My favorite books of 2014

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I’ve always been kind of a homebody. But I have never wanted less to leave the house (and the couch) less  than when I was (still am……) pregnant.  In addition to buying tons of books, I also started commuting by car, which meant more time for audiobooks.

Because I was reading so much, I decided to make it my first year to do the Goodreads Challenge. Since I also luckily had a couple days off at the end of December, I was able to wrap up 52 books, a year’s worth of reading a week.  Here are my favorites of 2014 (not necessarily published this year,) in no particular order.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I listened to this as an audiobook when I started commuting to my new job in June, and the narrator’s voice really helped transport me to Nigeria. I was lucky enough to see Chimamanda live a couple years ago in DC, and she seemed just as gracious and interesting in person as she does in the book through her narrator, Ifemelu, who leaves behind Nigeria, and her first love, Obinze for the United States.

This book is more about what it’s like to be African (not African-American) in America and London than it is about either of the characters, I think. It’s a perspective I as a European white person could never have, so I was really interested in a lot of the observations she made, especially about African women’s hair, American academia, and politics. The other interesting part to me was the history of Nigeria, woven throughout the story.

Although, what was surprising to me was, that no matter how different of a background the author and I have had, we share a lot of the same outside views of America and Americans, leading me to believe that all immigrants to America are basically the same.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t identify at all with Ifemelu, the main character who decides to go to America after endless university strikes in Nigeria, leaving behind her one true love, Obinze She seemed cold to me at times and the life choices she made not predicated on anything but whims. But,  Chimamanda’s warm, playful voice flowed throughout, and Obinze was so real – he reminded me in a lot of ways of men I know in my own life.  A definite must-read if you’re looking to get a different perspective on America or start learning about Africa from what is, essentially, a series of blog posts.

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Gulp by Mary Roach

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction because I find it tends to be dry, but this book is most definitely not.  I’d heard about how lively of a writer Mary Roach is before, and this proved to be true. I had no idea what an alimentary canal even was before I started, but Gulp really goes in depth into what happens when you chew, in a way that’s not disgusting at all. I love all the research she did, but mostly the way she packaged it as entertaining and engaging. A true nerd’s book, probably best not to be read before your doctor’s appointments.

 

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The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

If you have not already read The Magicians and The Magician King, this book will not make any sense.  Also, why have you not read these books yet? They are the greatest new fantasy books to come out since The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I feel very strongly about this.  If you have read them, it will be like returning to an old friend. Grossman has this way of writing certain passages that will imprint them in your memory. I’m still thinking about Mayakovsky and the whales.  By the way, you don’t need to love fantasy to love these books-just be interested in real, flawed people making choices.

 

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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I used to have an economics professor from Singapore who was one of the hardest professors I’ve ever had, also one of the cheekiest and most fun. Aside from what she told us about the canings, I knew almost next to nothing about Singapore, or the rich people of Singapore, before I read this book. Don’t let the chick lit-y book cover fool you.  There is A LOT to learn within.

The plot involves a rich Singaporean dude who hides how rich he is, lives modestly in New York, and has to go back to his insanely rich, spoiled family for a wedding with his girlfriend, who is Asian-American, and knows nothing about his background or culture. It’s a really fun plot, and a really fun read. I hesitate to call it chick lit because it’s definitely not and delves into some serious issues about wealth, fitting into families, eccentricies and secrets, etc, but it’s that kind of flavor-light, gossipy, fluffy, with lots of brands bandied about, and a huge sense of humor. This one went very quickly.

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The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I bought this book in the Montreal airport coming back from a conference, because I’d heard that it was a huge deal in Canada and it was plastered over every book stall. It is an Enormous book, not in the page-count sense of the word, but what’s within, and it’s written by someone with enormous talent.  Written from the perspective of a Huron warrior, an Iroquois girl, and a French Jesuit priest kidnapped by the Huron tribe, it delves into both personal and enormous national history in the 1700s in Canada. The chapters give no indication of who is narrating at any given time, but that’s the book’s biggest skill – the writer is so good, you can tell who’s speaking within a matter of sentences.

