An Unforgettable Visit to the North Pole

Toward the end of November, my family drove to Sacramento for a long-awaited, magical journey to the North Pole on the Polar Express.

This annual Christmas season offering from the California State Railroad Museum is what memories are made of and the tickets sell out in a hot second. This year, after taking out a membership to the museum, Mateo was savvy enough to jump on-line at just the right time to secure four tickets for our family.

We arrived at the Sacramento train station in the early afternoon and after retrieving our tickets from will-call, all we had to do was look for families with pajama-clad children walking toward a classic steam train waiting expectantly on the tracks. We purchased a pair of Polar Express PJ’s for Sadie (Caleb was apparently way too cool to put on a pair), then we eagerly waited in line. Volunteers in classic railroad costume greeted and welcomed us, truly setting the tone for the fantasy journey ahead. Caleb and Sadie were all smiles and just over-the-moon when the time had come to board the train.

We quickly found our seats and then the train exited the station. On our way to the North Pole, we were greeted by a conductor who stamped our tickets, and then entertained by a hobo and a cast of other actors who reenacted scenes from the movie. Dancing up and down the aisle with hot chocolate and cookies, we eventually were offered our own individual Polar Express branded mugs with piping hot (and perfectly mediocre) hot chocolate, along with soft, fresh-baked cookies. The train rode along side the Sacramento river, making a gorgeous backdrop to this unforgettable excursion. The kiddos were in heaven and Mateo and I were feeling triumphant as parents who aim to make lasting, positive memories.

Eventually, our train arrived at its destination: the North Pole. Santa and his elves (several hot chicks in costume) were at the station outside the train, waiving at us, while packing and arranging Christmas gifts for the children of the world. Most of the kids on the train ran to the window to wave back at Santa and his crew. Once the train moved on, a very special visitor came on board and greeted each of the children – Santa himself. I was tickled by all of the thought they put into this exceptional train experience, which was bound to make perfect lifelong memories for our children.

The efforts by the volunteers dressed up in period costume, the crazy hobo who kept running up and down our car, the hot chocolate and fresh cookies, having the book read to us by a grandfatherly voice over the speaker system – all of this was just extraordinary. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m so glad we made this a part of our holiday plans this year – a wonderful way to end the year.

Happy Holidays from the Soltero Family!

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Birth Announcement

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IT’S A CHEESE BLOG!!!

For those of you who have witnessed the hijacking of my beloved blog—dedicated to raising my children to become global citizens through cooking and eating good food—with personal adventures (and misadventures) in cheese, I am pleased to inform you that my cheese ramblings now have a home of their own…

Announcing my new blog: Turophile

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a connoisseur of cheese : a cheese fancier

Please visit Turophile and if you like what you see, I would invite you to follow. You can also ‘like’ the new Turophile Facebook page. The only changes to Cooking with Caleb (and Sadie!) will be more Caleb and Sadie!

Tell a friend!

Taking the Plunge

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There is no better way to get closer to your family than by holing up in a cozy cottage down a dirt road, surrounded by pine and oak trees, bears, deer, squirrels, and a rattlesnake which we had the privilege of crossing paths with (thankfully, to no one’s dire consequence).

We just returned from our Shasta Lake vacation — our ‘last hurrah’ summer getaway.

During the day, we drove into Redding and in search of respite from the hot sun, we explored the local water park or the community pool, which cost bubkes to get in and was far more fun. The people-watching up in Redding was priceless! Still a hick town, if I may say so, I noticed one swimsuit-clad mom with a tattoo of a life-sized gun slipped into a garter belt on her leg. If only I could get away with that look!

One evening, we dined at a Benihana-style restaurant in town. Our young chef amazed and dazzled us with his knife juggling skills. Broccoli flying through the air for our mouths to receive, an onion volcano erupting on the large Japanese griddle before us, and the occasional burst of flames, which sent Sadie dropping to the floor beneath the counter top for protection. At dinner’s end, both kiddos waddled over to the waiting area and flopped down face forward on the benches, their bellies bursting at the seams.

