Old Town Tallinn Estonia | Umami GirlHere’s something I don’t talk about much: I sing. Kind of a lot.

Not just in the car (though, come on, definitely in the car), and usually not just that awkward kind of sidewalk singing where you’re wearing your noise-canceling Beats by Dre headphones and assume you sound awesome. (It’s not your fault — you paid enough to sound awesome.) 

Nope, a different kind of awkward singing.

Choral singing.

It’s highly contagious. Our daughters do it too. And now that the elder one is about the age I was when I started, I guess I could say I’ve been singing in choirs for a whole generation. But I would never say something like that, because it’s suddenly become obvious to me that it’s a terrifying thing to say. I did take a long break during young adulthood, when work and life in NYC were all-consuming. For a hot minute I think I was also trying to gauge whether it was this hobby holding me back from A-list It Girl status. Turns out, no. Had the cause and effect reversed on that one. Lesson learned, geekiness embraced, 20s outgrown. 

These days the reason I don’t often talk about singing has nothing to do with social climbing and everything to do with the fear of ruining something perfect by acknowledging it. Or by doing an inadequate job of expressing love for it. How do you talk about a hobby that bends time and unites heartbeats? That edges you close to transendence when you do it and grief when you don’t? It’s a little much. Sometimes it’s best to keep it to yourself.


That’s my back there in the front row, black sleeveless shirt, hair looking different than I always think it does. And my back is in Estonia. You can’t say that every day.

Screenshot 2014-07-20 15.06.38Actually, half of the people in the photo can say that every day. They’re members of the awesomely named Mixed Choir of the European Capital of Culture. That’s the Estonian choir we worked with in Tallinn. The rest are London Oriana Choir (directed by the incomparable Dominic Peckham), with whom I had the great privilege to sing while we lived in England. Now that I’m retired and no longer at risk of self-aggrandizement, I’m free to say that this group is full of just berserkly talented people. England’s choral tradition teaches interested kids to sing well, read music and be familiar with a wide array of choral works earlier and more rigorously than most American schools, and you can really tell when singing with adults raised in that culture. Many of them have the kind of musical fluency that suggests they were raised bilingual from an early age. Our experience with British schools bore out that suggestion, and it’s one of the things I miss.  View full post »

Colcannon Cheddar Cakes II | Umami GirlI was going to try to pass off this recipe as the perfect day-after meal for St. Patrick’s Day, to use up all your leftover colcannon. Then it would be your fault if you hadn’t made colcannon yesterday. What a shameful person of Irish and/or non-Irish descent, or actual Irishperson, you would have been.

But it’s me, and the only reason I would even attempt to perpetrate that kind of lie is because you can’t see my face right now. My brain has never had a thought, nor my heart an emotion, that hasn’t crossed my face. I never learned to play poker. There’d have been no point. I spend my would-be poker time on the yoga mat instead, attempting (largely in vain, obviously) to clean up the thoughts at the source.

In truth, St. Paddy’s this year was no more to us than The Day After the Spelling Bee. We had a competitor in the regional round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a.k.a. the only time I cross paths with ESPN. She did great, and then, like 93 out of the 94 competitors from our region, she spelled something wrong. We needed a day to recover.

This won’t surprise you: boy did I love being in the audience at the spelling bee. There were magic moments. I liked how much you could tell about a kid by whether they chose the microphone that was slightly too short or slightly too tall for them. There was a boy who went everywhere skipping. One child asked to please be read the definition of “macaroni” — a clear stalling tactic I would emulate every day if I could. The sheer number of food words, arranged neatly by language of origin, verklempted me more than once. And the whole thing was both live-streamed on the sponsoring newspaper’s website and recorded on an analog tape deck. Which malfunctioned and was rewound with a pencil. Because it’s 2015.

With all that excitement, who could cook cabbage the following day? Lucky for all of us, this is a leftovers recipe you can make all at once. Technically colcannon itself — mashed potatoes with cabbage sneaked in — is usually leftovers to begin with, so making this recipe in a single bound pretty much breaks the space-time continuum. That’s a lofty goal for comfort food, but it’s one you can achieve P-R-O-M-P-T-L-Y.

