A simple band of leather and copper

I wear it every day and usually it goes unnoticed. Sometimes a stranger or friend will comment on it, that it looks cool, or is stylish, but hardly ever asks more about it. It’s a simple piece of brown leather; two buttons hold it around my wrist. Bound to the strap by two smaller pieces of leather is a copper ring. If you look closely, you’ll see two names engraved on the band.

These are my children, my pride and joy, my heart shared between two precious young people. On either side of their names is a heart. Decoration, a sign of my love for them, or something to take up the space? No, these hearts mean something much more. They represent a further division of my own heart, the love I have for an entirely different group of people.

December 2008

May 2009

November 2009

March 2012

Those hearts represent these months and years. Those hearts represent my four other children. My children who are not here. The ones who quietly came into and left my life before anyone ever had a chance to know them. I have six children; two are with me today, sleeping in their rooms across the hall as I write this, and four who were taken far too soon by an event we rarely speak of: miscarriage.

They each have as story, and to keep that silent is to ignore their presence in my life, and their absence that I feel every day. Each one had a profound impact on me and the course of my life. The first was a Christmas blessing and heartache. I was still newly married to my first wife, and we wanted to begin a family. Just before Christmas, on December 23rd as I recall, we found out that my wife was pregnant. Such excitement was hard to contain, but her immediate spotting tempered our exhilaration. It was a nerve wracking holiday, and not long after, it was confirmed: she was miscarrying. The baby was approximately 6 weeks old. We took some time and tried again, this time in the spring. Again excitement at a positive test, again spotting, cramping, and another heartache six weeks along. This heartache impacted more than just us, it impacted our families, and stole the joy I should have had at learning I was going to be an uncle early the next year. You see, there’s no instruction manual on how to mourn an unborn child; you fly blind and hope you find your way out of it. That’s a scary proposition. Autumn came and this time we enlisted the assistance of a fertility specialist. Again our hopes were up, and again they were dashed between 6-8 weeks into the life of our third baby.

Within weeks of the birth of my first nephew came the news that, with help, we were again pregnant. There is a joy that most parents have during the course of a pregnancy, a combination of excitement, joy and fear. I was barely able to savor a moment. The fear of another loss, the heart stopping moments every time a doctor opened his mouth, and the long, slow march of specialists that monitored every moment of this pregnancy. I finally exhaled when I saw my son, heard him cry, and could place a protective hand on him. Some day he’ll understand why I always place a hand on his back when I’m near him. It’s because this was where I first placed my hand when I whispered to him that I would always take care of him. His was my miracle baby, and I wasn’t going to lose him now.

More than a year later we decided to try again and give him a sibling. Back to the specialist and again good news. Now, I’m an optimist by nature. My wife was not, and understandably so, but I wanted to be strong for both of us. Pessimism can’t be good for you, so I would offer the opposite, despite my inner fears. She felt something wasn’t right. I wish she had been wrong. Late one night we headed to the ER, and our fears were confirmed. It was another miscarriage, this time at 15 weeks. She had to deliver the baby, and I had two phone calls to make. I remember the exact spot at St. Barnabas where I stood to call our parents and give them the news. It was nearly 4am, but both knew why I was calling. I can even recall the words I spoke as I broke down in tears and slid down the wall to the floor, “we lost the baby.”

Now the difference between 6 weeks and 15 weeks is profound. We knew it was a boy. He had two arms, two legs, two eyes, just like my children today. He also had a name; Mason Maxwell. We were asked if we wanted to see him, and at first we weren’t sure, but then knew we needed to see our son. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING can prepare you for when a nurse comes into your room with a wrapped up blanket, knowing your dead child is in her arms. Don’t ever make the mistake of telling me that’s not a baby, because after his mother held him and later handed him to me, I held him as she rested and we waited for a priest to come and bless him. I held my son for four hours, and that was the only time I ever had with him. I talked to him, kissed him on the head, and told him I was sorry a thousand times because I couldn’t save him. After he was blessed, a wonderful nurse who had cared for us with such tenderness said it was time. There would be an autopsy to determine what happened, and then he would be cremated. I made those arrangements after he was taken away. I watched as she carried him out of the room, knowing I would never see my son again. This, my friends, is what agony looks like. That was also a terrible way to spend my wife’s birthday.

