Sunday, December 30, 2007

French Laundry at Home: The Year in Review

Ah, the end of one year and the beginning of a new. For some, myself included, the new year comes in September -- when the sloth of summer takes a sharp turn into crisper weather and busy schedules, and memories of the smell of pencil lead and paper cuts from a just-opened packet of notebook paper.

However, I also celebrate the new year just like everyone else does -- when December turns into January, and you screw up the first 10 or 15 checks you write by filling in the wrong year on the dateline. At this time of year, the one thing it seems like a lot of my friends are talking about are their New Year's resolutions. In fact, I bet some of you are thinking, "Gee, I don't know what New Year's resolutions I should make this year. Let's see what Carol has up HER sleeve!" (and seriously, if any of you actually DID think that, you need to have a drink; I mean it)

Cream of Walnut Soup, February 25, 2007

The thing is, if you're coming here for answers, you're S.O.L. I don't make New Year's resolutions. What I do instead at this time of year is spend a little time thinking about what I've liked about the past 12 months or so, as well as what I might want to do in the coming year. I spend an afternoon just like I did today going through old email, reading through my datebook, perusing pages of some of my journals, and thinking about what I've accomplished or what made me happy.

Carnaroli Risotto, March 10, 2007

Last year at this time, I looked back on 2006 and my first reaction was that I thought the year was in the shitter. My grandmother died, I had a few health problems (none of them serious, just mostly annoying), went through a crappy breakup, saw some legislation my colleagues and I worked hard on get vetoed by the President, and missed out on an opportunity to move to New York. As soon as I finished making that mental list, I actually sat back and thought, "WAITAMINUTE! Despite a few disappointments here and there, on the whole 2006 was actually a pretty good year." I spent time with great friends and loved ones, signed on lots of new clients, built up a healthy bank account, made some much-needed cosmetic changes to my home, set aside time to write and read, traveled, and experienced countless other things I know I sometimes take for granted and shouldn't.

So, while I knew deep down inside that 2006 was actually a pretty great year, I couldn't get past this noodgey feeling that something was just off. And then I realized what it was: I was bored.

It's no good when I'm bored. Not at all. I get cranky and annoying. More so than usual, I should clarify. And, I just kind of coast and then annoy myself in ADDITION to annoying others. So, yeah; boredom, not so good.

Because I love making lists more than you'll ever know, I made a list last year of anti-boredom things I thought I should do in 2007 -- house renovations, business expansion, travel, shampoo purchases, etc. -- but as I was writing it, nothing was really jumping out at me. Sure, they were all things I could do, but somehow, I knew I'd still be bored.

Salad of Haricots Verts, March 18, 2007

So, instead of a big to-do list of crap I knew would deliver yet another boring year, I decided to go a different route and figure out an overarching strategy for the year. Yes, people, I gave 2007 a theme. Because if you didn't already know I was a huge nerd, you sure do now.

Instead of resolutions or a list of specific goals for that year, giving a year a theme is something that I've done off and on throughout my adult life -- sometimes without even knowing I was doing so. For example, 1999 was The Year I'm Not Learning Anything, and I dove headfirst (more than I usually do) into trashy magazines and bad television with no apologies. When not at work, I really tried hard to let my brain go to mush as often as possible, and it was great. 2001 was the year I started my own company, so I really didn't have a theme other than Let's Not Have 2001 Be the Year I Declare Bankruptcy Because That Would Totally Suck. 2002's theme was I Made It Through The First Year of Business So Let's See If We Can Keep This Gravy Train Moving Along Because Going Bankrupt Now Would Be Embarrassing and Also Suck. 2005 was The Year I Will Not Put Up With Bullshit From People (an incredibly liberating year, as I'm sure you can imagine). 2006 didn't really have a theme, which ipso facto, The Year I Was So Bored And Thus Annoying and Cranky That I Can't Believe Someone Didn't Punch Me in the Throat Because, MAN.