See you next week. 

 Carolyn xx


Crispy Shiitakes | Umami GirlOoh, baby. Just one look at these crispy, savory, slightly smoky shiitakes and I’m weak in the knees.

Just kidding. The knee weakness is a result of muscle atrophy. And the muscle atrophy is from my house arrest.

House arrest is our new term for snow days followed by Mom I’m Tired Can’t I Just Sleep days followed by sick days dating back before the dawn of time and continuing to the present. It’s a more fitting description than mere “cabin fever” or “stir-craziness.” House arrest comes closer to capturing the intensity of the experience. Gives you the appropriate amount of street cred. I almost wish schools would call a spade a spade and hand out ankle bracelets.

When your kid is sick with a routine illness from which she’ll make a full recovery — cold, or was it the flu, strep — you learn what it feels like to be a saint and a martyr and an ass all at once. A one-woman manger scene. A perpetual swirl of love and annoyance and gratitude and three kinds of selfishness punctuated with flashes of existential dread and potato chip cravings.

At least there’s coffee. And wine. And, to get to the point, crispy shiitakes. Which, truth be told, really do make me a little weak in the knees.

Sprinkle these beautiful whispers of possibility over anything from pasta and pizza to ramen and miso soup for an extra hit of umami. If you’re ever faced with lackluster food, they’re basically a Get Out of Jail Free Card.

In case you happen to know anyone who needs one of those.

Carolyn xx

  • LOVE this! I learned from a great mushroom forager a few years back how to make fungi inspired bacon with chanterelles. It is so good, and easy. I love that you have done it with the more affordable shiitake!ReplyCancel

  • Karla

    Ok – just… amazing! Also, best line I’ve read in ages –> “you learn what it feels like to be a saint and a martyr and an ass all at once. A one-woman manger scene.” Brilliant!ReplyCancel

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua | Umami Girl-10In February we spent a warm, relaxing week on the beach in Nicaragua. We went for the tropical weather and the low-key cultural immersion, and it was wonderful. But we aren’t Nicaragua naturals. We don’t surf. (You say Surf, I say Taco.) We aren’t Canadian. (The Canadian expat presence there is surprisingly robust.) And it’s impossible to overstate how bad our Spanish is. 

Still, I feel I owe it to you to try.

Without getting into the graphic details of just how special parenting can be, let’s say we had a toilet overflow warning, upgraded from a watch, one evening in the beautiful indoor-outdoor house we rented through airbnb. Let’s say the groundskeeping and cooking at this house were done by a wonderful woman named Rosa, who spoke not one word of English but warmed to our family instantly and called every one of us “mi amor.” Let’s say we didn’t want to abuse this privilege by getting her too deeply involved in the rescue operation. We just wanted a plunger. 

We’d opted not to have the unreliable wifi router in the almond tree activated for the week, and none of us had been smart enough to bring or even download a pocket dictionary. Not that “plunger” tops the typical need-to-know list for tourists.

There may have been a several-hour standoff where everyone acted like things were fine, hoping someone else would handle it. 

Then Cope disappeared for a couple of minutes. And reemerged, plunger in hand. Romance comes in surprising packages.

How…did you… We wanted to know.

He told a strange story about conjuring the word baño and having read some stop signs (ALTO) on the two-hour ride from Managua to Las Peñitas. In the end, we think he told Rosa, The bathroom! It is high!

I can only hope that Spanish syntax allowed her the ideal silent response while smiling through her teeth: “Uh…you’re high.”

Las Peñitas, Nicaragua | Umami Girl-3We’ve traveled a decent amount in the past few years, but it had been a long time since either of us were at such a loss for language. Mostly because so much of the world speaks excellent or at least passable English now, and a little bit because we speak enough French and Italian between us to ask for lice shampoo or extra napkins. 

