Thursday, January 5, 2012


You whisk the eggs and then slowly pour in the milk.  A squeeze of fresh orange juice, vanilla extract, some salt. You whisk so vigorously you create an inch of foam. You're sweating but your left bicep feels strong.

You pour the batter over the three-day-old bread. You crank some music. 

You ask the kids to take the dog to the backyard. They pound down the stairs with the reluctant dog and leave the front door open. You throw a chunk of butter onto the griddle and let it go too long because you love the smell of brown butter. 

You close your right eye so that you can't see the pile of dishes from yesterday's oatmeal, last night's chicken, the food photography experiments, the wins, the losses. 

You want to run away. 

You turn up the song. You move your hips, your rib cage, your arms, twirling your hands like they contain castanets, spatula corkscrewing up to the ceiling. 

You lift up the custard-soaked bread one piece at a time, delivering them to the griddle, dripping the egg mixture across the counter. You think, what's a little more mess? The sizzling makes you think you would make a really good short order cook and that it would be much easier than managing this house. 

You remember that last night you slammed the bedroom door so fucking hard it cracked like one of those earthquake faults. San Andreas? Hayward? You can't remember which big one lies beneath the house. You sip your coffee and everything goes away. You put your mug down and it all comes back.

The pieces of French toast are lined up in two straight lines like Madeline's friends, steaming on the interior, craggy lines forming on the exterior.

The house is quiet.

You flip each piece. Splat. Splat. Splat. Butter flies onto your apron. You recently started buying aprons, because all your black clothes were stained with grease, but you swear you will never walk out of the house wearing one. No one will see this costume. You empty a bottle of maple syrup into a pot and turn on the heat.

You place the cooked slices onto a warm plate. Powdered sugar, lemon, jam, napkins, plates, and forks all to the table. 

You step out of your clogs and bust out a pirouette. You can still do four in a row on the left side but you know better than to try the right side. You slide your shoes back on and you are almost 6 feet tall again. You like feeling tall.

You rise up on your toes, as if you're wearing toe shoes, and lengthen your spine up over the dirty dishes. You peek out of the kitchen window. The kids are not in the garden. 

You run down the stairs, out the open door, and call out. Dash! Bella! Dash!

Your hands fly to your face. You feel your chest turn red and your heart start to race. You yell out to no one in particular. Oh my god! Where are they?

You are wearing red plaid pajamas, no bra, silver clogs, and a black and white striped apron. You are the crazy lady. 

You continue screaming your kids' names as you run down the block. Around the corner. And then around another. And then there they are.

"Mama, I thought you'd be proud. We decided to walk Wylie around the block."

You grab Bella too hard around her upper arms and repeat over and over again that Dash is four. Four. Bella. Don't you know that he is four.

"Yeah, Bella. I'm four."

You sit down on the ground and pull them both into your lap, the dog manages to tangle you all up in the leash like you're tied to the railroad tracks in one of those old movies with a fast-paced plinking piano soundtrack.

Bella caresses Dash's check.  And then your cheek. "I'm sorry, mama. But you know, I really can take care of him." 

But you don't want her to have that much responsibility yet. 

Dash was almost run over by a car. Twice. And then there were the hospital stays. The mushroom he ate. The Staphylococcus scare. And the spinal tap at seven weeks. And every second of every day for the first few years of his life when you couldn't turn your back on him for more than five seconds. The days when your heart was in your throat and your chest ached from too many shallow breaths.

"It's okay, mama. Dash is fine. Don't worry so much. How's the french toast?"


The maple syrup.

You run as fast as you can all the way home, followed by Dash in his Crocs, Bella in her Uggs, tugging on the dog's leash. All those impractical shoes and no one trips. 

Up the stairs, down the hall, into the kitchen. The thick maple foam is hovering right at the pot's edge. You pour the syrup into a pitcher. Dash reaches for it. You grab his wrist. Hardcore scary hot, you say. Don't touch. Please.

You pick him up and squeeze and spin and spin and squeeze.
You sit down and eat French toast with extra thick maple syrup. It turns to candy as it hits the cold plates.

