Red Velvet Cookies and The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers

Reviews and Recipes
“Real strength has to do with helping others.” -Fred Rogers

Every time a new tragedy, domestic or international, befalls humanity, a hopeful quote from Fred Rogers begins to circulate.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” says Rogers, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

While the world is attempting to stop a pandemic and millions are confined to their homes, it can be difficult to feel hopeful at all. Before I left New York to stay with my parents, the city felt like something from an apocalypse movie. The streets (and pharmacy/grocery shelves) were eerily empty. You couldn’t get your BEC from the bodega or meet your friends for Sunday brunch or Friday happy hour. Going out and being around people is New York City’s bread and butter. You don’t live in NYC to be apart–you live in NYC to be together. Together with the world, arts, culture, and people. Social distancing, quarantining, and self-isolating took away the blood of the city.

Sure, I still saw people. In fact, the grocery store and CVS were probably more crowded than usual. Yet everyone’s anxiety and suspicion, turned toward one another and taken out on each other, made it clear that this was not our normal weekend shopping trip. The collective but individualistic thought was: Anyone could be a carrier, trust no one.

Except, that’s not how people get through things. Of course, it’s called for to be overly cautious, but does being careful mean being cruel? Yelling at postal clerks and hoarding canned goods?

It felt like the perfect time for me to start Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, The Good Neighbor. I needed a reminder of gentleness and kindness, a role model of caring for one another.


Maxwell King paints an exquisite portrait of the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the iconic PBS children’s show that aired for almost 40 years. While King’s biography is certainly dense, it is detailed and never dry. Anecdotes illustrate facts of Rogers’ character, and the history of Rogers’ life reveal how the quiet man became a media giant that revolutionized children’s media.

The Good Neighbor is a lesson in not only Rogers’ life story, but in the development of children’s media and the practice of human kindness as well. From every angle, I found this book interesting and informative. Despite my lack-luster reading experience (finishing this book took a little discipline), what I gained from it was well worth sitting through the sometimes repetitive text. This book may be better ingested a chapter here and a chapter there while reading a novel or memoir at the same time, allowing you to take in the information piece by piece without committing to intake the wealth of information all at once.


What touches me most about Rogers was his commitment to people. Every person and every child deserves love, to be listened to, and to feel special (because Rogers genuinely believed they are special). Connecting with people is perhaps one of the most important things we can do, and we are now being challenged to find new ways to connect when we cannot meet in person.

In a blog post for To Write Love on Her Arms, Jamie Tworkowski writes, “Conversations will not be cancelled. Relationships will not be cancelled. Love will not be cancelled…Hope will not be cancelled.” Despite global closures and cancellations, we must hold onto the good that remains and innovate how we connect.


For The Good Neighbor, I baked red velvet cookies (recipe by Just So Tasty), inspired by the bright red sweater Mister Rogers famously wore each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and by the idea that I wanted to bake something shareable. After finishing these cookies (which were dangerously easy to whip up for something that tastes so decadent), I bagged some up to leave on the doorsteps of my neighbors, hoping the yummy treats will bring a smile to their families.

Reader, won’t you be my neighbor?

Gougéres & Julia Child

Reviews and Recipes
“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” -My Life in France by Julia Child

I remember when my mom first explained what “backpacking” meant. I was probably around 11 or 12, and we had just passed a hostel. I was shocked to learn people, namely young people, carried their belongings on their back and traveled for weeks or months on end. I was enchanted by the idea, but resigned to the fact that I would likely never do such a thing.

That is, until almost a decade later, when two of my best friends were studying abroad in Europe. Leah was in Spain, and Leela was in France, and I was in the plain old United States. I had never been to Europe, and somehow we dreamed up the idea of meeting up in late May to backpack through the continent together. Later on, I convinced my mom to join me for a second leg of the trip, and soon enough I had a five-country-and-eleven-city cross continental trip laid out.

For the first three weeks, I traveled with two of my best friends from college: Leela and Leah. We hit Madrid and Barcelona in Spain; Bologna, Florence, and Verona in Italy; and Paris and Arcachon in France. Of course, every bit of it was amazing and fun and exciting. But there was something special when we got to France. Some sort of electricity pulsed through me, and it felt a little bit like a homecoming.

“I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.” -My Life in France by Julia Child

I loved the food—the breads, the cheeses, the desserts, the wines. Paris was, of course, magical. But my absolute favorite part of France, and of the whole trip with Leela and Leah, was staying with Leela’s grandparents in Arcachon, a small beach town outside of Bordeaux. Every meal featured fruits and vegetables grown right in the garden. Every meal was served with wine and fresh bread. Every meal was absolutely impeccable.
Staying in Arcachon and eating three home cooked meals a day was a culinary revolution for me. Before Arcachon, I was a pretty picky eater. I had begun to open up my tastes in the years leading up to the trip, but new foods still caused me a lot of anxiety. However, when you’re in someone else’s home for a week, you eat what’s served, no matter what.