Fast forward another year, and a mere two weeks after the anniversary of Mason’s death, we welcomed our daughter into the world. Again, specialists made it possible. Again we agonized for nine months and through countless doctor visits. Again I put my hand on my little girl’s back and told her I would always protect her.

Years have passed and life has changed. Divorce is always difficult. It changes the dynamic with your children, and unfortunately limits your time with them (anything less than seeing them every day is limiting). Getting married again was an easy choice, as I married my best friend. I feel so fulfilled in so many ways. Family and friends bring endless joy to my life, and my children fill me with love and pride. But there will always be a hole in my heart. A place where my four other children live now.

I’ve never been shy to talk about this topic, but I don’t go so far as to advertise it. This is the first time I’ve written about it, and it’s nearly 2am on a Sunday morning. I could have waited until morning, just rolled over and gone back to sleep, but I couldn’t risk losing this thought. I couldn’t miss the chance to capture this story so I could share it. So many other parents are out there who are similarly suffering in silence. No one knows how to mourn an unborn child. I’ve had plenty of practice, and I still don’t get it right in my mind. You don’t forget how you feel, but you can certainly feel alone. The only way to break through that is to talk about it. OWN YOUR MOURNING. These are your children, and just because they’re not with you now, just because you may never have met them, they are a part of you. Talk about it. There’s no shame in it, no weakness. If I lost one of my two living children now it would devastate me and everyone around me. The loss of my four children devastated me then, I just didn’t have someone to bury, to memorialize, but I did have someone to mourn and I do it every day. Sometimes it’s a day that just reminds me of it. Sometimes it’s hearing of a friend or acquaintance who is also experiencing this loss. Most of the time, however, it’s when I put on a simple piece of leather and copper every morning, and when I kiss it before I take it off at night.

Goodbye Sucks

Living life with no regrets is a powerful thing.  It makes life fun and free.  However, with the highest highs come some powerful lows, and today is one of those times.  Kim and I have a friend, who over the past few years has really become family.  She lived a mile from our home, and would frequently be an unexpected, but always welcome guest.  There were trivia nights at the bar, sushi expeditions, and even the occasional “accidentally drunk” evening.  The dynamic among the three of us was amazing, as though we had always known each other.  Our respective families became families, and the bond that we formed together will never be broken.  Our times together were, and are, amazing.  So a funny thing happened a few weeks ago…
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The search for a new job led our friend on some interviews, and those interviews became offers.  Before long an offer became acceptance, and acceptance brought with it reality.  Our time together was drawing to a rapid close.  Now, we knew New Jersey was not where she was going to plant roots, but we were hopeful.  As it turns out, change was in the air.  Big change.  Like, other side of the country change.  Her new job would take her to California, pretty much as far away as she could get (with no disrespect to Hawaii and Alaska).  Kim didn’t want to talk about it.  Ever.  She pushed that reality off as hard as she could, because pain is not something we readily embrace.  I felt it too, but dove right into talking about it with our friend, while Kim worked through her feelings.  As the weeks grew shorter, reality started sinking in.  Apartment hunting, clearing out her New Jersey apartment and countless dinners with friends and family to say goodbye.  Two weeks of training in California, then a brief trip back for the last hurrah.  That was this week.  Today was the day.
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We met her and her boyfriend near the airport where he parked for the weekend.  They have a wedding to attend in Cincinnati so he’ll be back, while she will continue onto her new adventure.  The drive to the airport was quick, the chatter lively.  Parked and in the terminal we approached security.  This was it.  The moment Kim wanted to push off was here, and staring her in the face through the eyes of our friend.  It was hug time, and cue the water works.  I amusingly mentioned to Jason (our friend’s boyfriend) that they were going to miss their flight, because once one is locked in a Kim embrace, there was no getting out until she released you.  Much to my surprise she released, but the tears continued.  I went in for the hug with our friend and smiled, and made her say goodbye while looking me in the eye, because she too had to cry if Kim was crying.  It worked!  With an arm around Kim we watched as they walked toward security, down the terminal and out of sight.  Our dynamic, though unbreakable, changed.
Kim and Maya
No more random stopovers at the house.  No more impromptu happy hours.  No more mailing it in when cooking Indian food (that’s a story for another day).  We’ll see her again, several trips are already booked, but it’s different.  Her presence, her energy, is going to be over two thousand miles away.  That’s hard.
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As we walked to the car, I commented to Kim, “we need to find some new fucking friends.”  Tears became laughter, as I followed with the question, “too soon?”   A few text messages between the four of us pre-flight and it was back to our day to day.
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None of us have any regrets about the time we spent together.  We were and continue to be family.  We laughed hard, we lived life to the fullest together.  The tears and the sadness are not of regret, but of the deep sense that this chapter ended around 11am in Terminal B at Newark Airport.  We all saw it coming, but it doesn’t hit you until it’s happening.  That’s the low of living life with no regrets.  You never want it to end, and when one chapter does, those tears are the great memories rushing back all at once, and that’s overwhelming.
So travel well Maya.  We love you, and we’ll miss you, but we WILL see you soon.  Good luck, keep in touch, and stay Fat, Drunk and Fancy.

