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Thursday, September 09, 2010

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Affording Artichokes


One day, when Patrick and I had just moved into our new apartment, he mentioned to his mother that I had introduced him to steamed artichokes the night before.

"You can't afford artichokes!" she retorted.

The memory of it still gives us a chuckle. Millie took a lot of pride in being ordinary and simple, though she was anything but. Artichokes, to her mind, were exotic, complicated, and probably costly. Lobsters in vegetable form.

"We can't afford artichokes!" has become our shorthand for anything that seems extravagant, but isn't really. Like coffee filters. We have a re-useable mesh filter that brews a rather silty cup of coffee, and for some reason, I am resistant to spending a dollar or two on the paper kind. Patrick lobbies for them with loud sighs.

"I hope someday we are successful enough to afford a new coffee filter every day," he says, as he rinses out the mesh basket.

"We can't afford artichokes!" I say. On a Christmas grocery spree, a pack of paper filters found its way into my basket.

"Merry Christmas!" I said, when he opened the cupboard and found them.

"Whoa," he said, delighted. "Let's not get crazy."

He has his arbitrary artichokes too. I think we all must, even the billionaires.

Little Rock was rather late to the party, but last year, a fancy cupcake shop opened on a street corner near us. Now, I can turn two dozen very fancy looking cupcakes out of my kitchen in less than an hour, each with a pudgy swirl of real buttercream so rich that nobody notices or cares that the cake itself is from a mix. Cupcakes aren't about the cake, as anyone who's ever ordered a frosting shot will admit freely. So it's hard for me to justify spending three dollars on one, no matter how lovely they look, lined up in their pleated paper skirts in the display case, like convent school girls with elaborate hairdos. You see cupcakes. I see artichokes.

But the other day, I walked past the shop on an errand, and thought how much my boys would love the sunlit window counter with the tall stools, the weighty deliberation over icing and cake combinations, the novelty of a dessert that comes with no vegetable strings attached. Cupcakes aren't about the cake, and good eating isn't just about food. It's about the experience.

But still, three dollars a piece...I could whip up a batch of cupcakes at home before they got out of school. They could have two each, and there would be plenty leftover for lunchboxes. I considered the latte I was holding in my hand. It costs three dollars, and I manage to have one several times a week, no matter what shape our budget is in. The latte should be an artichoke, but it's not, because when I have one in my hand, I feel like a VIP, and that things are looking up; that life itself is a delicious treat. And though it makes me a puppet of marketing, and someone in Starbucks HQ is pulling the strings, I don't care, because I'm the one who gets to do the happy dance.

I picked up the boys from school, and told them I was taking them for a special treat. "No reason," I told them, when they incredulously asked why. "So you'll feel like you can afford artichokes," I could have said, but taking them out for dessert before supper was confusing enough.

"Wow," they said, when we entered the shop. "Can we sit in the window?"

"Of course."

Engagement rings have been chosen with greater speed and less care than the three cupcakes that were selected from the case. Each boy went with something different, according to his nature: a peanut butter frosted chocolate cake for my well-rounded eldest child, a vanilla frosted chocolate cake with chocolate sprinkles for my straightforward and exuberant youngest child, and a chocolate frosted chocolate cake with a dark chocolate square for my mysterious and deep middle child.

"Anything for Mom?" the counter clerk asked.

I told him no thanks. I had my latte. This indulgence was vicarious. I sat with my kids at the window counter, and watched them savor their cupcakes with a pure focus that neither of us would have at home in the midst of unpacking backpacks, clamoring for video games, and hurrying onto seconds.

“Thanks, Mom!” my firstborn said as we walked back to the van.

“My pleasure,” I said. My treat.



Blogger Eleanor said...

I love everything about this post. In my family, it's raspberries that symbolize something, but I won't say what, because it is absolutely going to make it into a book someday.

But my favorite part is the cupcakes that symbolize the birth order. Glorious!

May there always be enough money for artichokes.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Hi Kyran -- I've been reading awhile & haven't commented, but this post drew me out. I love it. My mom was a we-can't-afford-artichokes person, but every once in awhile she'd give my sisters and me something special, just exactly the way you did with your children. I think I remember every single incidence.

In our household, artichokes are artichokes, and a latte is locally-made crusty bread with creamy, soft cheese. That's ridiculous, because artichokes are like $2 each and both time-consuming to eat and filling, whereas bread alone is $4 and half of it ends up stale --- but there you have it!

2:26 PM  
Blogger SUEB0B said...

Your kids will remember that forever. I remember the rare occasions when Mom would let us get a big poofy jelly donut from the Helm's bakery delivery truck (yes, they delivered! Way out in the country!). It was so incredibly fun.

My artichoke now is probably a sunset drink with good friends at a bar with an ocean view. I do it maybe once every six months and it feels luscious every time.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Mariellen said...

Good call! And I am certain also like Jennifer above that your kids will recall 'that time we went for cupcakes' for a long time.

6:23 PM  
Blogger katandkarl said...

Love it.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Pam said...

Another beautiful piece of writing - thanks, Kyran. Aren't we lucky that we can be so easily and cheaply pleased? I really mean that: I don't buy lottery tickets because if I won big, my whole approach to life would be meaningless, and even who I am would be threatened.

Also, I begrudge the ticket price.

2:06 AM  
Blogger RW said...

Those cupcakes will be elevated to the supreme place in their memories.

What a gift.

8:47 AM  
Blogger The Marketing Mama said...

Love this. What a great story. :)

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love it. That was a great food experience.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Stacey said...

It's funny that you posted this on my birthday. I go to that cupcake store less and less often, but on my birthday, after a short and wonderful bike ride, I got in the car and knew where I was going to treat myself, and I got the kind your middle child had: chocolate on chocolate. It was the perfect birthday treat to enjoy alone. Sometimes you just have to live the good life!

10:37 PM  
Blogger tsudo said...

I love this post, it will serve as a reminder to do these sorts of things with my little girl.

Thanks for sharing the experience.

2:41 AM  
Blogger London City Mum said...

Absolutely lovely.

And artichokes are one of my favourite vegetables ever. A bugger to prepare, but so delicious.


6:53 AM  
Blogger misssy m said...

It's like when open any fizzy wine- it's got to be FOR something.

Great post (just found you via Readily a Parent)

9:19 AM  
Blogger Widge said...

I love this post. I totally GET the artichoke thing...and the latte thing too ;)

I have just found your blog. :)

5:56 AM  
Blogger starrynightimpressions said...

Ohhhh Kyran, you know how to make a girl cry, lol.
So precious of a memory for all of you, so simple, so joyful and forever etched in your minds eye.

4:15 PM  

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