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


Savory Vegetarian Muffuletta | Umami GirlMardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. Day of festivity, masquerade, debauchery. Last-ditch, all-out effort at fun until Easter. Un-Valentine’s Day for singles.

I’ll be honest. None of this really speaks to me.

I prefer to celebrate Mardi Gratzer — Mardi Gras’ slightly more neurotic, less fun-loving, homebody cousin, derived from my maiden name. Mardi Gratzer takes a lot of the pressure off a winter Tuesday in suburban NJ, a grey snow day with kids piled on the couch with their too much screen time and their CAN I PAINT and all of us still wearing matching Christmas pajamas at noon. 

Am I alone this fat Tuesday in preferring less fun, but with really good sandwiches? Somehow I doubt it. So here are a few pointers for celebrating a successful Mardi Gratzer.

Five Tips for a Successful Mardi Gratzer

  1. Spend some time looking at your neck in the mirror. Why does it suddenly look like that? Are you slightly dehydrated? Is that medically significant? Has some secret age threshold triggered a further downward progression of all your bodyfat, leaving the twitchy neck to freeze in the elements while the fat settles all too comfortably on the hips? Is that a swollen lymph node? You know what? It’s probably nothing.
  2. Drink water by the Klean Kanteen-full. Don’t hold back. There’s not enough water in the world to counteract the dehydrating effects of the longish flight back from Nicaragua five days ago and the sub-freezing NJ air. Wonder whether it’s possible for your lips to shrivel completely into your face and disappear, or whether that trend will derail before its ultimate end. Think about how things are chapped that should not be chapped. Do some quick research to see whether there’s a chaps reference that could work here. Realize you cannot un-Google “Mardi Gras Assless Chaps.” You just can’t.
  3. Think about registering the kids for swimming lessons. Gratzer, you’ve been thinking about doing this for six months now. How many times have you driven past the Y this week alone? Wasn’t 2015 supposed to be the year of Getting Things Done? Let me tell you something: if you never amount to anything more than you already have, it won’t be because of the neck. 
  4. Get up to stretch and walk around. Discover and wipe up an almost physically impossible amount of paint spill. Discuss how saying I won’t get any paint on the counter is not really the same as not getting any paint on the counter. Even while you’re still talking, realize how often you’re just going through the parenting motions, saying what’s supposed to be right in case in sticks. A little paint on the counter? Who cares. When you decided on marble you knew it would look lived-in before too long. That’s the kind of kitchen you wanted to have. The kind of person you wanted to be. Swipe a bite of roasted salmon on your way past the stove. Maybe another, or, you know what, two more.  
  5. Debate whether to tell people that we actually ate this sandwich yesterday. Do you know what? Full disclosure. We ate this sandwich yesterday. That’s a little sacrifice I made so that you could eat it today. It was worth it. Try it! And I hope you have a wonderful Mardi Gratzer. Though if you prefer to celebrate Mardi Gras, this sandwich will work for that, too.

 Vegetarian Muffuletta | Umami Girl

Whatever you call today, I hope you enjoy it. See you next week.

Carolyn xxGet the recipe for Vegetarian Muffuletta >>

  • Ok Carolyn… FU@$ING crack me up!!! And I crack me up that we are such good friends and I have not seem this BOLG!!! (Course this may not crack you up). Anyway….I love your blog. Ugh….now I have another way to procrastinate….thanks allot Carolyn!ReplyCancel

Valentine“Mom? Connor Is a cool dude. He’s really smart. He knows the capitols. And about wars. And Vitamin C. No wait. What is it? Calcium.” That’s great, kiddo. I like that you noticed that. I like when you’re a good friend. Let’s be quiet now, okay? Time to sleep.

She rests her head on my arm and tugs the other arm over her belly. Wiggles a little closer, so that with every inhale my ribcage presses into her still-tiny back. “I like to be close to you, Mommy. I wish I could get closer, like when I used to be in your belly.” I know, snuggling is nice, isn’t it. Let’s try to be quiet now.

She talks some more, wiggles some more. Jabs my chin hard with her elbow, a daily occurrence that still takes me by surprise. Oh come ON! “I’m sorry, Mommy. I love you so much.” I wonder how her hair turns the smell of grilled cheese and my own cheap coconut shampoo into something to move toward and grasp so tightly. I force myself to remember that holding tight is only half the goal, and nowhere near half the effort. Granting freedom bit by bit, day by day is so much harder. Letting go.

Her muscles start to relax. Her breathing slows and deepens. Good night, my sweet girl. Sleep so, so well. See you in the morning.