The Black Manhattan – come to the dark side

So I get a fair amount of crap from my lovely wife about my affinity for a certain cocktail: the black Manhattan. This is a drink I make at home (I’m enjoying one as I write this post actually) and order out whenever I get a chance (or remember). It’s also true that I have taught several bartenders across the country how to make this drink, simply because they weren’t familiar with it. That doesn’t make me special, it makes me a fan of the drink! So, how did this love affair with a particular libation come to be, and how can one do it at home? So glad you asked because I’m ready to share!

My first experience with the black Manhattan was two years ago in Denver. The location was Matsuhisa, a to die for sushi joint that is part of the Nobu Matsuhisa’s group of restaurants (yes, that Nobu). If you’re in Denver and are craving sushi, make your reservation now. I’ll wait.

So I was the first in my party to arrive, so I did what any self respecting traveler would do, I headed to the bar. There I perused the menu and settled on the “New Brooklyn.” My bartender informed me that the cocktail was better known as the Black Manhattan. One sip and I was hooked. Be sure to order one when you get there and get hooked as well.

So after several cocktails, I had a new favorite. Obviously my intention was to bring this back home and enjoy it out and about, as well as while sitting on my couch. A few weeks later it was off to a local haunt to meet some clients and my lovely bride. Of course I ordered a Black Manhattan, but I was met with a puzzled look. Education time my friend! After a quick lesson and insisting that the bartender try the drink, a new favorite was available (Addams Tavern in Westfield NJ now makes an excellent Black Manhattan). Ever since I have been spreading the good word of this cocktail, much to my wife’s embarrassment!

So what is this lovely drink? It’s quite simple and only requires one addition to a well stocked home bar. Rye is the preferred base, but you can certainly use bourbon. I enjoy it with Bulliet or Angel’s Envy Rye. The second ingredient is Averna, a Sicilian liqueur that replaces the sweet vermouth that traditionally makes up a Manhattan. Two parts rye, one part Averna. A few shakes of angastora bitters and an orange peel, and you have a masterpiece on your hands (and in your glass). I typically enjoy mine with a large cube, but you can certainly enjoy it up if that’s your style. Please, for the love of all things good and holy, try it. Let me know what you think, and if you’ve become completely obsessed with it, to the point of annoying your spouse. Only then have you truly arrrived. Now to finish my drink…