"Mama. It's even better than regular maple syrup. We should do things like this every time from now on."

Okay. Bella. I will try. I will try. I will try.

serves 4
This is a template. You can add fewer eggs. Or more eggs. You can add Grand Marnier, nutmeg, cinnamon, heavy cream, or half and half. It's pretty much impossible to mess up French toast. You can even replace the milk with eggnog.

(Alternatively, you can soak the bread overnight in the custard. The next morning, sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake at 350°F until cooked through, 25 minutes or so. Broil the top until golden brown.)

10-12 slices stale white bread (challah or sourdough boules are particularly good)
3 eggs
2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped out
pinch salt
butter for grilling and serving
1 cup maple syrup

Place bread one layer thick on a sheet pan or in a large baking dish. Set aside.

Whisk eggs. Whisk in milk. Add orange juice/zest, vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, and salt. Whisk the heck out of it. Or just put it all in the blender. Pour over the bread. Let the bread soak up the custard. Flip the slices after a few minutes.

While the bread is soaking up the custard, pour maple syrup into a big pot. Bring it to a boil on the back of the stove. Turn down to medium and boil for at least 5 minutes. The longer you go, the closer it will get to candy. Pour into a pitcher to cool a little.

Crank up your griddle or pan to medium heat. Add some butter. Once melted, place custard-soaked bread on the griddle. Don't turn to high heat or they will burn on the outside before cooking on the inside. Flip when nicely browned. Eat right away with butter and piping hot maple syrup. Or with powdered sugar and lemon juice. Or cook lots of it. Cool. Then freeze in Ziploc bags. When you want a piece, thaw it in the toaster.


  1. One of those lurkers who reads but barely comments. Had to comment to day. This is so fantastically written, I read it twice.

  2. Wow. Wow to the wow. Dewey Cheatem and Howe. Your writing, your insight. Wow.

  3. Phyllis,
    You rock. I went along for your motherhood ride just now - beautifully written.
    I hope 2012 is good to you!

  4. Phyllis- I was picking up my 3.5 year old Dylan- who, so excited to move on to the next phase of the day, runs headlong into the street in front of oncoming traffic. I jumped out of my still moving car, screaming (I think?) and pulled him into my arms. We got home, still shaking from the pumping adrenaline, I put on my apron ready to do dish-as-meditation- and read your post. awesome. Think I'll skip the dishes.

  5. wow Phyllis I am in goddamn tears right now. this is not only beautiful but it is helping me get through this god awful week. thank you.

  6. I would say that this was a page turner -- couldn't stop reading -- but I think that terminology is null and void -- it was a scroller -- how's that? holy smokes. I also rescued Matteo after not watching him and having him run into the street, just as a car was making its way down the road. I was terrified and also so horrified at what I had done could not make eyes with the person behind the wheel. So glad the French toast was good! Oh my. This parenting job! I read in an Alfie Kohn piece that we shouldn't say "it's not rocket science" and instead say "it's not parenting." Loved this piece and felt it all.

  7. Super, I love your posts, and I love this recipe.

  8. your description of panic is palpable, every parent will identify. it gives me the shudders, but what a wonderful piece.

  9. Wow--first time on your site. This piece contains so much about what it's like to be a parent, a cook, an artist, and more. Very suggestive, expansive, beautiful writing. A pleasure to read!

  10. Whew! I think my breath was held from the of your best yet. Amazing. And now I want french toast. GOOD french toast.

  11. What a powerful and amazing post. Your writing style is so unique and moving! I'm glad everyone was okay. The french toast look amazing, on the menu for this weekend for sure :)

  12. Phyllis, this is so heart touching. Your writing is just amazing.

    You're a really inspiring mother and person.
    Just wanted to say this once again.

    Take care of yourself,

  13. I am so happy to read this and appreciate your amazing ability to share your experience so fluidly and beautifully. 4 on the left side!

  14. Yes. This. Your writing is a lovely living, breathing, gasping, heaving, tangible thing. And now I want frennch toast... Thank you.