I was hugely drawn into the world of Huron culture – the research done was meticulous. The most amazing part was that I came away with the book not being able to hate either side, in spite of the atrocities done to each other.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I resisted this book just because it’s been hyped so much in the press, and I’ve already been let down by The Goldfinch and a couple of other blockbusters, but Lahiri delivers. It is so powerful. I wanted to cry in several places. She knows exactly how to write to elicit responses from the reader that make you think, “This is how I feel about my family, too,” especially if you’re an immigrant.

The first half of the book, about the Naxalite movement, which I didn’t even know existed until I read Lowland, was riveting. The second half, about living in America in the aftermath of decisions made decades ago, was a bit more static and seemed to lose steam at the end, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick it up. There is a lot in here to take away, about how we make life choices and compromises, about what’s important to us, about what family means, and about death. All the makings of a Lifetime special, if Lifetime weren’t stupid.

 

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Swamplandia by Karen Russell

I loved Russell’s short story collection, and I loved this book too. It is just so weird and creepy and quirky and shining, like a small jewel. Russell’s word choice is nothing short of amazing, and the way she manages to make the swamps of southern Florida a magical place where reality blends with otherwordly elements is to be savored. The characters are sympathetic and it’s easy to identify with them. It’s not quite magical realism, and it’s not quite not.

 

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The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Another book I held off on because it’s just gotten too much praise. I need to stop doing that. It was good. It’s about a Jewish woman, Edie, who is nearing 60 and just can’t stop eating to save her life. Everyone calls this a Jewish book but I really think it’s more about American suburbia, how it impacts people, and families in general, how they react to certain things, how different family members view disturbances in the family and deal with them. It’s not quite funny in the way reviews say it is, but it is very heartfelt.

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The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

This is definitely a Jewish Book. Written about the Hassidic/Orthodox community in London, it takes the reader inside a world they would otherwise not be allowed to enter. I’ve been to this world in other books, such as Shalom Auslander’s, but the author here is not cruel or gawping, just kind and introspective. It’s written from several perspectives -that of a new bride about to get married, the groom, the rabbi’s wife, the rabbi’s son, and others knitting their way in and out. The characters make you feel sorry for them and frustrated with their life choices, but at the same time, you are rooting for all of them to come out ok.

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What It is Like to Go To War by Karl Marlantes

A must-read for getting behind the headlines of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the individual psychology of the soldier. Marlantes, who served in Vietnam, is not saying every soldier feels this way, but that the system is designed to make most soldiers act a certain way. He also goes into great detail why we need to take better care of our soldiers once they come home. Reads almost like fiction, but, unfortunately, is the truth.

Previous years: 
2013
2011

Waiting to exhale

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I spent a lot of 2014 feeling blocked.  When I started this blog in 2008, the internet was wild and free, and I could write what I wanted without thinking of a specific audience, other than what I was interested in. After we found out last year that it was not as free as we thought, I couldn’t write anything without thinking about how it would impact A) My family B) My career and, most importantly,  C) Whatever profile of me was already out there, knitted together out of hundreds of Facebook posts.  I’m a pretty private person in real life, but when I write, I want to write the truth. Instead, I was completely and utterly self-censored every time I opened a browser window, and it made me want to scream.

Not only was I self-censored in my online writing life, I was also stumbling along in real life. Sometime in 2013, I was startled to find that the world  as I understood it stopped being interesting to me. Reading books became boring. Our trip to Italy was boring.  We booked tickets to Hong Kong for the fall of 2014, and even that seemed bleak and uninviting, even though I have never been to Asia. Sitting in coffee shops for hours with Mr. B became a chore instead of a pleasure. All the colors and joy leached out of my life.

Something was missing. I knew what it was.

I wanted a baby.

Out of all the things professional women don’t talk about in public, wanting a baby is close to the top of the list.  It ruins your career, this desire, this shift in focus.  So I definitely did not talk about it online, or at work, or in the job interviews for my dream position that I was going to.

