Friday, December 25, 2009

I'm sitting at my father's desk.

To my right are photographs of his mother, his father, his grandfather.

His mom sits cross-legged on a lawn in front of a fence. The year is 1925. She's wearing a dress, but still she sits cross-legged on a lawn. I must take after her. Her head is cocked to one side, she grins, the hat is rakish.

The other photograph shows his dad and his grandfather. They are looking straight ahead, not smiling. They are wearing hunting caps and carry guns. Papaw points his gun to the ground, as he's supposed to. He was a preacher.  Great-Grandfather points his gun out the right side of the frame, reckless. He has a pipe in his mouth. He raised cotton for cash, but otherwise grew vegetables and hunted in the woods.

My father yells in from the other room: "it was a hard life."

Coffee is fragrant, I hear the fire pop--it's fat wood. 

I will go back in now and sit down and plan with my dad the oven sequence for tomorrow. The ham must go in by 6 to accomodate the stollen at 9 to be ready for the family as they arrive at 10, bearing their version of frankincense and myrrh: casserole dishes.

My life is blessed, sitting here at my father's desk, suddenly young and small.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fried Chicken

If I were to use last night's potluck as grist for a scenewriting mill, the soundtrack would be this:

my Arkansas family singing an old gospel song:

I'll meet you in the morning with a "how do you do" and we'll sit down by the river and with rapture auld acquaintance renew...

over which the laughter of friends, the snippets of conversation, and the sizzle of chicken frying could be heard.

The occasion was a "Southern" potluck, right here in Seattle. My home and my home, a gentle collision. There was a theme, represented by fried chicken, biscuits, collards, Red Velvet Cake, and the like. There were variations: the Southern classics inflected by the region in which they were being prepared; the dishes designed to make me twitch (SUGAR! in CORNBREAD!); the fanciful and joyous interpretations of what might be Southern, if that cookbook or this friend had given good direction.

What was JUST like a Southern potluck was the celebration of the simplest of fare. Beans. Greens. Cornmeal. Chicken wings. Sweet Potatoes. And what was not at all like a Southern potluck? My bottle of pepper sauce was as full as when I brought it. I swear, y'all. It would have been DOUSED on beans and greens back home. That bottle would have been empty 5 people into a line at a dinner-on-the-ground. We'll have a do-over. And next time I'll baptize each and every one of you with pepper sauce.

Here is my preparation for fried chicken. It's not crispy--more like tooth-cracking crunchy, so beware if you have dentures.

Fried Chicken

Get a butcher to break down your chicken thusly:

legs, thighs, wings, breasts cut in half, necks separated from body; backs cut in half; giblets.

Day 1, evening: prepare a brine of roughly 1 gallon of water and 1 cup of kosher salt. Bring to a boil and dissolve salt. Take from stove and throw in a lemon, halved, and a couple of bay leaves.  Let chill overnight.

Day 2, morning: put your chicken in large ziploc bags (I bag it with chicken pieces in one and giblets separate) and ladle in brine. Chill all day.

Day 2, evening: rinse off chicken and drain. In a very large bowl, stir 2-3 T. of Louisiana Hot Sauce or Sriracha (or similar) into 1/2 gallon of buttermilk. Place chicken (innards can now be reunited with the, um, outards) in the buttermilk and stir to coat. Cover and chill overnight.

Day 3, morning: turn the chicken and return to the refrigerator.

Day 3, evening: Toss chicken piece by piece in all-purpose flour and place in clean bags. Let sit for a bit--you're trying to develop almost a paste more than a "batter"--it will be sticky.

Heat fat (about 1/2 inch deep) in a large iron skillet until a speck of flour sizzles immediately in it. I use a ratio of about 60% lard, 30% peanut oil, and 10% bacon drippings. I stand by this combination of fat types, but sure, play around.