  15. This is so beautifully written that it makes me cry... I know it's impossible with 2 kids, but I hope you can write more often.

    I have a 4 months old, you have inspired me so much.. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Man. Replace "ice-cream truck" for "Walking the dog" and I have so had that day. Right up to closing my right eye to avoid yesterdays oatmeal dishes.

    Beautiful writing, Phyllis.

  17. Thanks to Cheryl from 5 second rule for introducing me to your blog ... and this post.

    My heart clung to every word. And now I feel the urge to cling to my own precious 4 year old. There's still time, before she grows up :)

  18. Your words have touched me deeply Phyllis... and powerfully transported me back to a time when our children (now 24 & 19) were Dash and Bella's age. It is with great pride and emotion that I convey to you that it still takes only a nono-second for my heart to pound in my chest for reasons only a mother can explain over my children. Whether over safety, health, or general happiness my heart will always be entwined in theirs. Thank you for sharing a very personal moment in your lives so vividly.

  19. You're the best. I feel hella tight cuz we interacted before you got on the newspaper of record for a nation. The right coasters dont know we have our own nation in norcal, but whateva.

    1. WTF are you talking about. Learn English.

  20. Whew. The journey of family can be rough and wonderful, all at once.

    Great post.

  21. I positively love love love the way you tell a story.

  22. I don't think I took a breath until I finished reading. Beautifully written, and another scrumptious recipe. Thanks!

  23. The silence of the house when the kids take the dog out, the private moment of spinning while cooking breakfast, walking outside with your apron on, Peeking out the window to check on the kids, grabbing them close-- Thank you for slowing these moments down for us. I feel the soul of what I'm doing as a mother today, and I have you to thank.

  24. I just found this blog after reading your tip for picky eaters on Babble. I thought I would check your FB page out and found this blog entry. This is one of the best I've read in a while. I am crying and laughing at the same time. I feel like you've just written about a day in my life. I can't wait to see what you write next! So glad I found you!

  25. Did you catch 5 Second Rule's recent post about good food writing? Synchronously, she posted the same day you posted this. Your writing definitely makes our hearts flutter & want to "read it again to drink it in more fully." Thank you.

  26. I love your blog, but have never before commented. However, as a previous commenter said: I had to on this one. This post was amazing. As another reader said, I was with you on your motherhood ride. And I don't even like french toast, but now I want some. :)

  27. First I glanced over it and sorta got distracted by the custard-soaked bread on the griddle and skipped to the pic, but something made me go back and read the rest. You have inspired me in so many ways, love cooking with my 5yr old babe, want her to have Bella's wisdom and Dash's adventurous pallate. Now I feel like I know you - that moment, that feeling in the pit of your stomach that only a mother can feel when something goes wrong. twice my 1.5 yr old has wandered away too close to danger. I have felt that panic and it's the absolute worst feeling in the world. Yet, we can happily spin and squeeze them in our safe arms. love your writing and love those kids of yours.

  28. Love this post. I felt the panic, the pain. I have a 4 yo and a 7 yo (who went to Step One).

    I saw the article on Berkeleyside and wanted to reach out. I write and would love to share some of your fave picks with our readers. Find me, ok?

  29. Thank you for being brave enough to share this. They are so strong and yet so vulnerable. I don't know anything harder as a parent than trying to find that balance somewhere in between the two. Your story brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my lips. At the same time.

  30. Holy crap. Love this post. Crying. Don't stop writing!

  31. Pulls at the apron strings, for sure. Thank you for taking the time to write this, and thanks to Cheryl at 5secondrule for pointing me to your blog. I'm hooked!

  32. I am constantly browsing online for articles that can facilitate me. Thank you!
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  33. Brilliant! Reminds me of the time my 18 month old managed to break out of the security measures I had installed . . . taking a shower upstairs, hear a door slam downstairs, jump out of the shower, throw on a robe, tear downstairs and half way down the street before I catch him . . . luckily there was only one lone jogger out that Sunday morning to witness my naked dash down the street . . .

  34. This showed up in my fb on this day. I reread it and still love this.

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