Turtle + the Wolf

Turtle + the Wolf

It started with a bomb cyclone, followed right behind by a polar vortex. In other words, it was winter in New Jersey, so suck it up buttercup. We committed to a monthly dining experience with my wife’s cousin and her husband, and this was the maiden voyage of this culinary adventure. With much fanfare and anticipation, we made our way to Upper Montclair for our first experience with a two year old gem, Turtle + the Wolf. The culmination of chef Lauren Hirschberg’s lifelong dream, the setting was perfect for the evening. The warm lighting and inviting staff left the chill of the arctic air outside far behind. Dark wood with an industrial feel, lit primarily by the open kitchen to our right. Audible under the hum of a lively crowd was music that would make Alt Nation on SiriusXM proud. Our table was at the mid point of the long narrow restaurant, perfectly situated for the meal to come.
Our server, Ben, met us with a smile, opened our wine, and gave us a minute to peruse the menu. This is not an extensive menu, but that is a thing of beauty. If you do it right, you don’t need endless options. Also, as a BYOB, the wine list started at home, and it was a selection we would not have otherwise found on a wine list anywhere. This is a strong nod and shameless plug for our friends at Vincent Arroyo Winery, and their 2014 Winemaker’s Reserve Petit Sarah. Make your way to Calistoga and get acquainted with them now.
Now, there are restaurants who have daily specials, or the catch of the day, but I can’t say I’ve seen the Berkshire Pork selection of the day. Pork equals happiness, so sure, I’m in! What, pray tell, is the pork of the day? Ben revealed that today it was pork belly, and all was right in the world. Additionally, there was a sea bass crudo, as an alternative to the yellow tail crudo on the regular menu. A few more minutes, plenty of laughs, and we were ready to order. One of the lessons we teach my children is that we try new things. Looking at the appetizers, that was necessary for all involved. Ordering for the table is a pleasure, and this was no exception. The sea bass crudo, chicken liver mousse, seared fois gras, and the steak tartar made the cut. Upon arrival, these appetizers clearly stole the show. The sea bass was a clean and refreshing departure from the other rich dishes, topped with sliced jalapeños and a citrus and oil drizzle. The chicken liver mousse was firm to slice, but spread on the accompanying crostini with ease, accented by a mustard seed relish. Topped with a perfectly placed egg yolk, the steak tartar was creamy and delicious. And, oh, the fois gras! Seared to perfection, with a concord grape reduction and roasted peanuts. Our wine cut the richness perfectly, with not a single morsel remaining on any of the plates. This was a glorious beginning!
For our entree selections, we cast another wide net. Clearly the pork belly had to happen, as did the duck pot pie (DUCK.POT.PIE), short ribs, and the roasted butternut squash. There was nothing low calorie about this meal (well, maybe the squash) but with a proper glass of wine, who’s going to complain? All were cooked perfectly. For me, the pork belly was a contrast within itself. Crispy on the outside (I mean like cracker crispy) and tender and juicy below the perfect crust. The duck pot pie, tucked inside a pillow of pastry, was creamy and rich (thank you duck heart gravy). The short ribs fell off the bone and the accompanying potato purée made each bite a symphony of flavor. The squash was also tender and flavorful. Now, these meals were delightful, however we had one consistent observation. Each could have been enhanced with some salt. The flavors were begging for a punch, to jump off the plate and explode. A heavier hand with the salt would have put them over the top. No one left disappointed however.
Ben was a perfect host, great personality and just enough attention paid to our table. He arrived with dessert menus in hand, and clearly this was not a crowd who knew how to say no. We went with the appetizer approach and selected an assortment of treats. We limited it to three selections; the Zeppole with fig preserves, Maple pot au creme, and the Chocolate – Peanut Butter Tart. Thank God for coffee, because these desserts were decadent! The zeppole were surprisingly light, the others not so much. This is not a complaint. After our plates were cleared, we lingered and talked, never feeling rushed. It was another excellent culinary experience with wonderful ambiance. On an otherwise cold and dark winter night, Turtle + the Wolf provided a memorably warm experience.

The King’s Kitchen – Dining with a cause

Charlotte, NC. I don’t often get here, but covering a meeting for a colleague brought me to town for a quick overnight. Such a trip begs the obvious question: where am I going to eat? There are plenty of options, but as I perused options, one restaurant caught my eye for more than just their food and a hopefully great experience – The King’s Kitchen.

Nestled right in the heart of downtown Charlotte, The King’s Kitchen looks like any other trendy spot. Hip lighting (around the bar the shades are colorful strainers) sleek white tables and walls, light marble bar, hardwood floors. Staff dressed in white, just a cool vibe all around. Unlike any other trendy spot, this is a restaurant with a mission, and that mission goes far beyond the cuisine. The King’s Kitchen is a non-profit organization. Noted on their website and on the menu is the fact that all proceeds from their service go to feed the less fortunate in the Charlotte area. Wow. Additionally, all of the ingredients are locally sourced. Southern comfort food in an upscale setting, all for a good cause.

I was greeted with a smile and shown to a seat at the bar (as a table for one, this is usually where I like to end up). The bartender greeted me as well and presented the menu. The wine and beer menu was diverse, but there was an option that caught my eye immediately: a flight of local drafts. There are six taps, so pick four and you’re off. Not being from the area, we had a conversation about it. I’m typically a Yuengling and Guinness guy with a touch of IPA. My barkeep took it from there. 3C’s IPA was first up, followed by a number of OMB drafts; and amber lager, Pecan Brown, and a porter, all four brewed within 10 minutes of where I was sitting, the definition of local. Now to be fair, I was fighting the tail end of a head cold, but what I tasted was delightful. The IPA was hoppy, but not too hoppy (not at hoppy as a Founder’s All Day IPA for example). The Amber Lager drank much like a Yuengling, which is my personal go to beer. The Pecan Brown and Porter also did not disappoint. All four helped accompany the onslaught of delightful dishes that followed.

