy,” he said, “You’re using it again!” and commenced the slow clap.

A few minutes later, I said, “Okay, guys! 8:00. Time to head up.” Summerly looked at her watch and said, “No, it’s 7:59.” Let the record reflect the evening’s events described here, dear reader, as evidence of the kind of injustices that can occur when people let their children stay up late.

Part I: The point of a pointless pencil

Trigger warning: the topic of this post involves helping a child with math homework.

It was one of those perfect storm situations, occurring directly after I’d sat through a fifteen-minute piano lesson that had felt like three hours. If you’ve ever watched the most patient person in the universe give a piano lesson to a six year-old whose attention, sensory, and impulsivity issues were all presenting at maximum and managed to maintain an outward display of imperturbable serenity while privately roiling with what must be unhealthy levels of exasperation, then you know how I was feeling. Walking out of that room with shoulders practically up by my earlobes and jaw so firmly clenched inside my mask I knew it would be a couple of days of soft food only, I lay sight on my other son, whose worried brow line and open math workbook on his lap told me that he had been literally staring at the page the entire time I’d been in his brother’s piano lesson. This was the only window we’d have that day for me to help him with math before he became too tired to compute, so I switched gears and sat down next to him while my daughter went in for her piano lesson. Aside from the fact that an impromptu lesson on how to draw factor trees hadn’t been part of my carefully-crafted afternoon plan, and despite knowing that this is almost probably not the method that the Patron Saint of Singapore Math would espouse, it was obvious that this child was already in a bit of a spiral over the words and numbers on the page before him. When his anxiety has been piqued, there are obvious tells in his affect and behavior, and they were all there waving around their conspicuous semaphores. I knew this would be hard but tried to feel grateful for that knowledge, as it’s always helpful when faced with a learning experience.

As soon as I began watching him work through the first problem, however, there it was: the X factor. We’re not talking algebra here, though–no, the variable in this interpersonal equation was right there in my son’s hand. I’m talking about his pencil, though to call it such is to flatter the sorry excuse for a writing utensil. It was a stub barely long enough to grip, and its nub of a nib was basically flat. Despite the fact that it should have been sharpened days earlier, that wasn’t its most distressing quality; not only was it missing its original eraser, along with the metal sleeve that had once crowned the pencil’s end, but the replacement eraser (you know the ones: the Pink Pearl-colored caps that fit perfectly around the hexagonal stem of a Number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, shaped vaguely like the top of the elementary school-issue mucilage bottles of yore) had been worn clean through to form a cylindrical cuff around the pencil. But that’s not all. That cylindrical cuff had split down the side, so it was more like a thick bangle that kept slipping down the shaft of the pencil while he tried to tease out least common multiples with what used to be a graphite point.

I won’t go into the details of the next twenty minutes, but the most difficult part was probably watching him try to use this pathetic implement. Just witnessing it was enough to make my hands sweat, and because we were at the music teacher’s house, it was the only pencil in our possession. At a certain point, the child’s anxiety flared to the degree that it was interfering with his automatic math fact retrieval, and he was having trouble with even the simplest task, like deciding where on the page to set up a division problem. Despite the fact that my own anxiety was breathing down my neck by this point, I knew it was an important modeling opportunity, so I chose to trust that my youngest child was safely outside in the yard catching ants and not climbing under cars looking for lucky pennies like he had the week before, and decided to focus my frustration on the inept utensil in my son’s right hand. “You know, Liam,” I said, “That pencil isn’t doing you any favors here. In fact, it’s making this all a lot harder. After this, I am confiscating that pencil. It’s completely dysfunctional, and the time has come to retire it. We have literally hundreds of pencils at home, so when you get back you can choose a selection to replace it with. And when I get home, I’m going to take this pencil, and I’m going to burn it. I’m going to melt the eraser. Then I’m going to take the graphite and crush it into powder and flush it all down the toilet.”

We both laughed, which helped to reset the energy, and he was able to successfully complete the page of math, after which I took the scrap of pencil, as promised, put it into my pocket, went outside, and was so relieved to find that my wild child had followed the directions to “keep his feet on nature” and out of the street that I let him bring every single one of the sticks he’d collected into the car.

To be continued…