While the fat is heating up, take the chicken out and dredge it one more time, this time in White Lily® flour (or another low-gluten flour--you could use pastry flour or cornstarch in a pinch), and shake off excess flour. Lower skin side down into the fat. Watch your heat--as you're adding the chicken, you want to maintain an even fry, so you might have to increase the flame at this stage and then ratchet it back down again.  Do NOT flip the chicken again and again. Let it cook until the bottom is a deep golden brown and THEN turn it. When the other side is done, take it out and drain it skin side up on a rack, salting lightly. Fry the giblets last, and create a diversion so that you can have the gizzard before anyone else notices there is one.

If you want to make gravy, pour off almost all the fat, but keep the brown crispies in the skillet. Add an equal amount of flour and stir well (and continuously). When the flour has turned golden brown, slowly add a couple of cups of whole milk or (gasp) half-and-half or (GASP) cream. Immediately start stirring to smooth out lumps--it'll thicken up pretty quickly, so you need to work fast. Taste for salt and then add a LOT of fresh black pepper just before you pour it up into a bowl. Finally, hope that someone else has made some mashed potatoes or hot biscuits, because you will be in a lather from frying the chicken. Sit down and pass everything around and give thanks for the chickens and for the friends or family who are around your table with you. Worry about the clean-up later.



Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Twittiquette Manifesto

Here's what I love about the Seattle intersection of Twitter and Foodlovers: there is a real, live community of warm, gifted, funny, discerning, generous, talented, ethical, hospitable, and empathetic people behind the avatars. Not all people are all of those things all of the time, but that's a pretty daunting string of qualities for any one person to embody 24/7, no?

And here's what I worry about: no one really knows yet how to negotiate the parameters and etiquette of online social networking that leads to such community in real life. 

So here's my Own Private Twittiquette Manifesto, which may be adopted or scorned by others. But it will guide my behavior:

1.  If I tweet that I'm with a group of people at a public location, say, a café, I will not be surprised or alarmed if others want to join. That's the risk I run for being public. If I make something sound enticing, who can blame people for being enticed?

2. If someone else tweets that there is a group of people at a public location, say, a café, and I really want to go, I will DM someone in that group and inquire about whether it's a private function. If I don't know anyone in the group well enough to DM them, I will stay at home and enjoy the banter of others.

3. If people are discussing a gathering at someone's home, and I'm not explicitly invited, I assume no invitation. I will accept that there is no way that everyone can go to everything; that people have limited entertainment space; and that I will go to something else at another time.

4. If I'm hosting something, I will try not to tweet about it unless I'm oriented toward openness or prepared to explain my guest policy otherwise.

5. I will never bring extra people along to something at someone's home without explicit permission from the host.

6. But I will be gracious if someone brings someone else to my home--I will not embarrass anyone.

The reality is that this is all murky. In addition to safety (I mean, it goes without saying that I will not meet someone no one's vouched for the first time by handing out my address, right?), my guiding principle is that I want to support community. I also want to be IN community. That doesn't mean I get to go to everything, it doesn't mean I want to be in exclusionary community, it doesn't mean I have enough space to host as many people as I would like.  Murky, see?

But the murkiness and risk of tripping are a small price to pay for being on this community journey, which is mostly a delicious (in every sense of the word) adventure.

For that I give thanks.

What are your thoughts? 

Saturday, November 28, 2009

the chicken back

Let me start at the end and reel backwards.

Tonight I stewed a chicken, so that I could prepare a pot of Nanny's chicken and dumplings for a gathering tomorrow evening.  A simple dish, this. It's essentially chicken and flour, which means that the chicken must be worthy of starring in a fragrant pot of broth and dough. I went with my friend Becky up to Skagit River Ranch to see about one, since she needed to pick up something anyway. Truth be told, I could have bought the chicken in a store. But it was a holiday weekend, it was a sunny day, it was a chance to spend time with a friend with a change of short, a lark. And larks are in short supply. We started our lark thusly, perfectly:

Becky: "Hi, I need coffee."
Jenifer: "Well, you know, we're going to be passing Frost Doughnuts on the way up."
Becky: "Let's go."

