Have you picked up the new Best Food Writing 2011 yet? It's a must for anyone, like me, who can barely wait for the Wednesday release of the food section in the NYTimes. I look forward to this anthology all year long and eagerly consume it the minute it arrives (either in the mail or via download). Sometimes, I've already read some of the articles - either on the web or in food magazines. But more often than not, I stumble across such an excellently (and previously unknown) story or article, that I have to read it through several times.
Allison Parker, a managing editor at Leite's Culinaria, wrote about Saint Phanourios's Cake, a homey Greek cake made in homage to Saint Phanourios, whose Catholic saint equivalent is Saint Anthony, the saint of lost things. Her story is beautiful. Feeling discontent and a bit desolate, she baked this cake one night. It's not that she had a particularly hard time of things - but, she was feeling the pressure of creating a career for herself as a freelancer and essentially acting as a single parent (her husband is a restaurant sommelier), spending hours upon hours alone. The article is deeply personal and she literally wears (or writes with) her heart on her sleeve.
Not being particularly religious, she continues to bake this Greek Orthodox cake; a very simple cake in nature with only 9 ingredients. She either gave away slices (9 slices to each cake to be exact - there is a symbolism behind this number) or whole cakes - to friends, strangers, for charity. Before baking each cake, you're supposed to make a prayer or a wish. And through this process, she realizes none of her prayers (1 for each cake) have been answered.
But like all nicely finished stories go, she realizes in the end that she gained one big reward - connection, after previously feeling so disconnected. Her story resonated with me. As someone who is now trying to make a career technically as a freelancer but more so as a self-employed individual, I now understand that the value of connection cannot be understated. Connection is how you network and how you begin to open doors. Connection is social media and cups of coffee with others in your same field. Why let someone in with whom you have no connection?
I joked with my sister the other night that sometimes I watch a few minutes of Kelly Ripa (I swear, she could cheer anyone up!) in the morning when I'm getting ready for the day and eating breakfast. I don't think of it as daytime television - instead, I explained, it's my 'water cooler break.' Or my 'coffee break.' There are days when I work alone, or cook alone, and those days can be lonely, if I let them be. So sometimes I like to hear a little noise - Molly and Matthew's Spilled Milk Podcasts and Pandora can be godsends.
My family and I always joke that I like 'alone time.' This is definitely true. I've always needed time to center myself, relax and generally just experience some down time. I translate this need into a busy life in many ways. Oftentimes, it can be eschewing headphones while walking and just focusing on the walk itself; taking time to run in Central Park or along the West Side Highway; reading a book. And with freelancing and cooking, there's always something to do, all of which usually needs to happen during 'alone time': a new bread recipe to try, recipes to test, cookies to bake, catering or dinner menus to plan, catering budgets to create, e-mails to send, blog posts to write.
But the difference between working in an office and working in a kitchen or at home is vast. Now, I have time to workout in the mornings and time to plan my meals more carefully. I can take 15 minutes to walk to the grocery store for an ingredient, if I need to. Despite the pleasure of pursuing a dreamt-about career, there are some challenges involved. There are some days where I feel almost breathless and I'm out and about in the city running errands, meeting people, making appointments - trying to make connections. It just doesn't feel enough. Every day is different, for better or for worse, and a lack of routine can be both stimulating and difficult.
I've realized that I'm happiest when my days are a blend of a few things. Maybe teaching a class in the morning and time at a coffee shop with my computer in the afternoon. Or cooking in the afternoon, and a morning at home. I like to be busy but I also like to feel centered and calm, cool and professional. And sometimes, I like to put on something other than a clean chef's jacket and Converse sneakers or clogs. When I put on a blazer or dress, I feel as if I'm wearing someone else's clothing or playing dress up. Outfits that used to be in serious rotation when I worked full-time. Now it's fun again to dress up!
I remember reading a culinary test somewhere. If someone asked you to cook for 20 people tomorrow night, unpaid, what would you say? YES - when, where?! Having 'yes' pop immediately into my head made me smile - YES!
Being able to do what you love is a gift. This doesn't always apply to a career. It can be making time to exercise, eat well, see friends, limit stress... And more often than not, the cliche or new age truism rings true: you are responsible for living the life you want to live. Life doesn't just happen to you. I'm the happiest and healthiest I've probably been in my adult life! I feel very grateful.
And in the spirit of the holiday season, I wish all of you happiness as well - what are you wishing for? What's your Saint Phanourios's cake?
See that photo up top? That's definitely an example of a perk - and my personal Saint Phanourios's cake.