And I definitely did not talk about it with any of my family. My family (and friends) have been insistently, consistently asking us when we are going to have children since we’ve been married, a question that, to me, is as invasive as it is insulting. Telling them we were thinking about it would have started a fire I could never have stopped.

So I kept this wanting to myself and Mr. B alone. We held desperate conversations late at night about how we thought it would all play out, “what-ifs” echoing in the dark with no one else to bounce the scenarios off of.

And, I sublimated my yearning to write and my need to have a baby into other things to make sure I didn’t explode. I traveled to Montreal for work and  learned just as much about people from Berlin, Colorado, California, and Oregon as I did about Python.

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I taught a SQL class to women who have never programmed.

We went to Miami for Geriatric Spring Break.

I took hours and hours of useless MBA classes.

I tried to get my typewriter to work.

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We went to Soviet-themed restaurants in New York.

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I went out to eat with friends. I cautiously ordered enormous sushi boats, both loving and hating that I could still eat them.

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I bought hundreds of books and read them.

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I was trying to hard to live like I normally live. But during the time I was doing all of this, there was a frantic little hamster running in the cage in the back of my mind. Kids, kids, kids, it whispered. Write the truth about how you want kids. Do something about it. Do it. Do it. Do it. But I couldn’t, and so I was going insane stewing in my own introspection.

And then everything happened at once.

I got a new job. Several weeks later, I found out I was pregnant.   A week after that, I started summer classes, and a week after that I gave a talk at WordCamp Philly on the power of stories.

The irony was that I could not talk about any of this to anyone, to friends, to family, because I was afraid for my career, I was afraid of the enormous change, and most importantly, I was afraid for the health of the baby.  I read the forums. I knew what could happen.

So I waited, listlessly spending the summer in a bout of nausea, intense heat, and permanently stuck to the couch in between the work dayshift and the class nightshift. I waited in silent misery until I was finally, blessedly, halfway done.

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Then the real waiting began in earnest.  Each week of pregnancy is longer than the last, by the laws of physics, but I got up and put on my pants one leg at a time, still afraid, still hopeful. My mind trained itself to split in half. Half was always on my work and schoolwork, and half was always on what was going on inside of me, soft, squishy, nebulous, terrifying.

In between all of that, Mr. B’s grandmother was in the hospital, my grandfather had open heart surgery, and my parents moved to Philadelphia, a move they had been preparing for for several years. Remembering how miserable and lost I had been when I first moved, I threw all my remaining energy into helping them.

So now my mind was split five ways, with no outlet, stewing silently. I couldn’t make myself write about any of this, because it was so personal. Because, was it really my story to tell?

And then, suddenly, it was somehow October and my last set of classes was upon me and now November and our baby shower happened.  It’s around this time that I read just as much of The Bump forums as I did my Goodreads list. But still I couldn’t write anything.

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And now it’s December and then it was Hanukkah and then we put up the New Year tree and I finished up an important work project, and somehow 95% of the things on my baby to-do list are finished, and now we are, alarmingly, in the home stretch, and once the clock hits 12:00, finally, finally, I can start the long, anxious exhale of breath I’ve been holding since last New Year.

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But I’m releasing it very, very slowly and waiting until January 19th (hopefully sooner!) to exhale (and also find a new place to take pictures that doesn’t include my bathroom and 500 rolls of toilet paper.)

I’m looking forward to an exciting 2015 of the sheep, and hope you are, too. Happy and Healthy New Year.

Pushing to production

 

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In the IT world, large software development projects happen in stages. The first stage is a blueprint, sketched out hastily on  a whiteboard. The second stage is in development, where developers actually write the code. The third stage is integration, where the new, fresh code is blended into existing, working code to make sure there are no compatibility issues.  In integration, code can break, compatibility can break, and whole parts of software functions can be rewritten without consequence. It’s not code in the real world. It’s still on the scratch pad. The third stage is QA, quality assurance, where the software is tested even more rigorously to make sure it doesn’t break anything and that it works as it should with all the other systems the company has.