 Once at the Ranch, we made short work of our purchases (I got some eggs, too, and a recipe, and availed myself of the restroom--which is a story in and of itself), and then we went out to explore the land. We were accompanied by the sweetest dog on the face of the earth,

and we met some goats and a bull and chased some chickens around in the mud. It was nose-drippingly cold and beautiful and alternately misty and sunny. I thought for a moment I could live there and I remembered that as much as I love the city, I come from the country. Sometimes a visit to the touchstone is necessary.

We left the Ranch and puttered around in the Skagit Valley: a lunch at Slough Food in Edison, a GPS-less meandering in search of the Rexville Grocery (I was the optimist: "well, I-5 is to our east--worst that can happen is that we end up at the Puget Sound to our west.  Oh, look: there's the Puget Sound!").

We saw trumpeter swans and bald eagles, we sang 60s songs at the tops of our lungs, we stopped and got MORE doughnuts (oops, I probably wasn't supposed to reveal that) and all in all, it was a most Lark-Worthy Day.

But about that chicken:

As I was taking it out of the broth, it fell apart in my hands and I found myself holding the chicken back. The smell of that unctuous goodness, the steam on my face, and the back bone in my hand reminded me that Nanny never, ever ate any piece of chicken other than the back. When she fried it on Sundays, she handed around the best parts to everyone else and insisted that the back is all she wanted. And the truth is, she was not sacrificing. She was fed as surely by our appreciation of the meal as by any little bit of meat, and it's taken me a lifetime to figure that out.

I saw it Thanksgiving night as Marc fussed over us all with the most incredible spread:

I saw it Friday as Becky led me to Slough Food, where she thought we might find a delightful lunch:

I see it every time I'm invited to someone's home or taken to a new restaurant or shown a favorite book.

And I say out loud, right now, how privileged I am to share my life with people whose stance is grounded in generosity.

Thank you, friends, for giving me the shirt off your back, I mean, the chicken off your, um... just thank you. 

Chicken backs, by the way, when fried well, have the most delightful crispy bits...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Family dinner.

There was a moment last night at the "family dinner" at Delancey.

Looking down the table of candles, wine glasses, and smiling faces, I focused in on a young woman and her grandmother, and three narratives of "family" converged.

I cried. Actual, surprising, unexpected tears.

Families of origin: mirrored there in the love Gina and Elsie--their names, I found out later--shared with each other. Elsie was, by far, the oldest person there, and Gina was proud to have her grandmother on her arm. Elsie claimed she was having an "adventure" and Gina assured us Elsie would adopt us all, gladly. We believed her. We loved her. We were glad she was there. We thought of our own grandmothers.

Families of choice: a table of people who love food, love life, will fall on a plate of wood-fire crisped bread and homemade butter as if it were the last meal on earth. Who will photograph it, tweet it, commit it to the mind's autograph book. "We were here. We were fed. We were sustained." These are my people.

Families of affinity: Brandon and Molly have created a space where people want to be. They make beautiful food, day in and day out. But last night, they turned the apron over to their sous-chef, Charlie. A few months into the life of the restaurant, they put their sous-chef front and center and gave him the freedom (and the support and muscle and sweat, no doubt) to prepare a 4-day rabbit braise. It was a wonderful meal. We clapped and raised our glasses of hot bourbon-spiked apple cider and drank to Charlie's meal. We drank to Brandon and Molly's graciousness. We drank to each other and to all being in love with a candle-twinkled room on a cold, rainy night.

And to Elsie and Gina.

And to oysters slurped in glee.

And to friends who are family.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sweeping up.

You know what it feels like when you've swept a room?

You start with the big sweep, the wide swaths across the room.
And then you make another pass, gathering up more debris as you go.
And then again, down to the dust.
And then again, back and forth, back and forth into the dustpan.
Again, left, again, right.
Some into the cracks of the concrete on the floor.
Some into the pan.
Big broom down now, on hands and knees with a small whisk.
Again, again, again, again.