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On our last full day in Shasta, we spontaneously rented a patio boat from one of the harbors off Highway 5. We actually had no intention of doing this when we left the house that morning, but on the drive into town, Sadie started complaining of feeling nauseous. Fearing an accident in the car, we quickly pulled off to the side of the road, just at the harbor. When all seemed well with Sadie, we proceeded down the road and found ourselves renting a boat for the half-day. This was truly the highlight of our vacation.

With Mateo and Caleb as co-captains, we motored around the lake for several hours. Caleb steered the boat for much of that time, taking great pride in his ability to keep us from crashing into large rocks or other boats. I was really proud of him. At one point, we cut the engine and I spontaneously grabbed Mateo to take a look at the majestic view from the back of the boat. On the spot, we renewed our wedding vows in the middle of Shasta Lake with Caleb and Sadie as our witnesses.

Before heading back to the harbor, I did something I’ve needed to do all my life. I was the first to fearlessly jump in to the middle of this huge lake. My family, inspired by my lunacy, quickly followed me in with life vests on. All with smiles from ear-to-ear. This plunge held real symbolic meaning for me; the time has come to get my ass off the sidelines and begin a new chapter in my life entitled “Follow Your Bliss and Do What You Love!”

This was a great escape; one that inspired a palpable internal tectonic shift and provided my family with the connection time we needed before the school year begins, and life starts pulling again from every angle.

Taking the plunge

Worry, Pain, and Pancakes

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From the moment you learn you’re pregnant, you start worrying. It doesn’t stop. You worry about the health of the fetus, the sex, the potential genetic disasters that may crop up – you just worry. Then, when you find out the sex of your baby and that he or she is perfectly healthy, you think you stop worrying then? Now, you ruminate about horrific birthmarks, nine fingers and eleven toes, and what to name this child so as not to burden it with a lifetime of teasing, stigma, or corrections (i.e., “Anya, not Anaya, not Amy, not Onion!”)

This child is now seven and on Friday night, he began writhing around in pain, moaning, and doubling over in agony. My ability to worry reached an all-time peak. After speaking with an advice nurse, I rushed Caleb over to the emergency room at Kaiser at 11pm at night. This was our first visit to the ER and I was beside myself with concern for my little guy, who doesn’t tend to over-dramatize pain. I took this episode very seriously. Mateo stayed home with Sadie, and Caleb and I sat around in a brightly lit waiting area, until they called his name.

I began to breathe again, once they placed us in a private room and the doctor came in to assess Caleb’s situation. She ordered an X-ray and gave him some pain medicine. Before long, Caleb and I were laughing about something we had heard earlier in the day (thank you, Auntie Deb for the image of the man running down Haight Street with nothing but a gold lamé sock on his twinkie), then the doctor came in to report that what Caleb was experiencing was an extreme case of constipation. Oye veh, hurray, and a $50 co-pay!

My sweet boy was back in bed by 1am and as soon as I awoke that morning, I ran out to the market to get him a bouquet of flowers and pancake fixings. We celebrated his recovery and our collective relief with Mateo’s signature buttermilk pancakes, and good cheer.

Now, I wouldn’t be a gen-u-whine Jewish mother if I didn’t have something meaty to worry about at a moment’s notice, but I’m glad that this little episode has passed (yes, pun intended)! I know there will be many anxiety filled days and nights to come, especially with two active, curious, and adventurous kids, but I feel great relief knowing that we got through this with only clogged pipes and a good story to tell.

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Four Friends and a Fondue Pot

SisterhoodMore than 25 years ago, my friends Sarah, Deborah, Virginia, and I began a tradition of gathering for cheese fondue, laughter, and close friendship. We call ourselves “The Fondettes” and we’re working on our soon-to-be solid-gold hit: My waistline’s huge and I’m gonna need some Lactaid…ay la, ay la, my waistline’s huge!”

I have known “Virg” since first-grade, “Sar” since second, and “Deb” since our Lowell High School days in San Francisco (I, of course am “An”). We began our semi-annual fondue gatherings toward the end of our senior year. Most of our mothers had a fondue pot laying around, long-neglected since the 1970’s and we quickly learned how to put them to good use.