The last stage is when the code is released out into the world. At this point, the code lives in a sacred area called production. The process of releasing this code is called pushing to prod. Live code, such as what you see when you go to Amazon.com or the system your bank uses to allow you to withdraw money, is in prod.  There can’t be any mistakes in prod, and production can’t break, because real people use it to do real things.

For this reason, developers are very superstitious and protective of code going live.  One of the main superstitions, borne out of logic, is that you never push to prod on Friday, no matter what. All kinds of things can break, and no one wants to spend a weekend fixing them. Usually developers will also try not to jinx this code by talking it up or being overly optimistic about it.  They are pushing something that is warm and  live and  fragile out into the world, something that has the potential to soar or fail spectacularly in front of thousands of users.

I have been getting ready for my own push to prod. The development of a baby is much harder and much scarier than developing software, and there are many more moving parts that have to work together in order for a baby to be born, God willing, healthy. Even though it’s a process I have almost no control over, other than not eating sushi and going to the doctor when I need to, I am terrified of doing anything to compromise it.  For this reason, I am scared to post anything, either on the blog, or on Facebook, or anywhere in public where it might catch the dreaded evil eye.  Writing, taking pictures of my belly, baby showers, all have come harder for me than most of the women I see online, baring their bellies with ease, preparing nurseries, making fun gender reveal videos.

But at the same time, not writing about her seems ingenue, like I’m hiding part of my life.  Being pregnant has split me in two. One half of my mind is always on the baby,tucked safely in the back of my consciousness,  no matter what I’m doing.  I can’t do anything without thinking about the baby.  She is always there, with me, even when she is not kicking, and it seems ridiculous to think that I can nonchalantly write about a book I’m reading, a restaurant I visited, a class I’m taking, without also shouting it from the rooftops, “Oh by the way, GUESS WHAT THERE IS SOMETHING GROWING INSIDE OF ME! SHE’S 35 WEEKS OLD TODAY! BABY! BABY! BABY!”

But when I do start to write about it, I think that maybe I shouldn’t, since she will want to control her own life narrative. How much of this experience is mine, and how much is hers?  There is no answer on Google.

So I start, and then stop writing. But when I stop writing, the wolves come. The wolves are invisible, audible only to writers. When writers stop writing, they start slowly going mad because the wolves start howling, why aren’t you writing? Why aren’t you writing

I think, panicked, about all the memories that are already floating away from me, like butterflies I’ve released and have failed to capture in my writer’s net of experiences- the feeling of the roiling, unpredictable first trimester nausea, the days when I could only drink lemon water that Mr. B carefully mixed out every morning in the hot, hazy summer kitchen, the second trimester days where I felt like a tidal wave was pushing me backwards, unable to even stand from exhaustion, the current sensation of Mr. B bending down every day to gently put on the socks I can no longer reach. Every memory I don’t capture  on paper now, now, NOW,  is gone forever  – a writer’s greatest fear.

So I start writing, but then I stop again, because I run into the internet and real life. Every time I bring up pregnancy, people who have been through it have unsolicited advice, which, for some reason, makes me more irrationally angry than when people offer advice on, say, my MBA experiences, or cooking. I don’t want advice. I’m just sharing my life experiences, curating them, pinning them down and putting them on pins under glass.  It’s something I’ve always been doing and can’t stop, because then the wolves come.

So  for now, I work on essays about pregnancy in private, in ink, in development, away from production, because I still want to remember this strange, wonderful, terrible experience before it floats away from my memory, this fragile, when I spend my days exhausted, waddling, frustrated with anticipation,  and my nights tossing and turning to get comfortable on the three pillows that now occupy my side of the bed.

I’m almost nine months pregnant, and it’s the night before the big push to prod.  And then we’ll see what happens.

This is six years

 

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Two weeks ago at 3:45 in the morning, Mr. B’s phone rang. I heard it in my sleep. This the call, I thought mechanically, automatically. We’d been waiting for it, but not wanting it, for the past month. It was his mom, and it meant that his grandmother had succumbed to the heart problems that had been plaguing her for the past thirty years and reduced the warmth of her life to a series of emotionless medical statistics in cardiac intensive care units across Philadelphia for the past month.