Chicken Stack-Ups (hee!), April 1, 2007

I decided that if I was really going to do this theme thing for 2007 (again, NERD), I needed to pull a little mental jujitsu on myself and declare 2007 as The Year of Yes. Now, that didn't mean that I was going to say "yes" to everything that came my way, because, hello, basket case. I'm very good at saying no, and turning down stuff that I think will infringe upon the very little amount of personal life a self-employed person tends to have. But I needed something that would stave off another year of impending boredom, so I was willing to try anything. I didn't have specific criteria for The Year of Yes, but my thinking went a little something like this: If I've never done it before, or I'm reluctant to try it, I'd say "yes." (get your minds out of the gutter, you sick, sick people) If something seemed the least bit daunting or made me wrinkle my nose or clench my shoulders in trepidation, I was going to say "yes." If something seemed preposterous and could very likely crash and burn in a heap of firey failure, I'd say "yes." I decided that for me the only way to not be bored was to leap before I looked and enjoy the ride. The goal wasn't to say "yes" to everything or to the things I would ordinarily say "no" to. It was to say "yes" to the things I would have ordinarily said, "Are you f-ing kidding me?!?!?!?" to.

The first thing I said yes to was on January 3rd, 2007 when a friend asked me to teach public relations writing in the Masters program at Johns Hopkins University. Me? A teacher? A professor? I don't even HAVE a graduate degree, and I was pretty sure I'd suck at teaching other people what I do for a living. But, I agreed to do it, and you know what? It was a TON of work but I loved it, and I found out I'm actually pretty good at it. I loved it so much that I followed her to Georgetown and now I teach part-time in the Masters program there. My students have been amazing, and I learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me.

Cherries, July 2, 2007

Another thing I said "yes" to was hosting a radio show. I talk to the media all the time for my job; and, I have hosted segments and done panel discussions on-air here in the DC market, but I've never hosted my own show. So, when the host of a program I was a panelist on left the program and they asked me to take over, I said "yes" and it's been fantastic. The show runs on the eight Clear Channel-owned radio stations here in the DC market every Sunday morning, and I love every minute of it. Even the hate mail from listeners who think we're full of crap (which sometimes we totally are).

Something else I said "yes" to this year were two enormous and daunting client projects that a year ago I would've turned away without even considering. One involved a high-profile international celebrity, and the other one involved a government program for people with disabilities. Both projects took me out of my professional comfort zone and have led to other things in the pipeline for 2008. I've grown so much both personally and professionally as a result of working on these two projects, and met some amazing people in the process. And, to be totally selfish, my bank account ain't suffering, either.

Heirloom Tomatoes, August 9, 2007

But the one thing I decided to do in 2007, this Year of Yes, that has taken on a life of its own and in fact has changed me the most, is this very blog. I started it because one morning I had the TV on in the background as I was cleaning the house, and got really angry that people who were watching a particular program on a particular cable network were expected to believe that dumping some vodka and a taco seasoning packet on a store-bought rotisserie chicken was a great idea for dinner. I was ranting inside my head composing a hateful letter to that cable channel's programmming VP just as I was dusting my bookshelves, and there it was: The French Laundry Cookbook -- a book I often thought deserved white-glove treatment and should be viewed only under glass because it is so lovely and clean and full of delicious, crisp writing and storytelling... and a book I admire and respect for its dedication to the pursuit of perfection.

I pulled the book off the shelf, turned off the TV, plunked down on the sofa, pulled a heavy wool blanket over my lap, and started gingerly turning the pages once again, as I had done at least once every month for YEARS. But this time, it felt different. As most people who know me in real life will attest, I, too, am a bit obsessed with the pursuit of perfection. I don't like to be wrong about anything, and I can't stand it when I don't live or work up to my own expectations or standard of perfection. So, when I read through The French Laundry Cookbook in the past, I saw it as something that would give me more than 100 ways to screw up, not live up to my own standard of perfection, and be a big, fat failure.

But opening The French Laundry Cookbook that day felt different from all the other days I'd looked at it before. I actually felt as though I might be able to pull off one or two of the dishes. As I continued looking through it, I flipped the pages faster and faster, realizing that everything about the dishes appealed to my sense of order, time management, discipline, and list-making obsession. And, something just clicked.