Some of the week’s absolute highlights came from the language gap. I felt a brief swell of pride wondering how I knew the Spanish word for padlock, only to realize that Rosa had clearly spent all day perfecting a wildly realistic two-handed padlock mime. And that she was performing that mime very close to my face. 

Nicaragua | Umami GirlIt’s so good to be out of your element from time to time — to remind yourself and show your kids what you look like as a well-intentioned idiot. To see how differently other people live, not so far across the globe and closer still by any decent measure of human nature. It helps to do it in an arrestingly beautiful environment, with a backyard pool and simple, perfect dinners of creamy black beans, plantains, and chayote. Back home, I’m working on perfecting those beans, and I’m fortifying myself through what I hope will be the winter’s last snowstorm by repeatedly watching the 30 seconds of crashing waves and sunset glow at the bottom of this page. I recommend it.  View full post »

  • As usual, beautifully & humorously written! LOVE it, ALL! I do have a tip though for your next venture to a spanish speaking location… bring the Wiley’s. KW is wonderful to have in these situations… Just ask the Brownlie’s about the time he returned spoiled shrimp in Costa Rica. ;) Of course, I also have ulterior motives… xoReplyCancel

    • Spanish. UGH! Really auto-correct? You made it a lowercase?! Come on! ;)ReplyCancel

  • The girls are absolutely adorable! As always, lovely photography. Things sure have changed down there!

    My friend’s son and his wife are now living in Costa Rica full time (she’s a native) and raising the kids there. They keep trying to get everyone to move there! lol

    …I love the sound of saying, ‘Managua Nicaragua’!ReplyCancel

  • Sean Mallen

    Another lovely, wry and evocative essay Carolyn. Also inspirational…in the sense of I’m inspired to learn the word émbolo.ReplyCancel

Book Recommendations February 2015 | Umami GirlOh, winter. Can you be over soon, please? My fingers poked through the tips of this year’s gloves weeks ago. (Not unusual for me — don’t wanna talk about it.) Yesterday my new e-tip gloves arrived. They look like robot monster claws and are nine sizes too big, but I already took the tags off. Instead of nimbly tapping touchscreens, I’m mashing everything in sight and scaring small children with my wave. I’ve been trying to think of how to market them secondhand. Do you have embarrassingly large lady hands? Does your husband need a new pair of women’s gloves? I’m still working on it. Meanwhile, all I want to do is assume the fetal position on the nearest couch and escape into a book.

So this week I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been reading over the past few months. It’s a real highbrow/lowbrow mashup from a handful of my favorite genres: literary fiction, memoir, humorous essays, and the kind of nonfiction that explains the world in a way that makes you feel smarter than you were…or is that smarter than you are. Some of these books were published very recently, and some date back decades. I’ve tried to offer what I’d be looking for in recommendations: a voice to trust and just a few words to help you decide whether you should pick this one up or sit it out.

If you’ve been reading for your sanity this winter too, and if blog comments aren’t too 2008 for you, please let us know what you’d recommend. 


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 2014. I learned ten million things from reading this novel about a young Nigerian woman who becomes a professor and blogger in America, including some uncomfortable things about myself. Since it’s fiction, I don’t know if any of them are true, but I don’t care. This book deserves all the praise it’s gotten. 

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 2012. A short, compelling page turner that’s full of mystery and self-examination. You’ll probably read it in one sitting. Winner of the Man Booker prize. 

A.S. Byatt, Possession, 1991. This novel is long and dense but rewarding. It’s more romancy than my usual schtick, but it’s cloaked in so much fake Victorian poetry and lit crit wit (whoa, rhyme it, sista!) that all is forgiven. I’m sure everyone but me realizes that this book was made into a movie of the same title in 2002 that starred Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m glad I didn’t figure that out until after reading it.

Joseph Connelly, England’s Lane, 2012. Another long one that’s literary and divey at the same time. It’s set two blocks down the street from our London flat, but 50 years ago, so a lot of the appeal for me personally was the peek at the neighborhood’s imagined history. The characters are compelling if slightly cartoonish. I left my copy in France on purpose. It just felt right. 

