Just a thought.

Once, a friend returned from a trip to Italy and brought me a pencil. She pulled it out of the bag, and handed it to me, unwrapped.

“It’s just a thought,” she said, as I turned it over in my hand. It was a singular pencil, made of wood and wrapped in elegantly patterned turquoise, white and black Florentine paper. I brought it home and put it on my desk.

Tomato can full of colored pencils

Twenty five years later it’s still there, in a San Marzano tomato can that does double duty as a colored pencil holder. And every day in the ensuing years, each time I look at that pencil, I smile. I am reminded that someone thought of me, however briefly, however far away, and marked that “thought” with a token.

I’m big on “thoughts.” Until my friend used that particular word, I really didn’t have a name for the impulse, the effort, or the act of thinking of someone else while I went about the business of my life. Now I do, and I try, as often as I can, to mark that thought in a meaningful way.

Take it from me. We’ve all gotten into the very bad habit of letting popular culture dictate our enactment of “having a thought” for us. We act on birthdays, Christmas, weddings, graduations, all of the usual experiences that have given birth to clichéd Hallmark moments. Me, I’m for making my own moments. And having my own thoughts. And marking them as I choose to. Hallmark and the calendar be damned.

Since the “pencil” moment, I’ve tried to mark the occasions when I’m thinking of someone. One year, I made challah bread (yes, challah bread) for Thanksgiving. I made a few extra loaves and delivered them to friends on the day before with unpasteurized honey and salted butter. Another, I collected handfuls of the fresh herbs from my garden, tied them in twine, and passed them out at yoga, to my friends who join me often on the mat.

photo copy

When my high school senior son asked three over-burdened teachers and his guidance counselor to write a last minute recommendation for him (“Yeah, sorry, it’s due Friday”) he took a page from my book. By heaping an additional recommendation upon the several hundred they were already writing, he realized they were expending extra effort on his behalf. In return, he made them cookies. Not just any cookies. Mammoth chocolate chunk cookies. It was a simple, thoughtful gesture to say, “Hey, thanks for thinking of me.”

Big cookie Thank you chocolate Chip Cookies

During the holidays, the self-consciousness that seems to overshadow these spontaneous demonstrations of affection wanes. Yesterday, the doorbell rang. To my surprise, my friend Kate’s husband, John, was behind the glass.

“Hi,” he said. “Kate sent this by for you.”

He presented me with a small bag and a card. We chatted, had a hug, and I went inside, impatient to discover what it contained. To my surprise, I found two lovely hand painted wooden Christmas ornaments. Oh, you say, that’s not a thought, that’s a holiday gift. Perhaps. But when you learn what the ornaments are, I think you’ll change your mind.

Under all that white tissue paper, a miniature plump pink prosciutto and a creamy white provolone, like the ones that hang in salumerie all over Italy, emerged. A sweet note confirmed that, it is, in fact, the thought that counts. Kate sent these special tokens to mark the first year of Morso Soggiorno, my immersive food travel business. Now, every time I look at them, I’ll think of Kate and her excitement for me. They’ll have a place of honor in my kitchen twelve months of the year.

Wooden Provolone and Prosciutto ornaments

All of this is a long-winded way of saying it’s always a good time, the right time, the best time, to let the people you care about know you care for them. Any small gesture will do. A pencil, a prosciutto, a provolone….un pensiero. A thought.

“The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.” –Thomas Jefferson.

Eat your feelings.

The college tour. Hmmmm. Is there anything better than spending a weekend away with an over-anxious teenager who’s trying to decide where to spend the next four years of his life and where you’ll spend way too much of your money?

I swore I would never do the college tour thing. It’s just one giant marketing grind, I said. They’re not going to suck me in, I said. But here we are, getting primed for touring three schools in 48 hours. We’re holed up in a sweetly appointed, centrally located one bedroom apartment in the Fruit Street section of Brooklyn. Thanks, airbnb.

Over the next two days, we’ll be guided around the schools by groups of zealous campus ambassadors. Nearly interchangeable, each and every one shares a carefully crafted personal narrative (I’m just like you!) in addition to a constant, blinding, effervescent smile that showcases identically straight, white teeth (proof positive that their parents’ investment in orthodontics is paying off handsomely). All three deliver startlingly similar proscribed messaging that goes something like this:

Of course our Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners will personally teach your incoming freshman! They live to teach!  A full 92.5% of our classes have less than 7 students. That may be true, I think snidely, but can they teach you the difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less?’ And, our campus was used to film Gossip Girl! Ho ho! Forget grammar and syntax, that clinches it for me.

There’s more…..

Did you know? We offer a loaded gym, movie theater, and bowling alley under each dorm, and a 24/7 fully-staffed dining hall! We serve vegan! We serve vegetarian! We serve Kosher! All our services are accessible through an underground network of interconnected corridors! We wouldn’t want your student to have to go outside in his PJs. Why not, I ask myself. Half the kids in my neighborhood walk around in their pajama bottoms. In all kinds of weather.

And finally, just when I thought they’d gone missing, the skinny on academics:

We believe in a classic education! We’ll read the Iliad and the Odyssey in the original Greek so your student can feel competent engaging in dinner table conversation no matter what! So, where, exactly, do they expect “my student” to be eating dinner? And when did he become “my student” and not “my son or daughter?” Like a commodity, he’s just another cog in the pricey, competitive, higher-education machine.

All this walking and gawking and overly-exuberant marketing makes me hungry. Well, it makes me a lot of things, but since this is a food blog, I’ll channel my emotional investment into food. If you’re me, eating your feelings is a good thing. Any trip, anywhere, means a food tour. Once, when our older son broke his leg and we had to cancel a ski trip, we turned a few mid-winter days in NYC into a tour of Mario Batali’s restaurants. We hit ‘em all. In my mind, a good foodie experience is the silver lining in any black cloud. The antithesis of the absurd. Even college tour tsunami-absurd. Continue reading