Duck pâté. Potatoes. Couscous. Raclette. Zucchini. From the basics and beyond, I tried and loved it all. Not to mention, the care Leela’s Mamie put into each dish made all the difference. Made with love is something truly edible and delicious. Combined with Leela’s grandmother’s skilled hand and fresh ingredients, and each meal became something to aspire to. I had never experienced food like that in my life, and it’s something I’ll always be chasing after.

“The sweetness and generosity and politeness and gentleness and humanity of the French had shown me how lovely life can be if one takes time to be friendly.”

-My Life in France by Julia Child
Me with my culinary role model: Leela’s Grandma!

I’ve always enjoyed cooking—in high school I often made meals for friends and hosted dinner parties. Still, after coming back from Europe, something new had been sparked in me. The true depth, complexity, and meaning of food and preparing it affected me in new ways. In my post-France pursuit of that richness, I read Julia Child’s My Life in France.

Certainly, Julia Child’s memoir lacks a bit of flair and command over the written word—but that’s not why you read Julia Child’s memoir. You read Julia Child’s memoir to be transported and inspired, and the book did just the trick.
Reading about Child’s journey from being a bumbling American who couldn’t cook, to becoming the poster-child chef of French cuisine stateside was relieving. “No one is born a great cook,” she assures readers, “one learns by doing.”

Her philosophy to embark on cooking a dish with patience and passion and to always be gentle with oneself spoke to me as a beginner cook. She cooked because she loved making and eating good food, in the same intrinsic way I discovered I did.

That, combined with Child’s joie de vivre, makes her a culinary idol in my eyes. I hope to pursue not only cooking but life itself with the same Julia Child approach.


Julia Child’s Gougères

Because no one can do it better than Julia Child, here is her very own recipe, direct from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Yield: Approx. 3 dozen puffs | Prep time: 30 min | Cook time: 15 min | Total time: 45 min

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water
  • 6 Tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Start by making the pâte á choux, or cream puff paste. Bring the water, butter, salt, and pepper to a boil until the butter has melted.
  3. Remove from heat and immediately pour in all the flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon.
  4. Return to heat for 1-2 minutes until the paste begins to form together and leaves the side of the pot.
  5. Remove again from heat. Mix in one egg at a time. Wait to add the next egg until the previous one is completely absorbed. It will take longer for the egg to absorb each time. Once mixture is smooth, your pâte á choux is complete.
  6. Beat the cheese into the warm pâte á choux.
  7. Dollop the mixture into small rounds on a baking sheet (you may also use a piping bag for this).
  8. If you’d like, paint a bit of egg wash on each puff and sprinkle a pinch of cheese on top.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden.
  10. Enjoy!

Three Ingredient Strawberry Jam and Red at the Bone

Reviews and Recipes
“Does it sound crazy to say I looked at her and saw the world falling into some kind of order that I didn’t even know it was out of?” -Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson follows the story of a family whose lives have been affected by the pregnancy of 15-year-old Iris and birth of her daughter Melody. With a perspective shift each chapter and a narrative told out of chronological order, Woodson’s novel is less focused on plot than on character development, family dynamics, and capturing emotion. In a style that borders on poetic, Woodson’s writing is exquisite.
While it was interesting to read through the different experiences and see how Woodson molded each character’s voice, the constant shift in narration from one character to another had its downfalls. Mainly, it was difficult to feel connected to characters. What seemed like would be Melody’s story (with her proclamation in chapter one, “And as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen, I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.”), quickly became her mother’s, Iris’, story. As a reader, we aren’t given enough time, however, with Iris to learn about her and love her despite her flaws. Instead, she reads as unlikable.


Nevertheless, the narration shift does allow the reader intimate flashes into characters’ psyches, rounding out the novel with a 360 understanding of relationships in all their complexities and subtleties.

Red at the Bone was our book club’s November 2019 pick!

The entire tone of the book is one of melancholy. There is suffering, pain, misfortune. While it’s important to highlight the trauma this family endures, the novel becomes difficult as it becomes clear there will be no relief. Hope does not arrive in the book until its very last page, and even then, it’s just a glimmer.


Still, what conquers all is Woodson’s voice. The repetition of certain motifs, particularly rising, the italicization of dialogue which nods to the fickleness of memory, and the isolation of each paragraph which forces you spend time with the text—all culminate in a book that is hard to break away from.