Downstairs, sleep isn’t even on the agenda yet. There’s still so much to do. Rehashing basketball practice with Dad. Basketball practice that happens in sneakers only half a size smaller than mine and doesn’t end until nine o’clock at night. Second dinner and a bowl of frozen peaches. Basketball is a lot of work for someone who’s already growing four inches a year — who suddenly looks like an almost-teenager from the back, all gazelle legs in sporty shorts. You don’t know it, but we smile at the back of your head all the time, hunched over your totally legit homework. Shake our heads slowly together in awe at what you’re becoming. We’re watching. So how — when! — did you get so big without our knowing?

And you’re funny, and so astute. I got all nostalgic the other day about how your time living with us is more than half over now. You answered, “Who says? There’s no way I’m gonna be able to afford my own place after I graduate from college. I’m totally moving back in with you.” I mean, what newspapers are you reading to study macroeconomic trends while I sleep? At least we’ll be in capable hands if you’re taking care of us one day. Which, if the past ten years are any indication, will feel like approximately three weeks from now.

In the meantime, we’ll be sitting over here on the couch in our jeans and cozy socks, sipping our responsibly stiff drinks. You might not understand the expressions we’re wearing, because between the two of you, you still don’t know what 18 years look like. But I think you’re big enough now, so I’ll tell you.

This is the look of two people delighted but still a little confused by how all of this — absolutely everything — started half our lives ago with a single sidelong glance.

Carolyn xx

Get the recipe for The Sidelong Glance>>

  • Jordan

    Loving every single last bit of this.ReplyCancel

  • Love. Love. Love it all!ReplyCancel

  • Thank you, my sweet friends.ReplyCancel

  • Kelly

    OMG, Carolyn – this is so beautiful. I was expecting a recipe – and found such lovely musings that have me tearing up. Thank you for your amazing eloquence. LOVE!ReplyCancel

    • Thank you, wonderful Kelly. Hope you’re holding up in the snow! Miss you. xxReplyCancel

  • Anne Woodard

    I was reading this out loud to Dan & couldn’t finish because of the lump in my throat. Sigh. You nailed it … all the way down to the grilled cheese/coconut hair and stiff drink (it’s either gin or bourbon these days so this recipe is spot on!). And I am (sort of not really) mad at you for pointing out the fact that we are more than half way there of seeing our 10 year old leave from under our roof. Double sigh. You continue to amaze me! XxReplyCancel

Along the Seine Paris | Umami GirlIt’s an actual fact of life that every article ever written about Paris has the word “romantic” in its first sentence. Even this one. See? But our family’s relationship with Paris is less romantic and more like that albatross of Facebook statuses, “It’s complicated.” The one that means, “I’m secretly sleeping with three people and this is my cry for help,” or “Don’t act so surprised when we announce our divorce in two weeks,” or sometimes just, “Pleeeeeease pay attention to me.”

Last time we went to Paris, it wasn’t a great fit. Dinner started at nine, but our bedtime was seven. Half of us preferred playing school in the hotel room to setting foot along the Seine. The other half hadn’t learned yet that the key to traveling with kids is to show up with zero expectations.

We did a lot better this time, almost three years later, having grown a lot, learned a lot, and traveled a lot in the meantime. But it wasn’t perfect. We still don’t eat meat, and that’s still a mild affront to French heritage. For whatever deeply buried reasons, personal or cultural, it’s damn hard to show up in Paris without at least an air of expectation, if not a few well articulated ones. Also — I’m not gonna lie — some of us got lice.

It’s okay if you didn’t see that coming. Neither did I.

Here are some notes on what worked and what didn’t.

Getting There

Eiffel Tower and Louvre Plaza Paris | Umami Girl

What Worked: Taking the train. If you’re traveling straight to Paris from abroad, of course this isn’t your best option. But during our time in Europe, we really fell in love with train travel. We left Amsterdam at 10:18 one morning and arrived at Paris Gare du Nord — right in the middle of the city — by lunchtime. Along the way, we got a bit of a sense for the countryside of The Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France. 

What Didn’t Work: Walking from the train station to our airbnb 2.5 miles away, past a brewing violent protest, in sunny 85° F weather with a nine year old, a five year old and five very large bags — all because Cope said it was “in a straight line.” Like the equator. When we arrived at the beautiful flat of a very refined Parisian family (she’s a violinist with the symphony), each of us was panting lightly and dripping with sweat. “You have WALKED?” the couple said, clearly trying not to panic that this family with no judgment would be living in their home for a week. Alas, yes. We have walked.


Paris Apartment II | Umami GirlView full post »