With income earned from our first jobs, we would purchase bulk Swiss cheese from Safeway, cheap white wine (forget about adding the traditional kirschwasser – cherry liqueur), and a loaf of sourdough for our fondue feast. Sarah, who had worked at a Swiss-German restaurant in high school, introduced us to a nifty side dish, which we have since incorporated into our meal. The perfect fondue accompaniment consists of sliced kielbasa sautéed in orange marmalade until well-glazed. You can’t understand how good this is until you stab the caramelized kielbasa with a fondue fork and dip it into the cheesy fondue, along with a chunk of crusty bread…pure food alchemy! Sarah also started a tradition of being the first to grab the golden chunk of cheesy crust at the bottom of the fondue pot. We just leave it for her now!

Early on, we discussed our latest crushes, the challenges of living with difficult parents, and what classes we were loving or loathing. Today, bulk Swiss has been replaced with Gruyère, Comté, or Ementhaller; cheap Sebastiani with a lovely bottle of dry white wine; sourdough with an artisan batard; and yes kirschwasser! Emails go out, babysitting is arranged, and we sit around discussing love and marriage, the roller-coaster ride that is parenthood, and the careers we are loving or loathing. We laugh, occasionally cry, and rib each other like only old friends can do. I am convinced that the fondue is greatly enriched by a few tears and the presence of mirthful laughter!

We have each come to depend on these regular gatherings, which sometimes occur just for the sake of consuming fondue, and at other times to celebrate a birthday, an important milestone, or because we needed the comfort of good food and friendship to buoy us through many losses and life challenges. Last night, after making our busy-life arrangements, we gathered at Virg’s house in S.F. for our latest fondue feast. On this occasion, one of us had just lost a mother and we were all reeling from the loss of two high school friends.

Virg, who recently introduced us to the healing power of karaoke, busted out the karaoke machine after dinner. A smile is still plastered across my face as I think about this group of close friends now in our mid-forties, all of us mothers, wailing “Oh, no, not I, I will survive. Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive. I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give. And I’ll survive, I will survive, hey, hey!

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Fondue recipe (we substitute flour for cornstarch)

Kielbasa with marmalade: using one or two packages of kielbasa, depending on how many mouths you’re feeding, slice up the sausage into thin coins and sauté with several generous spoonfuls of orange marmalade, until well glazed. Place in bowl and set out on the table along with chunks of bread, and the fondue pot.

My Childhood | Your Childhood

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 Vivid mental Polaroid’s from my childhood have been paying me a visit lately. Growing up in San Francisco in the 70’s and 80’s makes for some colorful memories.

Sisters sunbathing topless on the back deck of our Richmond District home. Floating around in our home-made redwood hot tub with a life-jacket on that my dad required me to wear when he wasn’t ‘on deck’. Parents taking me, their youngest by 13 years, off to Europe to live in a small Mercedes milk delivery truck, which we traversed through numerous countries in over the course of one year. Its interior decorated with my three-year-old art work, a mattress in the back for my parents, a hammock over the front seat at night for me, and a wall with a hole in it separating the two, which I could barely crawl through.

Growing up at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center where my mom worked throughout much of my childhood – the smells of chlorine and baked chicken take me right back to the original building. Tap dance classes in the auditorium with Carol Butler.

Peace marches, folk concerts, and demonstrations. Delicious home-cooked meals by my mom that were my first exposure to really good food. Walking hand-in-hand with my dad to a local dim sum bakery where barely peeking over the counter, I’d pick out a steamed pork bun, and gobble it down on our way back home together.
Even as I’m writing this, more memories are flooding in and I can’t help but compare and contrast the childhood I had, to the childhood Caleb and Sadie are having. As they are growing up just across the Bay from where I was raised, I observe similar themes: close-knit loving family, delicious meals, Jewish community, arts and culture, and parents who want to expose them to as much good in the world as they can. I can’t say I’ve taken the kiddos to a peace march, but have brought them to many an AIDS Walk – a cause that is deeply important to me. I think my “Make Dinner Not War” bumper sticker is a left over from that time and it really reflects my desire to live in a peaceful world, where life revolves around the family table, and a difference is made, one well-cooked meal at a time.