This week, my impossibly simple and delicious strawberry jam recipe is inspired both by the book’s title and one of the book’s secondary characters: Jamison, AKA Jam. Jam, despite her brief appearance, was one of my favorite characters in Red at the Bone. She was willful and challenged Iris. It’s only through Jam that we see some softness come through Iris, and I loved seeing their relationship develop.
And, of course, I chose strawberry jam over any other kind of jam for its vibrant red color, to pay homage to the title of Woodson’s stellar novel.


One-Jar, Three Ingredient Strawberry Jam

This strawberry jam is easy to make and only yields one pint!

Yield: 1 pint | Prep time: 1 hr & 5 min | Cook time: 30 min | Total time: about 1.5 hrs

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 lbs fresh strawberries
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice (you can also use the juice from half a lemon—however, it’s better to use lemon juice as the acidity will be consistent)
  • 1 pint water

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Put a plate or spoon in the freezer. You’ll use this to test the readiness of your jam later.
  2. Using a spoon, hull and roughly slice strawberries into a large bowl.
  3. Mix in the sugar and make sure the strawberries are well coated. Allow strawberries to macerate for an hour on the counter top, stirring occasionally.
  4. Put enough water to fill your jar in a small pot on the stove. Don’t turn it on yet.
  5. Pour strawberries in a large pot over medium-high heat and bring to a roaring boil. STIR CONSTANTLY. Make sure all your affairs are in order because for the next 30 minutes you are not allowed to step away from this stove! Be sure you’re tending to the bottom of the pot to keep the jam from sticking & burning.
  6. About 15 minutes into cooking the jam, bring the pot of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, pour it into your mason jar. This will bring the mason jar up to the same temperature as the jam for when you pour it in later.
  7. As the jam thickens, you can bring down the temperature a bit. You’ll know the jam is about ready when the foam can be stirred into the jam and doesn’t sit on top. Test the jam’s readiness by placing it on the frozen spoon/plate and drawing a line through it with your finger. If the line stays, it’s ready. If it runs together, it still needs to thicken.
  8. Pour jam into your jar. The jar is not fully processed, so you’ll have to store it in the refrigerator. However, it will keep up to 6 months.
  9. Enjoy! Strawberry jam pairs well with brie or cream cheese!

Mini Ham & Cheese Quiches from The Great Believers

Reviews and Recipes
“Two very pretty, very young men circulated with trays of little quiches and stuffed mushrooms and deviled eggs. Yale wondered why the food wasn’t Cuban, too, to match the drinks, but Richard probably had just one plan for every party: Open the doors, open the bar, boys with quiche.” -The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is a sprawling novel about disaster, trauma, and hope. The book opens with friends and family mourning Nico’s death, a grounding event throughout the lives of the other characters. Alternating between Chicago during the 1980’s AIDS crisis and 2015 Paris, the story follows a close-knit group of gay men and Nico’s little sister, Fiona. In Chicago, Yale Tishman is securing a massive collection of 1920’s paintings for the art gallery he works at, while simultaneously navigating his relationships in the worsening AIDS epidemic. In Paris, Fiona is trying to find her estranged daughter, who joined a cult years before. Almost 30 years later, Fiona is still managing trauma from the chaos of the 80’s.

Interwoven in the narrative that follows Yale through the 80’s is the story of how Fiona’s modest Great Aunt Nora is in possession of over 2 million dollars’ worth of art from the 1920’s, and why she wishes to donate it to a university art gallery.

Coming in at over 400 pages with an ensemble cast spanning almost 100 years, it’s safe to say The Great Believers has a lot going on. Themes of mortality, illness, and art bind the book together. Still, the focus story here is Yale’s. Fiona’s narrative doesn’t emerge as the secondary story, but instead Nora’s does, as we hear about her fascinating life in 1920’s Europe as an artist and muse. While it’s interesting to see how the AIDS epidemic continues to affect Fiona, a straight cis white woman and therefore unlikely subject of such trauma, I could truthfully have done without her story.

Instead, I was interested by the parallels between what has been dubbed “The Lost Generation” (which, by the way, was a phrase coined by Gertrude Stein, not Ernest Hemingway) and young, gay men during the 1980’s. While certainly there are parallels to be drawn between the 80’s and today—namely between the lack of accessible healthcare—you’re left to draw them yourself, and the modern 2015 narrative doesn’t do much to contribute.

In short: I found Fiona unlikeable and her passages tedious. It’s clear how they were meant to add to the novel and its themes, but the author’s goals weren’t actually met. Choosing to explore Nora’s narrative more in place of Fiona’s would have been unexpected and fresh. While Makkai certainly began that work, it didn’t live up to its potential.