Until you have it all.

And then you look at the dustpan with satisfaction, lift the lid of the trashcan, drop the contents down into the darkness.

But some of the dust flies up and makes you cough.

That's what the final editing process for the book felt like last night--three years, ending with dust and a little cough.

I always sleep well in a clean house.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The finish line.

I'm almost in the bell lap with this book.

This is the final weekend push: an editing frenzy, glued to the desk chair, praying to the Internets not to take down Skype or Google Docs.

My co-editor will try to persuade me to slow down and look hard at something and I will counter with the deadline, the deadline, don't get it perfect just get it done we don't have time.

But first:

I acknowledge the long week (to nod to self care).
I listen to music (to have something soar in me).
I wash the sheets (to swaddle me when it's time to break).
I look at photos (to wallpaper my soul).

Head down now, into the wind, deep breaths...

and run.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hot Water Gingerbread with Persimmon

"Oh, no, you di'nt!" (Nanny might have said)

Oh, yes, I did. I took my great-grandmother's hot water gingerbread recipe and gave it a makeover. Not that it needed one--that gingerbread holds up quite well, both objectively (it really is good) and subjectively (it evokes. Oh, it evokes).

But I had persimmons, see. Not the soft, jammy kind that would have given me pulp for persimmon bars or cookies (which would have evoked Aunt Marketa, not Nanny), but the sturdy ones. And while I like paper-thin slices of persimmon in a fall salad as much as the next girl, that's not what was calling. It's been stormy and cold and wet and dark here. And I've been huddled under the stairs (where my desk resides--not horror movie-ish) at the computer, pushing to get a revised manuscript turned around.

Gingerbread. This is the best costume, er, baked good for the day (with apologies to Little Edie:

So I played a bit. Tinkered with the original recipe (used a combination of whole-wheat pastry flour and cornmeal instead of all-purpose flour; butter instead of oleo; cane instead of sorghum molasses; added fresh ginger), and then recklessly and unapologetically threw in two diced Fuyu persimmons.  One confession: I should have placed a disc of greased parchment in the bottom of the cake pan, since I had added fresh fruit to the batter. It wouldn't, um, release itself completely (notice the transfer of blame to the cake, with the clever use of a reflexive verb). In spite of that cosmetic flaw, it's a tasty treat. I will definitely add it to my fall repertoire.

Hot Water Gingerbread with Persimmon

1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 c. molasses (sorghum, if you can get it; otherwise, cane)
2 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. fresh nutmeg
2 t. baking soda
1 c. boiling water
2 t. grated fresh ginger
2 eggs, well-beaten
2 Fuyu persimmons (ripe, but still firm), peeled and diced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Stir together flour, meal, and spices. Dissolve soda in boiling water. Add molasses to sugar mixture, then add soda water. Mix again. Stir in flour. Beat in ginger and eggs quickly (so they don't scramble), then stir in persimmon. The batter is relatively runny, so don't panic and toss extra flour in.  Bake in a round cake or 8x8 inch square pan, greased and lined with buttered parchment, roughly 45 minutes or until the center is set and a toothpick tests clean.

Let cool 20 minutes in the pan and then remove. Serve plain (alone at desk, with tea, while writing) or with sweetened whipped cream (with friends at a table, with tea, while talking).

Stay warm. Think of great-grandmothers.

[Above: the top view. Below: the bottom aka true confession view.]

Friday, November 6, 2009

Give us astonishment.

Sometimes the things I want to write about mill around in my head until a certain moment when they all decide to rush the door and elbow each other to get out first.

Like tonight.

