Broccoli cheddar and a book for the soul

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There’s nothing like treating yourself to lunch.

I stopped for a while, mostly when I went full-force on Weight Watchers and knew that dining out each day was a surefire way to go over my daily points allowance. Lunches out went from commonplace status to special treat — and that wasn’t a bad thing! Not for my wallet, my waistline, my psyche.

When I stopped worrying about lunches every day, I became more productive at work and in my personal life. The time I once used to read over soup at Panera became a chance to run errands, get gas, swing by the grocery store for random items. All those little, annoying tasks we must fit in somewhere.

But I missed those relaxing breaks. A chance to step away from the desk and into the sunshine; an opportunity to reunite with characters, eat a hot meal and gather my thoughts. I don’t mind eating alone . . . it’s one of my favorite things to do, actually. And where I tend to go on my breaks, I’m just one of many sitting solo.

I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time on Stephanie Perkins’ Isla and the Happily Ever After, a library book I’ve already renewed and will probably have to check out for a third time to make it through. It’s my “lunch read,” and I usually start debating where to take it that day by late morning.

Though I’m still following the basic tenets of Weight Watchers, I have eased up. I have not been tracking, but I feel okay about that. I’ve given myself permission to relax my strict eating — especially as dealing with recent health issues have meant I’m eating only what I can stomach and no more, no less. If that’s just a slice of bread? So be it. I’m not so far down the rabbit hole I can’t recognize that, first and foremost, I need to take care of myself.

Body and mind.

And that’s where the lunches can come in. As work and daily life can get stressful, I’ve returned to treating myself to meals out a few times a week — when I feel the pull to get up and out, soaking up the colors of fall and enjoying the last few warm days before the cold comes bustling in. Sometimes I meet my dad or my sister, but I often head out alone. Lately, with Isla.

And it’s good. Good for the soul.

Almost as good as Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup, you know.


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Eating alone

I remember the first time I took myself out to lunch. Not the fast-food variety, either; that was old hat, routine. A real, honest-to-goodness sit-down meal in a restaurant where a hostess greeted me and I had to look up, shyly, and say, “Just one.”

I didn’t have a book or magazine with me (a rookie mistake) — just a bowl of pasta and my cell phone, which I used to scribble notes to friends. I was a freshman in college and preparing for a night shift at work. I needed a heavy meal to make it through the evening, I decided, and stepping into this new sense of independence was like donning a foreign skin — uncomfortable and itchy and strange. I was 18 and had never dined alone. I hurried through the meal, paid my bill and left. Though proud of myself, it was vaguely unsettling.

Now I don’t mind eating alone. My lunch break is a refuge from an otherwise busy day at the newspaper where I sit writing and answering emails, lost in a paper world and far from my own thoughts. I never leave home without a book — ever — and am often fondly teased for always having a paperback nearby. Though it’s costly and time-consuming, I go out to lunch every day. The usual haunts near my office become a place in which I’m lost to the world, picking at a salad or biting into a crisp sandwich.

I don’t mind eating with others, of course, and rarely turn down a lunch date. On the Fridays my boyfriend isn’t working, Spencer meets me in town to catch up and make eyes across a table. My sister and dad pop out to meet me once or twice a week. And my mother often calls to meet on Fridays, after she’s run errands and is looking for a buddy.

But the other days — most days? I watch the clock and anticipate where to run, never minding the fact that I walk in alone, order alone, eat alone. Characters in novels keep me company, and I eagerly anticipate returning to a world that is not my own. I don’t feel lonely . . . most of the time.

I live a quiet life, maybe a solitary life. And I often think about that college freshman, that girl afraid of looking out-of-place, and I think about how I’ve changed and grown and learned — and of the poets and stories and books that have defined me. And I think of Li-Young Lee — my favorite poet — and this poem. Because I love it, and because it is true.


Eating Alone
By Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

You may never see me reading . . .

“How do you read so many books?” my boyfriend asked me recently. “You know, I never see you reading.”

I laughed initially, thinking about how that could be possible. I never leave home without a book, tucking my latest read into my purse or gym bag. Novels litter my trunk and the backseat of my car; they’re stacked precariously in piles around my office, taking up residence alongside my file folders and old newspapers. My bedroom boasts my white bookcase stuffed to the gills with books, now double-stacked and wedged into any available space.

My books are everywhere. And I’m always reading.

But Spencer is right. When together, we’re off taking photos, watching movies or playing Tetris. We’re baking or chatting or web surfing. I don’t read in front of him because, in my mind, that’s a solitary activity — something I do on my own. To unwind. And since Spencer prefers to read things like magazines and how-to manuals, if at all, it’s not something we can do together.