Caleb and Sadie live in a big town, where I lived in a small city. They frequent farmer’s markets and block parties, soccer practice in the park and story time at the library, they go to Purim festivals at the North Berkeley JCC, and they are spoiled on some of the finest food, which is so readily accessible to them. They have a loving Jewish earth momma who blogs about their every delicious bite and food adventure. A doting father who runs them into Tilden Park at every opportunity to be at one with nature, a steam train, a carousel  and a steep grassy hill to roll down. They are surround by wonderful family members who respect who they are and what they have to say, and want to expose them to everything from Jewish holidays, to life on a Sonoma farm and pulling eggs from a hen house, to the correct way of ordering a burrito at a Mission District taqueria.

Where am I going with all this? Not sure! I have a stinky head cold and everything feels very circuitous to me at the moment. This is just a rich life they’re exposed to. I would never trade in my childhood memories – they are unique, eccentric, and reflective of the era in which I was raised – but, I rather envy Caleb and Sadie’s.

Missing Ma

Each year around this time, I typically begin playing my melancholy-mom-song throughout the house…No Frontiers by Mary Black. I flip through photos in my mind of my mom, and all the years I was fortunate enough to have her in my life. I long for the sound of her voice, the taste of her food, and the feel of her love.

She passed away five years ago this month. It’s almost unfathomable how quickly the time has gone by. Caleb was just turning two when she died. He’s turning seven next month and still remembers her. I so wish that she and Sadie had a chance to meet, and that both of my children could have had years to enjoy with their Bubbie, one of the most beautiful human beings I’m lucky enough to have known.

Ma: if you could read this, I’d want you to know how crazy in love you would be with Caleb and Sadie. Lucky for you, their Zadie (Grandpa) showers them with more than enough love for the two of you. I love you, I miss you immensely, and I honor and celebrate your life each day by teaching my children the righteous values you taught me, as well as love for all things food, family, friends, and an appreciation of the colorful patterns and textures of this crazy, beautiful world we live in.

No Frontiers | By Mary Black

If life is a river and your heart is a boat
And just like a water baby, baby born to float
And if life is a wild wind that blows way on high
Then your heart is amelia dying to fly
Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes

And if life is a bar room in which we must wait
’round the man with his fingers on the ivory gates
Where we sing until dawn of our fears and our fates
And we stack all the deadmen in self addressed crates
In your eyes faint as the singing of a lark
That somehow this black night
Feels warmer for the spark
Warmer for the spark
To hold us ’til the day
When fear will lose it’s grip
And heaven has it’s way
Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes

If your life is a rough bed of brambles and nails
And your spirit’s a slave to man’s whips and man’s jails
Where you thirst and you hunger for justice and right
Then your heart is a pure flame of man’s constant night
In your eyes faint as the singing of a lark
That somehow this black night
Feels warmer for the spark
Warmer for the spark
To hold us ’til the day when fear will lose it’s grip
And heaven has it’s way
And heaven has it’s way
When all will harmonise
And know what’s in our hearts
The dream will realise

Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes
Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eye

Walking with Caleb

My family took part in AIDS Walk San Francisco today and through generous donations from friends and family, raised $1350 for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Caleb got so into it, every time we passed a group of enthusiastic volunteers (including drag queens waving pom-poms, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, belly dancers, brass bands, etc.), he thought they were cheering just for him! I was particularly proud of him for walking the entire course, close to six miles, without kvetching much at all. I also took great pleasure (and pride) in walking with Mateo and Sadie. It feels so important, sharing something that you’re passionate about with your family…also, showing them that there is a greater community who cares about the same things. As is the case every year I walk, I was very moved by the experience.

We truly appreciate the support. It felt like we made a difference today. And, one more thing…I LOVE San Francisco!!!