In the weeks preceding my organization’s annual conference, the nice parts of life are jettisoned day by day as we hurtle toward the Biggest Week of the Year. Once it’s all over, my colleagues and I look forward to settling back into a Normal Routine. Except—speaking for myself at least—what we really crave is some personal variety. When I got home at 5:00 on Sunday evening, part of me wanted to go straight to bed. The other part of me wanted to feed myself something delicious and interesting and maybe a little extravagant. Poached eggs over braised fennel made a comforting and satisfying meal. And hey, when was the last time I used two pots AND a gadget (microplane grater for the parm and the lemon zest) on myself? Yep, I went all out.000_0595

Couldn’t bring myself to throw out the braising liquid from the fennel, so for lunch on Monday I added garlic & lemon & parsley and some cubed potato. Perfect zingy soup for a gray, drizzly day.000_0599

It’s terrific when culinary experiments work out, but it’s also important to have some routines to fall back on in challenging times. Over the years, I’ve developed a simple strategy for surviving the conference itself.000_0554

Subsisting mostly on nuts and fruit for a week may seem a little too hair-shirt, but consider the alternative: damp, bland sandwiches from the hotel coffee shop, maybe a stale croissant at the continental breakfast. Bleah.

It’s not just my diet that lacks variety during conference time. It’s pretty much impossible for me to focus on new or thoughtful reading material, so one trashy novel (preferably purchased for $2 from the guys on Broadway &73rd before skipping town) tends to last the week. I usually get through it—the first time—on the plane. Yes, I plot-centrically race toward the end to find out whodunit. And then, on the second read, I can stop whenever I want to. Don’t judge. I figure it’s kind of like watching re-runs to fall asleep, the main difference being that I’d have to put on glasses to watch TV from bed.

Anyway, now that things have settled down, it’s nice to be able to read something new, something written above a fifth-grade level. This week’s New Yorker has an article by Adam Gopnik subtitled “on razors, songbirds, and starfish.” (It also covers mousetraps, peacocks, and booklights.) Gopnik challenges a pretty basic assumption, one about need driving inventiveness. “A baseline of comfort, not a sudden stress of desperation, is what lets innovation happen.” Later, he puts it more poetically: “… the traits that might have been ruled out by the dim struggle for existence are allowed to flourish in the bright sunlight of abundance. The early bird races to the worm and, worn out, croaks the same few flat notes as his fathers; the songbird that wakes at ten and ambles to the worm of his choice in a land where worms are cheap has time and energy to get up on a branch and improvise a new song.”

But here’s the rub: all that innovation doesn’t always result in improvement. Or so says Gopnik. I’m with him on the ridiculous variety of razors. I’m not so sure, however, that the candle remains the best night-time reading light.

Back to food. The week before I left for the conference, out of sheer exhaustion, I reverted to an old stand-by nearly every night, and it was pretty terrific. While I’m glad to have the leisure to cook myself a multi-pot meal, it is hard to improve on PB&J—for ease, cheapness, nutrition, and that perfect balance of salty/sweet/crunchy/creamy.000_0550One of these days, some clever restaranteur is going to realize it’s the ideal bar snack.

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