Most of my reading time comes late at night. My dad hung a little shelf above my headboard when I was little and, um? Best shelf ever. I’ve had a bright bedside lamp perched there for more than a decade (never the same one, unfortunately; only Target’s finest $8 desk lamps for me). At this point, I’m pretty sure it would be biologically impossible for me to fall asleep without a book in my hand. More often than not, I wake up in the morning to find my current read splayed on the floor with a bookmark discarded near by. I won’t even remember falling asleep.

When I’m too tired to make much progress in a book before I shut my little eyes, though, I depend greatly upon my lunch hours to get some serious reading done. I’m not averse to eating alone; in fact, I rather enjoy it. My local haunts include Panera, Einstein Bagels and Noodles & Company, my personal favorite, and I order my lunch, grab a small table and sit quietly with my paperbacks. It doesn’t take me long to rejoin the characters I’ve only recently left, and restaurant noise doesn’t bother me. I’m pretty good at tuning things out. On any given afternoon, I can cover 50-60 pages while downing some pasta or snacking on a sandwich.



Of course, sometimes I meet friends or family for lunch. Or I have errands to run. Or I’m too busy at work to take a break at all, in which case . . . well, no reading for me.

And that’s when I break out the big guns.

I read at home.

Sometimes I feel like I have wheels on my feet. Flitting from place to place, stop to stop; everything in motion, blurring and incandescent. It’s actually rare for me to sit on the couch for a prolonged period of time, and when I do? It’s because I’ve scheduled in TV watching time, especially on Thursdays. Who can beat that line up?! “The Office,” “Parks & Rec,” “30 Rock,” “The Big Bang Theory” . . . yeah, I’m all over that mess.

But when I force myself to sit still in the evenings, I can often devour a book in a few hours. Just make sure I have a mug of chai tea for company.

So Spencer may never see me reading . . . but I’m reading all the time. I can say, very honestly, that not a single day goes by without me flipping quite a few pages. It’s my passion, obsession, devotion; it’s my life. A big part of my life.

And so is he. And my family. And work. And my writing. So I twist and turn and make everything fit.

A bucket of ranch dressing

yum

yum

More food blogging: I went to IHOP with my family a few weeks ago and, wanting to try and pretend like I don’t mind eating “healthy,” I ordered a chicken salad. What I actually got was the monstrosity above — the largest, gooiest salad you’ve ever seen. With about a bucket of ranch dressing (on the side, yes, but still a bucket.) I was stunned — nay, horrified — when our server plopped it down in front of me. My grandmother told me she’d never seen anything like it in her life. My cousin encouraged me to take a photo. And yes, I did. I don’t leave home without my digital camera.

I guess I could take a pompous opportunity to lament the food portions available in the U.S., taking a moment to discuss my experiences “abroad” and how different the foods and sizes of meals are in England and Italy. You’d probably roll your eyes as I discussed the small meat platters set before us in Rome, filled only with thinly sliced prosciutto and olives. And the side orders of pasta that I would consume as a mid-afternoon snack here at home, instead of as my full-blown dinner in Florence.

Instead, I will tell you this: It was a gigantic salad, and it was gigantically delicious. I didn’t finish it all, but that’s what great about ordering out in America — we have to-go boxes. Larger portions = larger happiness. Right? Right?

And yes, I did smear all of that dressing on myself. My dad will be ashamed of me!

Get the door, it’s — an oven-baked sandwich?

Food drama is the topic of many discussions around my office (see: my post on pot lucks). Everyone wants to know who’s eating what, where they got it from, when and where they’re taking their lunch breaks, who’s getting carry-out today? We have a significant folder and roster of designated, appropriate places we like to order from and, though I often go out and grab lunch with the BF or a friend, I like to stay in the loop of the new hot, hip lunch items around here.

So, in keeping with my recent post on a favorite beverage, I had quite the new experience today: the Domino’s Oven-Baked Sandwich. Two of my coworkers partook in the apparent deliciousness of said sandwiches last week, but I missed out on the heavenly experience the first time. I wasn’t about to let that happen again.

Kelly laid out my options: Italian, chicken parmesan, chicken bacon ranch, Philly cheese steak. All equally delicious. As I’d actually already had lunch today, I was trying to figure out which one will “keep” the best — I’m taking it with me to my part-time job tonight. I voted Italian.

And let me say — this was one great sub! Warm, full of delicious ingredients, appropriately toasted. Kelly and Leslie were singing the praises of the oven-toasted sub, so I figured they had to be serious. We’re all so enthused about them that I think Domino’s should actually give us all a kick-back for our rampant office endorsements. And, apparently, my awesome blog endorsement.

Toast on, Domino’s. Toast on.