I held Mr. B’s hand in the darkness as he fumbled for the phone, and in those three seconds between when the phone rang and when he answered it with someone else’s voice, I felt like he and I I had turned forty years old and the weight of the world descended on us in the early morning gloom. The baby kicked her quiet early-morning kicks, breaking up the silence of our small space. Mr. B got up. He was going to drive with his family to his grandfather to spend time with him before the funeral, four, five people trying to fill the space one person had created through over fifty years of marriage. He didn’t say a word, putting on his shirt methodically. I went downstairs to make him bagels and oatmeal and tea, anything hot, as if that would solve everything, wondering what I would do if he died, how I would fill the him-shaped space in my life. It was still 4:03 am.

Three hours before his grandmother’s funeral, my mom called me. “We’re going to the hospital,” she said. “Your grandfather called himself an ambulance because he was having strong chest pains.” My grandfather had open-heart surgery the following week. Before his triple bypass, all of my family was uneasy. We are not quick to turn to superstition, but when we do, we turn hard. The night before his surgery, I lay quietly in bed, just me, my beluga-sized pregnancy pillow, and whatever room Mr. B still had to sleep on, and I waited for the world to shatter.

I imagined my grandfather in his hospital room with just machines for company, beeping coldly. I imagined that the night before his surgery would be the last time I would see him alive. I imagined him all alone, over 80, in the operating room, under anesthesia, and my heart crumpled into a ball, sending out weak, helpless waves of empathy that couldn’t reach him. I tried to go to sleep on my own but the world weighed heavily on me, mortality lurking at the corners of the peaceful room in the suburbs. I listened to Mr. B. He was breathing the even, slow breath of dreamers, his lanky shoulder blade rising and falling, rising and falling, steady like a wave, and I closed my eyes, confident that everything was still alright.

When I made my wedding vows, these are not the moments I was thinking of. I wasn’t thinking that we would have to go to countless hospital rooms, to funerals, to dimly-lit restaurants where friends were crying because their own worlds were ending. I wasn’t thinking we would sleep on urine-stained mattresses in Jerusalem or that we would sleep separately for months in different cities.

When I made my vows, I just was afraid I was lying when I said I loved Mr. B, and I was terrified he would find out. Because, I thought, love is big and grand and patient and kind and all of that, and every second of every day that I didn’t feel that exact feeling, it meant that I didn’t love Mr. B and this whole thing was just a huge fraud.

But that’s not what love is. Love is not a big, grand man with a trumpet following you around with confetti and champagne. Love is small and quiet and takes time. Love is not the creation of something that’s not there out of nothing. It means creating a space in the other person for yourself, to the point where, if the other person is gone, you are not yourself anymore. Love wedges itself into the cracks of your personality until you’re not sure where yours ends and the other person’s begins. Love is not something that happens to you, or at least something that happened to me.

We built it together. We build it each time I make soup, even though I hate cooking, or each time he peels my pomegranates for me, even though peeling a pomegranate is one of the most pain-in-the-ass activities ever. We build it when we fight but don’t call each other names, or do call each other names but then apologize. We build it when we do things together, and it keeps us when we are separate.

Love means going on a business trip and thinking, “This is a great city, but why isn’t he here, enjoying the view with me? He would have loved this little store that sells tea.” It means waking up every day and thanking God he is still there, alive, breathing, mine.

When Mr. B’s other grandmother died three months into our marriage, I was heartbroken for him and for the woman she had been. When his grandmother died two weeks ago, I became heartbroken for his grandfather, because, after six years, I have finally begun to understand what it is to build love with someone, to carve space inside yourself for someone else, and then to have them leave. I saw ourselves, fifty years later, floating ghosts, soul-less, the love we had built into the other person, draining out, leaving a bottomless world void of meaning.

As he sat in the kitchen at 4:05, ashen, unshaven, drinking his tea, I looked at him, but I didn’t say anything. I could tell he felt the same way. I could tell he was thinking about the ghosts.  I moved to the toaster and quietly cut his bagel in half, turning the setting up to 5, the way he liked it.