I decided right then and there that there was no point to my anger at the cable channel I'd been pissed off about because its programming wasn't going to change, nor was it going away. So, instead of trying to find a way to prove them wrong (because I'm not really a stubborn 5-year old although I sometimes play one on TV), I decided instead to prove to myself that I could cook every dish in the heavy, gorgeous, pristine book that was sitting in my lap. And, as I reached to open the drawer in the coffee table to get a pad of paper and a pen to make a grocery list, it hit me -- maybe I should do a blog about cooking every dish in this cookbook. I have to say, even though I'd set up blogs for clients and other people, I wasn't necessarily a big fan of blogging. So, I asked myself, "Who the hell would read a blog about me cooking every recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook?" I counted: My mom, my dad, eight or nine friends who liked food, and maybe a cousin or two. Were a dozen readers worth it? At that point, I felt the shoulder shrug and wrinkled nose thing going on that told me I was shirking it for some reason, so I said (out loud, strangely enough), "Fine. I'll do it." I just figured I'd give it a go and see what happened. If it sucked, it sucked, and I'd just delete it after a few posts and pretend like nothing happened.

I turned to page 35 of the book -- Gazpacho -- wrote down the ingredients, drove to Whole Foods, bought everything I needed, and got started that afternoon.

Gazpacho, January 15, 2007

As soon as I'd done the first dish, I was hooked. I was already a pretty good cook, if I do say so myself, but this gazpacho was better than any I'd ever made before. And, not only did the gazpacho taste amazing, the whole process of planning and shopping for it, as well as making it, was energizing. Sharing it with my friends and neighbors, and anxiously awaiting their response, was nerve-wracking and powerful all at the same time. I was slightly giddy as my guests left and I started the dishwasher.

I went upstairs to my little home office, loaded the photos onto my laptop, and opened a Blogger account. When I started to type my first post, I felt a little guarded, like I was putting myself out there more than I was comfortable with. I proofed and spell-checked the post, and as soon as I clicked the "Publish" button on that first entry, I knew I was in for a wild ride. But I didn't know then what I know now -- that the book and this blog would unlock something in me I still can't quite define.

It may sound odd coming from someone as cynical and snarky as I am, but doing this blog and cooking this food has changed my life. Okay, maybe "changed my life" is too much. It's really more that it's made me more comfortable and happy in a life I already loved. I've fallen in love with my kitchen again (I was in a long-held "hate" stage in my love-hate relationship with that room), and reclaimed a part of my brain I'd long since ignored. I've been able to write about something I love. I've been able to hear from so many of you about what you love about cooking and food. I've eaten amazing food in my kitchen, as well as others. I've become a better cook because I'm more open to taking risks in the kitchen. I've received the most kind and generous advice and counsel from some of the best in the business. I've received accolades I never thought possible. I've met one of my literary heroes.

But above all, and perhaps MOST important -- I wasn't bored for one single day of the year because I was doing something that fed me in a way I didn't know I needed. And, you all are a big part of that -- so, THANK YOU. I'm grateful that you come here to see what I'm up to, and I love your comments and email, so keep 'em comin'. I'll need it when in a month or two I have to slice the skin off a baby cow's tongue and try really, really hard not to vomit. Repeatedly. For days. Because, ack.

So, what's my theme for 2008? No clue. But I hope you'll stick around to find out. In the meantime, I'm raising a glass of wine here at my desk to clink with yours in wishing you a happy, healthy 2008.

Happy new year, everyone!

Read my previous post: Roquefort Trifle with French Butter Pear Relish


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your "year of Yes!" I am so happy that you dusted off your copy of TFL and tried that gazpacho.

I've decided on making one or two dishes a month in 2008. It's what I can commit to now, but maybe I'll find the same zeal that you did. I've got a few friends from around the country along for the journey, and we are going to make them together, in no small part due to you. Keep it coming!

Rachel Luxemburg said...

Here's to YOU, Carol. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about that nagging feeling of boredom. What a fantastic solution you came up with! And even better, you took us along for the ride with you.

Thanks so much for all that you do. You rock.

M said...

This was my favorite post I've read on this site. I loved getting an inside glimpse at other parts of your life besides cooking and also being reminded that we all have fears and hesitations but the only way to succeed and grow is to take risks and try. Happy new year!

Karen said...

Happy New Year to you, too, Diner Girl--and keep on fighting the good fight against anything remotely "semi-homemade" [shudder]....!