Stored up from the week were:

lying on the acupuncture table and grinning out of nowhere, for no reason, and wondering why;

and falling in love ever more deeply with my life, my city, my old-new-newer friends;

and finally getting word about the book contract;

and responding with a late night canning frenzy, pears and ginger;

and singing along (all parts) with Schubert's Erlkönig at the top of my lungs at the stop light and realizing my window was cracked and the "can you spare anything" guy at the intersection had lowered his sign to stare at me;

and the world-cracking thunderstorms from the last two days, which took me back to the tornado of 1998, when I lost so much--art, furniture, car, photo negatives, 15 year old sourdough starter (with the yeasts of four states...the only thing I cried over)--and gained even more (courage, brazenness);

and this poem by Adam Zagajewski:

A Flame

God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride--before
our age ends,
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.

--from Without End: New and Selected Poems

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Come With Me"

This is what we're saying, after all, when we tell a story.

And this is the title of the little book I just received in the mail, sent to me by father, authored by his brother.  Uncle Joe. In his late 70s. A storyteller all his life, who finally gathered up his stories at the exhortation of his brothers and his wife and made a book.

My dad edited it and their brother, my Uncle Bill, provided the many photographs that tell another version of those stories. I know most of them already. And still, my heart breaks with joy at the sight of them on pages, all together, names and images and turns of phrase that add up to my family and my home and Uncle Joe's overalls and his cornbread and his laugh and the cigarettes he sneaks and the jelly he gives me as "rent" for the muscadines he poaches from my land, adjacent to his in Van Buren County, Arkansas.

 From his acknowledgments, speaking about his brothers:

They are both experienced authors, and a few months ago they decided that this book should be published...we had to have a "book meeting" every Friday morning following breakfast. After sixteen weeks, thirty five pounds of ham and two hundred eighty-eight biscuits, we got it all together.

He has always wanted to write a book.

And now he has.

My uncle, the author.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sitting Shiva, Holding the Wake: Remembering Gourmet Magazine

From the time I was a small child, I knew that a death meant food and laughter and crying and more food.

People gathered. They brought platters of cold fried chicken or deviled eggs, a pound of coffee in a can.

They sat on webbed lawn chairs in living rooms, and the bereaved were hovered over by ladies in dresses and brooches and men in short-sleeved shirts and ties.

There was some crying, but not as much as there were laughter and stories. Sometimes the recounting was about a silly habit the deceased had, or the time the hand brake had given out on his car, sending him running down the dirt road after the runaway vehicle. Oh, the chortling, and then the sighs and the handkerchiefs dabbed at eyes and noses.

Just so, this past Saturday, a group of us gathered to remember: not a person, but an institution--Gourmet Magazine. Instructed to prepare a favorite recipe from the long history of the publication to share, we had compared ideas throughout the weeks ahead. No one really called dibs on anything, but as the day of the celebration approached, we started to stake out our culinary claims.

And on the night of the party (from wake to celebration to party), we arrived one by one and two by two. It was already dark and there were twinkling lights decorating Kim's house. We came in, holiday style, all bundled and apple-cheeked, bearing cloth-covered dishes and bags. There was a fire in the fireplace, candles, stacks of plates, and extra chairs. Oohs and aahs and nods of recognition as each new dish was unveiled and placed on the table. "Oh, yes, that was a classic!" "We always made this one for birthdays." Several of us made cocktails from the Gourmet collection, and folks gathered to mix them up and clink glasses, nibbling at the finger foods and showing great restraint around the larger dishes.

Finally someone, I don't remember who, grabbed a plate and we all fell on the repast spread out before us. Dishes balanced on laps, cheeks even more apple-y from the Cranberry Gin and Tonics and the fire, shouted greetings to late arrivals. Jon gave an oyster-shucking demonstration and we cheered as shuckapprentices tried their hand under his careful guidance. Daisy the Collie tried desperately to get her nose into the guacamole, into anything and shhhhhh, don't tell, I did hold my empty plate to her sweet head for her to lick as clean as a whistle.

We went around the room and told stories about what Gourmet had represented in our lives. We meant it when we said it would endure, and surely our gathering and respect for the good food offered and our genuine affection for each other were testaments to the cultural bond we all shared--because of a magazine.

The Magazine of Good Living.