Nevertheless, the complexity of characters in the Chicago setting was dazzling, the plot development was seamless, and the connection between the reader and Yale was natural. Despite my critiques and wishes for this novel, it was a dizzying display of masterful storytelling. If you’re a fan of cross-generational narratives, this is a must-read. Makkai, despite being a cis straight woman, allies herself with the LGBTQ+ community to tell an important, devastating, and hopeful story. Her meticulous research certainly pays off.

Look, here’s how I feel: it’s a 421 page book. It would be very difficult for a novel of that length to hold your attention at every single moment, and that in a narrative as sweeping as Makkai’s you won’t be able to not pick favorites. It was certainly a beautiful book, and the fact that I wished to dive deeper into its world is evidence of Makkai’s ability to write a compelling story. This week’s recipe is inspired by the book’s opening scene: Nico’s wake. Makkai writes:

“Two very pretty, very young men circulated with trays of little quiches and stuffed mushrooms and deviled eggs. Yale wondered why the food wasn’t Cuban, too, to match the drinks, but Richard probably had just one plan for every party: Open the doors, open the bar, boys with quiche.”


Mini Ham & Cheese Quiches from Nico’s Wake

Richard’s plan—“open the doors, open the bar, boys with quiche”—is a good idea for any occasion.

Yield: approx. 2 dozen mini quiches | Prep time: 10 min.| Cook time: 30 min. | Total time: 45 min.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 pie crusts (store bought or homemade)
  • 5 large eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 8 oz. chopped ham
  • Salt & pepper to taste

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Prepare pie crust by cutting into circles, about 3 in. in diameter. If you don’t have a cookie cutter, you can use the rim of a glass to cut circles in the crust. Place the small circles in a greased muffin tin.
  3. Beat together eggs, milk, and salt & pepper well in a deep bowl.
  4. Stir in cheddar cheese and ham.
  5. Pour mixture about ½ the way full into each mini quiche crust. As the ham often sticks to the bottom of the bowl, I like to go back in and spoon a bit of ham on top of each quiche.
  6. Bake in oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until golden. Be sure to keep an eye on the quiches—I’ll often take them out about 20 minutes and poke them with a fork to allow air to escape if they’re too puffy.
  7. Enjoy!

Frightfully Easy Graveyard Ghost Cookies

Reviews and Recipes
“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change.” -The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Every year, I turn another year older exactly one week before Halloween, and after 22 years, I finally decided to celebrate another rotation around the sun with a Halloween party.


Some friends joined me at my apartment for an 80s themed bash, where guests were required to dress as a character or icon from the decade. From Joan Jett to Doc Brown, our guests did not disappoint!

Of course, yours truly went as Baby from Dirty Dancing.

Because I love a theme, I knew I had to make a special Halloween treat. These little ghost cookies are embarrassingly simple. It worked out perfect for me, since my roommate and I were busy decorating and preparing the apartment, I was left with little time to cook. These cookies only require about 15 minutes of hands-on time at their most basic, making them a fast and easy treat to bring to a Halloween party!

Ghosts remind me of two things: Ghostbusters, one of my favorite movies (and on-brand for this 80s themed Halloween party), and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, one of my favorite children’s books.

The Graveyard Book is about a little boy named Nobody who is raised by ghosts after his parents are murdered. While the premise sounds gruesome, the book is a cozy October read, full of charming wisdom from the residents of the graveyard and a spooky (but not scary) plot. It’s Neil Gaiman’s second young-adult novel, published after Coraline.While October has passed, The Graveyard Book is a great yearlong pick for readers young and old alike. Not to mention, it pairs exceptionally well with these Ghost Cookies.


Frightfully Easy Graveyard Ghost Cookies

Putting these cookies together is scary simple for a crowd-pleasing Halloween dessert. Great for sharing with friends or Nobody Owens.

Yield: 2 dozen cookies | Prep time: 15 min. | Cook time: 12 min. | Total time: less than 30 min.

INGREDIENTS:

  • Cookies of your choice (Because I was short on time, I used a premade chocolate chip cookie mix. You can also bake the cookies from scratch, or buy cookies already baked, depending on the amount of time you want to spend on baking.)
  • White icing (Again, I used a premade icing due to time constraints, but feel free to make yours from scratch.)
  • 24 Marshmallows
  • 1 tube of black decorating gel

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Bake cookies according to instructions. Allow to cool.
  2. While cookies bake and/or cool, use the black decorating gel to draw three circles on each marshmallow to form two eyes and a gaping mouth for your ghosts.
  3. After cookies have fully cooled, swipe icing onto the tops of each cookie.
  4. Place a marshmallow on top of the icing in the center of the cookie.
  5. Enjoy!