Anne said...

Happy new year to you, and thank you so much for having this great blog. I love reading it - it's really inspiring, and your writing is so excellent! Love!

redneck muppet said...

As a longtime foodie who finally discovered internet food beyond FNTV this year, it's been a treat to read. Thanks for the recipes that stretch beyond tuesday dinner casserole.

Anonymous said...

I was trying to think of what my favorite post was and couldn't come up with it because all of them were so enjoyable. Thanks for the fun!

Oh, and people, this is the last day to donate to Share our Strength...come on now....

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

gelukkig nieuwjaar! please keep on cooking books.


Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Carol. Very interesting to read your insights about how you've moved from year to year. And, of course, I'm glad your journey led you to the FLAH path. I look forward to reading more of your adventures while cooking the book.

The other parts of your life sounds equally exciting. It's awesome that it's your own hard work and decision to accept challenges that have made it so. I wish you continued success both professionaly and personally. Have a great 2008!

JennB said...

Happy New Year to you!

And, by the way, I have MAJOR new respect for you because I got TFL for Christmas and holy damn, how do you heft that thing in the kitchen, let alone cook with it?

You're a super hero, lady!
Thanks for doing what you do - it doesn't go unnoticed.


Anonymous said...

It Was interesting to read about how you move from year to year. Very helpful too. I am always so amazed at how reading another's story can be so inspiring. Thank you for sharing so generously. I really enjoy your blog!

Unknown said...

I've basically spent the past three days looking thru the blog as I'm prepping to do butter-poached lobster and the "ceasar salad" for dinner tonight, and I cannot thank you enough for what you have done to make it all less scary and intimidating and make me at least 90% confident we won't be calling the pizza dude for dinner tonight. While the cookbook can be big and intimidating, you've done wonders on showing how approachable it can be and there aren't excuses for vodka and taco seasoning packets as valid food.

Time to get the parm crisps out of the oven....

Dolores said...

Happy New Year Carol, and thank you. I don't comment often, but when one of your posts shows up in my feed reader, I smile and look forward to an adventure story well-told.

You have a wonderful way with words... and your journey's given me the inspiration and the courage to pull out my copy of TFL and attempt a few of its contents in the coming year.

queenofsheba said...

Happy New Year!

It's amazing how the internet makes friends out of strangers, further proof that small actions you make can have effects on a person miles away that you have never met. What a wonderful butterfly your blog is.

Raising a toast to you tonight, now hurry up and get back in the kitchen! :)

Unknown said...

I'm one of the many who continue to enjoy your blog. But I am curious: just what does your French Laundry Cookbook look like NOW? (If it were me it'd be totally food stained with duct tape keeping the spine together).

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year! Just wanted to add my voice to the throngs.

Anonymous said...

Listen here, girlie: I think you're the shit. This blog is one of the best things I've read in ages. I can't wait to keep reading next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that. It's so clear from your writing that you love what you do and that you're having a great time doing this, as well as everything else in your life. We should all be so lucky, eh? Happy new year from a longtime lurker who decided it was time to tell you how much I love your writing.

Shea said...

Hi Carol. I just found your blog a few days ago. It's wonderful. And, weirdly enough, just before reading your post today, I created my own post about the 2008. I called it, "The Year of Yes."

Being a marcom/PR person (like yourself, it seems), however, I hesitated to go into any detail about what that term meant to me. But, now I don't have to. You did a great job of it. Thank you.

I'm eager to dig back through your archives to see how your project's been going. What fun!

And thanks for the inspiration on the writing & sharing of self. Seriously. My career means I monitor my voice and words in every way, shape and form. It's cool to see you strike a balance, and share your life and humor, too.

Cool, you. Congrats.

Cerebrum said...

Somebody already said it, but I'm going to say it again, 'cause it's so true. You rock, Girl. In oh so many ways. Love keeping up with your adventures here, and I hope it will never stop. Happy New Year!

Hillary said...

Happy New Year! I loved this post. Thanks for sharing more of your life beyond the peaks and valleys of TFLC. You had a great idea for a project, and naturally you write well, but it's your personality, honesty, and *fearlessness* (wow do I envy that) that's made this blog so special.