All of us in that warm house on Saturday night found our way to each other because of our love of Good Living. Gourmet was our scripture. Our Requiem, our Shiva, were appropriately marked by smiles and pampered palates, hugs and compliments over a crust just so, a presentation artfully designed, a flavor that awakened a memory.

It led a full, rich life, that magazine. It fed full, rich lives.

We live better because of it.

Let us give thanks.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The art of art.

I was in one of those conversations.

Two art collectors in a clearing at a gallery, circling each other rhetorically, sizing each other up.

I was supposed to be fawning over the stuff I was there to see, but I really couldn't. Damn me and my honesty (I once drove 20 miles in Appalachia to return the excess money a cashier had returned to me after an insignificant transaction, much to her confusion). So I said, half apologetically, "I don't love it."

I could tell my conversation partner didn't know where to go with that, and since I didn't want to get into any chest-thumping about something as capricious as what art I love, I gestured toward my friends gathering at the door, shrugged my shoulders faux-ruefully, and scurried out.

Fast forward to tonight.

I swept into a West Seattle home of strangers, was greeted like family, could barely look at the art because of the engaging conversation still in the foyer...and the living room...and the stairwell...and the bathroom...and the kitchen.

No posturing. Images that spoke to me. People that cared about art, life, each other. Generosity of spirit, generation of the spark that fueled the return of me to myself at the end of a hard week.

And it made me think: so much of the art in my home is not about a careful calculation of collector value (although I'm lucky that I've made good choices in that regard), but rather is about the very subjective experience I have when I encounter it.

Sometimes I buy something because the image follows me around. I keep turning to look at it. I go past it and back up. I look at it over my shoulder again and again, and I know.

And sometimes I collect something because I love who made it. Every single time I look up at the brooding, painted eyes over my desk, I think of Jerry. John is in every cup of coffee I drink from the stoneware he made.

And sometimes, like tonight, I am seduced by the combination of a quick drive through Friday evening rush hour traffic with a friend, our animated chatter the soundtrack to the city lights receding behind our drizzle-soaked window; arriving at a warm home on this windy night; compelling images that tweak my memory-strings; the easy hospitality of people who love sharing food and space with friends; a painter who is honest and frank, both in his work and in his being; a photographer whose skillful, intimate photographs are juxtaposed with her nervousness and broad smile (nerves trumped by delight).

I would have loved the paintings and the photographs without all that.

But I got a soul-feeding, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nanny's Chow Chow

And, no, it's not a breed of canine.

It's a relish, omnipresent on plates at 711 E. 17th Street in Little Rock, AR during my childhood. It's what Nanny and Daddy Gene, my maternal great-grandmother and great-grandfather, canned at the end of the summer with all those green tomatoes still on the vines just before first frost. It was the tart and crunchy that went with the greasy and salty on the rest of the plate.

Here's my mom's description, upon receiving some from her brother recently:

It was delicious! We opened one of the two jars and served it up at the farm today, and it brought back fond memories! Nanny ALWAYS served chow chow with turkey (or chicken) and dressing...always!! Of course it was a staple for other foods and occasions, as well! You said we might want to add more salt, but we don't need it anymore than you do (even though we grew up on favorite meal was fried saltmeat, fried okra, fried or boiled new potatoes, turnip greens, purple hull peas (or great northern beans), fresh tomatoes out of Daddy Gene's garden, along with green onions, cucumbers and radishes...and slathered in "grease gravy", with cornbread to sop it all up! I'd give anything to have just one more of those meals!

And here's my uncle's e-mail from this morning, a response to a request for the recipe. Seems Seattle is overrun with green tomatoes, and chow chow is the first thing that occurred to me.

Here is the recipe. I changed it a little because I started using an electric grinder, The percentage of the mix can vary a little. Each batch has a little different flavor. Nanny just used what she had. She liked a lot of flavor and hot pepper. She used the long red peppers because that is what Daddy Gene grew. The recipe makes about 40-50 pints. You might try half that on your first batch.