After spending a few minutes looking at the menu, we were off to the races with starters. I had three in mind, but asked for some guidance on narrowing the field. Without hesitation, the staff favorites were the fried oysters and the pimento cheese. Ok, I’m game, make it so good sir. When I tell you the service was prompt, it would be a remarkable understatement. It seemed that I had no sooner put down the menu and returned to my beverage of choice when a bowl brimming with tender fried oysters appeared. I was able to get one in my mouth just prior the the board carrying the pimento cheese and crostini. I’m a sucker for a good oyster in any form. Raw, fried, broiled, grilled, Rocky Mountain, whatever. The key to a great fried oyster, in my not so humble opinion, is crisp batter that holds onto a juicy oyster inside. These nailed it. First envision if you will a bowl of no less than a dozen oysters, half a lemon, and a small container of remoulade. some micro greens gracing the top, and that’s it. Simple presentation. Now how does one test the first key standard for a fried oyster? Pick it up with your hands! To the touch they were plump, not greasy, and the batter held onto the oyster like a child holds onto their blanket. I always try the first one naked, no sauce, just a slight squeeze of lemon. Pure.Bliss. Masked by the perfectly crisp batter was a plump, juicy, briny oyster; fresh and salty from the sea. This was a true delight. Another with a quick dip in the remoulade and another wonderful treat. I could go all night on these, but then there was that lump of orange goodness over there on the board next to my beer…

Pimento cheese is an interesting dish. As I write I’m still not totally sure what’s in it, but I know from a certain Californian friend I met in New Jersey by way of Cincinnati (follow that?) its a southern classic. It was a treat for sure. Creamy and spreadable, on toasted bread, pairing well with the Amber Lager, and surprisingly with the oysters as well. There was not chance I would finish this and still have dinner, but it was a great sampling. The oysters, on the other hand, were all to die that night. Amazing. I can still taste them as I sit on a plane to go home, and I’m pretty sure I just drooled on myself. Hope the guy next to me doesn’t notice.

Continuing to ponder the menu I had a number of choices. Fried chicken was high on the list, as was the pot roast. Apparently the scallops were delicious and the pork chop looked like it was to die for. But I was in Charlotte, and I made it clear I was at the mercy of my faithful Bart ender, and he didn’t steer me wrong. If I wanted the true experience, he said, I had to try the shrimp and grits. Now I’ve had shrimp and grits in New Jersey and most of the time it’s been fine, even delicious. To have it here, however, was altogether different. Again faster than I could have my water refilled my meal was presented. A modest bowl was placed before me. Creamy grits sat atop a shallow pool of tomato pan sauce, topped with six shrimp (peeled and tails removed) with some smoked ham bits in and among the grits for obvious porky flavor. My first bite was the grits. These were different, nothing like what we pass off for grits at home. While creamy they had distinct texture and a firmness that held up in the sauce. They were rich and flavorful, and when paired with the sauce and a touch of the ham, were a savory morsel. The only thing missing at this point was the shrimp, so onto the fork one goes and we have the perfect bite. The shrimp were cooked perfectly as well. Good bite, lightly seasoned, a wonderful compliment to the hominy cloud on which they were presented.

As the meal continued a conversation began among the other solo diners at the bar and I. Both were northeastern transplants to the south. One young man was two weeks into his Charlotte residency, while the other was a mother originally from Philadelphia, now in Tampa, in town for work. We discussed food, travel, out northern roots, and of course the meal we were all enjoying. As an added bonus, Kings Kitchen was mostly gluten free, which was necessary for one oh my accidental dining partners. We all lingered a bit and talked, engaging the staff at several points, while in the background other parties laughed and dined with classic Christmas music filling in the rest. A warm goodbye from our hosts wrapped up the night as we each departed. Accidental comradorie, a wonderful meal, and a worthy cause. When in Charlotte, make a point to visit The Kings Kitchen. It will impact your culinary senses, and the community which is serves daily.