I really identified with what you said about the "boredom problem." I think we have solved that for 2008 as we have bought our first house...a great space, but man does it need a ton of work. So yeah, the (optimistic) theme for 2008 will be "The Year I Renovated a Victorian Home (Without Going Bankrupt)." Once our kitchen is remodeled (!) I am hoping to dive into Ruhlman's "Elements," "Charcuterie," and make use of my new KA meat grinder and sausage-stuffer.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to enjoy cooking vicariously through your kitchen adventures...cheers!

Victoria said...

And, Carol, I raise a glass to you. Thanks for so much pleasure getting to know you through your blog. I still split my sides every time I think of Celine, Celine, and Celine. Happy New Year!

Mary Coleman said...

Happy Happy New Year to you, Carol. Love your blog and your attitude towards life!

Anonymous said...

Carol, I found your blog sometime this year and have thoroughly enjoyed it. As a professional pastry chef, I have known some of the French Laundry chefs and made many of these recipes myself. It's very enjoyable reading about your struggles and triumphs with the ingredients.

Keep cooking and we'll keep reading.

cheers, Nan

Unknown said...

Loved this entry. I also hope that when the day comes that you finish this cookbook, you'll do the same with another one, because I would miss your entries. I am not a great cook but I have Michel Richard's beautiful cookbook and it intimidates the hell out of me. So it's fun reading along with someone who's tackling stuff I'm too scared to make. Heh.

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year Carol,

Thank you for the gift of this blog. I hope 2008 is the year TFL says YES to your birthday reservation.

Please know we will be with you when you deal with that baby cow's tongue - Really.

Doesn't it make you feel great that Snads would never understand you. Yeah, thought it would.

Unknown said...

I came upon this blog and am so happy I did.

I have The French Laundry Cookbook..and yes, I love it. The only thing I've made from it was the chicken stock.

You have inspired me. I have Bouchon as well, and have made some stuff from that one. I shall get off my ass and try a few.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap, Sandra Lee actually inspired something other than cringing and winging? Yay! I knew she couldn't be alllll evil ;-)
You've inspired me to start cooking from my Eric Ripert/Ruhlman cookbook by writing this blog, and you're right, the recipes aren't that bad, they're just futzy, but the results? totally worth it!
I can't wait to see what you've got in store for us in 08 Carol. Thanks for a great year :-)

Linda said...

Just found your blog when I read about your blog award. I loved the Julia/Julie blog some time ago and I've enjoyed what I've found on yours as well. I love reading about food and cooking.I've admired the French Laundry cookbook from afar but never purchased it so this is a great way to explore it. Now I have to go back and start at the beginning and see what I have missed. I picked one word to focus on this year-spirit-which can mean all sorts of things. I am looking forward to see what it brings into my life.

Elizabeth said...

Great post. I have really enjoyed reading your blog over the past few months and can't wait to see what the French Laundry Cookbook has in store for '08.

shuna fish lydon said...

Happy New Year, Carol.

Ps. hooray for nudging!

mary grimm said...

I love your idea of a theme year!
Also very glad you got your year of yes brainstorm.
Happy 2008!

iamchanelle said...

i am a new reader here, so i have much catching up to do - but i know i stumbled upon a GEM when i found your blog. thank you for taking the time to share such an inspiring and personal post, and i wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors this coming year, whatever theme you choose.
all the best!

Jennifer said...

Congrats. I have thoroughly enjoyed your blog for some time but never commented. I have only made 1 recipe from FL (strawberry shortcake--I can't recall if you've made it yet). Keep on truckin'. You inspire me to try harder in the kitchen.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is fascinating, entertaining, and educational. I enjoy it very much - thanks!

Jennifer said...

Bravo and Bonne Année!
Looking forward to the theme of 2008. It won't be boring, that's for sure!

michael, claudia and sierra said...

just loved reading this. you're so my kinda gal. happy new year my friend and here's to a great '08.

Carol Blymire said...

Youz guyz are makin' me all verklempt. :)

Thank you.

amber said...

i was wondering what made you start this blog. :) the more i read, the more excited i am about this project and trying to replicate a small part of it in my own kitchen. thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Everything okay? No posts in a month - I'm going into withdrawal!