It's messy! On my first batch my feet were sticking to the floor!

Good luck. Let me know how it turns out.

And here, friends, is the recipe, in my uncle's own words. I wish I had a picture, too. If anyone makes it, let me know--I would be happy to make you some cornbread for barter. Enjoy.

Nannie’s Chow-Chow Recipe


One crate of green tomatoes
One-half bushel Onions
One-half bushel Bell Peppers (a mix of green and red adds color)
Twelve to Fourteen heads of Cabbage (medium size)
Five cups of Apple Vinegar
Four cups Sugar
One-half cup Salt
Small bag of Pickling Spices (about one and a half to two inches in diameter
One-half pound of Hot Peppers (about 20 to 50 depending on the pepper used)

Grinding Instructions:

If using an electric meat grinder, use the largest holed grinder plate. Grind each ingredient separately and keep separate. Reserve all the fluid in each ingredient. It is best to grind because it produces more reserve liquid. If a food processor is used you may have to add water when cooking. If you must cook in more than one batch, try to estimate the volume of each ingredient and keep the blend as close to the same as possible in each batch.

Cooking Instructions:

Bring Vinegar, Sugar and Salt mixture to a boil and place the bag of Pickling Spice in the liquid when it is early in the boiling process. Let the Pickling Spices boil for awhile. (The longer the stronger, you can add more later) Remove before adding the ground ingredients. Reserve the bag of Pickling Spices for possible later use. Place the ground ingredients into a large Pot (the flatter the better, you may have to use two burners) and add the Vinegar mix. Add all of the reserved liquid. You must have enough liquid to cover the solids when you seal the jars.)

Bring the mix to a simmer under medium heat while stirring frequently and cook until the cabbage is soft but not mushy. Start to taste when nearing completion and add more flavor to your taste. Judge the taste with a small amount that has been cooled in a small bowl in the refrigerator or freezer. You can add more pickling spice by heating a small amount of Vinegar or water in a cup and letting the bag of spice soak for awhile. Make sure there is enough liquid at the end. It should look like you have too much liquid at the end of the cook. Boil your jars and lids and fill with the mix making sure there is liquid at the top. Use pints for condiment use and pints or quarts for side dish use. Seal the tops tightly and tighten more when cooled. You can use the water bath method but Nanny never did and we have never had a problem with spoilage if used in a few months.

For condiment use the ratio of ground ingredients should be about 30% Cabbage, 35% Tomatoes, 20% Onion and 15% Bell Pepper.
For side dish use the ratio of ground ingredients should be about 35% Cabbage, 35% Tomatoes, 15% Onion and 15% Bell Pepper.

A half crate of green tomatoes is about half a grocery sack. Adjust all the ingredients (ground and flavors) to the tomatoes. You can use more Cabbage than above if you can’t find enough green tomatoes. You can adjust the flavors at the end. I usually make a lot more of the Vinegar mix than I think I need (double) and add more to taste near the end of the cook. Nanny always added more near the end. I have never had too much liquid at the end. When opened a jar should be eaten in two or three weeks. If you buy jars and want to use the box for storage, you need to reinforce the box with tape. I use cayenne peppers.

You will usually need to do one batch to get it the way you like. I screwed up my first batch every way possible and it was still good.

Update: I told my uncle there were some friends who might be making this, and he got all excited. Here's his response:

It is great to have a lot of tomatoes. They can use more tomatoes in the recipe and get a better side dish type of chow-chow. I think they would probably like that type of chow-chow better if it's their first time to taste it. It could still be used as a condiment. If they use a food processor, I would use the large grater disk. Unless they have tasted Nanny's original they may not know how to adjust the flavor. I would advise them to make it a little stronger than the recipe because I usually add more of the vinegar mix at the end. It's fun to make if you already have the tomatoes. It gives you the old frontier spirit if you have grown the tomatoes!