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, 2014. Not my favorite of the author’s three novels, but incisive, enjoyable, and culturally relevant in its own crackpot way. A story of dentistry, identity theft and living in the modern world.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, 2013. I avoided reading this book for a year because it was so popular that I thought I’d hate it. Not the right move. (And yes, I do hear what I sound like with that attitude. Still, know thyself.) A deeply compelling story worth its Pulitzer and every one of its 775 pages. Plus, it’s partly set in Amsterdam, and we all know how I love Amsterdam.

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing, 1960. It’s impossible to overstate how much I love John Williams’ writing, or how recently I discovered that. I slightly preferred his Stoner to this beautiful and restrained novel about a one-horse town and the buffalo trade in the west in the 1870s. You should really just read them both.

Nonfiction, Memoir & Essays

David Carr, The Night of the Gun, 2008. With the recent passing of journalist David Carr, I’ve been thinking a lot about this memoir of addiction, career, and family. It’s unusual in that he reported his own past like the thorough journalist he was. It’s an uncomfortable read at times, but it’s one of those vivid texts that sticks with you in the best of ways.

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, 2014. A funny, sad, and insightful memoir about aging parents by the inimitable New Yorker cartoonist. Quick to read, beautifully illustrated, and full of what unites us as people.

Sloane Crosley, How Did You Get This Number, 2010. I learned of this author when I impulse bought her first book of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, purely based on the title. Her “essays about nothing” are fabulous, though I somewhat preferred the first book. I’d kinda like to be her. 

Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” 2014. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this book or find it all that well crafted, but I liked it more than the feeling of not having read this book. That’s the thing about Lena Dunham’s work. It’s the same reason I’ve watched every episode of Girls. Stop me if the only insight here is my own increasing age. 

Jordan Ellenberg, How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, 2014. This book is glorious in its accessible nerdiness. The author is a math professor with a great sense of humor and broad interests in the world. His love of math is contagious. The whole thing reminds me of my sweet dad trying to communicate the beauty of mathematics to my idiot self in high school. Equations, laughter, and tears. What else is there, really?

Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, 2013. The author is a prominent psychoanalyst in northwest London. The book is a collection of anonymized tales from his practice that tie together nicely into studies of love, life and death. A quick and enjoyable read.

Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, 2013. A psychology professor takes urban walks with various subject-matter experts and lets us in on the magic of human perception. How does a typographer see this walk, compared to a geologist or a toddler? Interesting stuff.

Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, 2011. Yeah, I got kinda into TV writer memoirs for a little. This book was fun to read on the beach. If you already feel like you know Mindy Kaling, this book won’t shatter the illusion.

BJ Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, 2014. Oh my gosh, you guys. Read this book right now. They’re very short essays and bizarre little stories, and they’re so so so much better than you think they’ll be. Better than most everything I’ve read this year. I’d be embarrassed to say that I’d shortchanged the author based on the character he played on The Office, but I’ve heard too many other people say the same. So I guess it’s just a thing. A thing that’s wrong. Read this book. 

Amy Poehler, Yes Please, 2014. A few great feminist ideas, a few insights into a wildly successful career, a few too many names dropped. A peek into this fabulous lady’s life that might not be quite as interesting if she weren’t famous. Her exceptional gift for screenwriting doesn’t translate to memoir, but I enjoyed it anyway.

David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, 2013. I was reading this book while waiting for my girls to get haircuts, and an elderly couple stopped into the salon just to say that I sure looked like I was enjoying it. In London I finally got to see David perform live, including an awkward two minutes out on the sidewalk an hour before the show, just him trying not to be exasperated as he explained a Fitbit to someone he didn’t know well (“A Fitbit is a Fitbit!”) and me trying not to act like I was listening. No one else on the whole block. I nearly died. I love how he’s aging into a different kind of quirkiness than he started out with, as reflected both in this book and IN REAL LIFE BECAUSE I STOOD NEXT TO HIM. Whatever. 

 Carolyn xx