Just make the damn meal

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Inspired by this and other NYT hijinks.

Just cook. Just cook dinner. We’re all crunched for time, but please, just cook dinner. It’s never easy to cook. We at the New York Times realize this. You might have a million other things going on in your life. You might have just dragged your ass in from night class that lasts from 6-9:30. Your ass, because it is pregnant, may not even feel like it is attached to your body anymore because you sat in a chair designed for a much less pregnant woman for three hours and tried to thoughtfully participate in class discussion even though oh my god you felt like maybe your midregion was detaching from your body.

We at the Dining and Wine section of The New York Times know. We feel for you and your unborn unorganic child. But nothing is as good as a home-cooked meal. Trust us. Nothing feels as good as a roasted chicken sliding down your gullet, well-oiled with extra-virgin olive oil grown on the terraced olive groves of Sardinia. Free-trade, of course.  Please, please give cooking a try. Quit your classes. Put your fetus in prenatal daycare.  Buy some really good knives.  Please, just make this one meal for us.  Please, make us feel good about ourselves for encouraging middle-class values.

We realize that some days this may be exceedingly difficult. We realize that some days, when you have enough energy, you may go dragging yourself to your fridge, knuckles first, like an ape, and stare blankly into its void, desperately searching for a spatchcocked chicken to appear in front of your eyes like a sub-zero mirage. That chicken will not appear.

Maybe what will appear are some frozen chicken breasts that you forgot to thaw in the morning. Or maybe there will be the soup you made last week. Maybe you will be tempted to feed your husband that. Maybe you will smell it, gingerly. “Still good,” you may say. “Certainly not bacterially safe for me and the baby to eat, but husband should be mostly ok.” Don’t feed your husband that soup. Throw it out. It served you well for six days.But now that soup is done, honey.

We at the New York Times know you’re dreading it, but you will have to procure a spatchcocked chicken.

You will have to drag yourself to the grocery store, yes, after work. We at  Dining and Wine don’t really work – we’ve outsourced that tedious chore to our Micronesian labor butlers- but we understand theoretically it might be hard to come home, change, sit on the couch weeping an anguished, existential cry for fifteen minutes, and then force yourself out in traffic again to go to the grocery store.

How can you hate it, though? We don’t understand that. We at the New York Times work from home in our tiny loft apartments on the Upper West Side, so we’re enthralled by the thought of going out, seeing the masses of society, rubbing shoulders in amongst the tomatoes. Feeling the tomatoes. Just go to the grocery store and feel the tomatoes. We encourage it.

Don’t mind the angry mobs of soccer moms that try to push you out of their way on their path to the kale.

Don’t mind the fact that you have to not only find a chicken with bones in it, but that you then have to go to another person to get those bones taken out. Why not buy boneless chicken breasts to begin with like hundreds of generations of Americans have been doing for the past seventy years? Because it’s not artisinal. It’s not sexy. It’s not spatch. It’s not cocked.

And if you don’t buy the spatchcocked chicken and the unsalted flour, God have mercy on your soul. If you don’t buy the chicken, who knows what you will have for dinner? Frozen food? TAKEOUT? Oh my god, ARE YOU EATING CEREAL FOR DINNER?

And where will that lead you? Down a dark path, a path we are afraid of at Dining and Wine. We have heard of this path, the path of people who don’t have time to make a spatchcocked chicken for dinner. These are sad, scary, miserable people. They work for a living. They go to classes. They have to take work trips. They have children. They have family obligations.  And by the time they come home, they couldn’t care less about spatches or cocks.

They just want to sit down, clear their head from the fact that their day has spun around them, and relax.  For five minutes, they just want to melt into a puddle and not hear about how delightful and romantic home cooking is when they would give their left arm not to have to do anything else for the day.

These are scary, miserable people, and we at Dining and Wine can’t even fathom functioning this way.

Just buy the spatchcocked chicken and gently fry it. Trust us. We know what’s best for you.