You might not know that chow-chow was the vitamin pills for rural people in the old days. It was eaten almost every day. Nannie and Daddy Gene ate it with every full meal.

Give your friends my best!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grown-Up Tea Party (quince fried pies; cheese & bacon grits)

It's not that I never had good tea parties growing up, it's just that they were in my head.

Today I went to one with real, live people and animated conversation in a light-filled room. There were nibblies of every sort and jams and curds and teas. Some people brought traditional tea party fare and others brought "it's a celebration and this is what my people do" offerings. Still others shared the bounty from season's end gardens or the farmer's market.

All of us ate too much and apologized not one bit for it.  Here's to grown-ups getting their little kid tea party on.

My contributions were quince fried pies and cheese and bacon grits.


dough for 12-ish pies:

2 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. rendered leaf lard (you could use shortening, but butter would burn, I think)
1/2 c. whole, raw milk from Sea Breeze Farm (sure, use a different kind, but you'll miss the love!)

Sift flour and salt together. Mix in cold lard with fingertips until it resembles sand. Stir in milk until shaggy and just holding together. Turn onto floured board, gather together into a ball, then a flat disk, and cut into quarters. Cut those into thirds and form into a small ball.  This dough is more forgiving than pie dough--it's really closer to a biscuit dough, and the lard makes it easier to work with.


 5 quince, peeled, cored, and diced (give yourself time; quince are ornery)
water to just cover
+/- 1 cup sugar (depends on how astringent the quince are--you'll just have to play*)
1 knife tip ground cloves
2 knife tips ground cinnamon
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 t. vanilla (scrapings of a vanilla bean handy? even better)
3 T. butter

Place fruit and sugar in a saucepan with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Add the spices and lemon juice. Stew the fruit over low heat until it's soft, but still a bit chunky, and most of the liquid has cooked away.  At the very end, stir in vanilla and butter. Let cool (if you do this ahead and refrigerate, bring back to room temperature before proceeding).

Assemblage and fryage (I made that second word up):

1 c. or more of leaf lard
1 c. sugar

Roll each circle of dough into a 5 in. circle. Place a heaping soup spoon of filling in center. Moisten edges of dough with your fingertip and water, then fold over gently (careful--don't tear dough) and seal all edges completely. Crimp with a fork.  Continue with the rest of the dough.

Put lard in a steep-sided, wide skillet and heat until a tiny ball of dough sizzles mightily when tested in it. Gently lay the pies in, without crowding, a few at a time. Fry in batches until golden, then turn gently and fry the other side. You may have to stand them upright, too, to get an all-over gold (add more lard as necessary).  Take pies up and immediately place them on a plate of sugar, turning quickly to coat all sides. Remove to rack to cool.

These are good at room temperature, but I encourage you to organize your life around having at least one while still warm. Or kind of wreck the first one, so you'll be forced to eat it, lest you serve something unsightly to a guest.  Hospitality requires it, you know.  wink

*it's for a tea party, after all


2 c. stone-ground grits
6 c. water
1 t. salt
4 T. butter
1/2 lb. shredded cheese (I used Beecher's Flagship and Estrella Valentina*)
12 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled (I used Skagit River Ranch)
1 c. milk
3 large eggs
1/2-1 tsp. Louisiana Hot Sauce or similar (heck, we're in Seattle, maybe Sriracha!)
1 t. fresh thyme leaves
cracked black pepper and additional salt to taste (depends on saltiness of your bacon and cheese)

Bring water and salt to boil and add grits in a steady stream, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Lower heat and cook, stirring often, until water has been absorbed.  Remove from heat.  Stir in butter and transfer to large mixing bowl. Beat eggs and milk and hot sauce together, then stir into grits. Add cheese (reserve 1/2 cup), bacon and thyme; season with pepper and (if needed) salt. Pour into ungreased, shallow dish.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top and bake for an additional 1/2 hour or so.  The grits should not jiggle when they're done and the top should be golden. [Note: today, 12/6/09, I actually DID use Sriracha. I liked it even better than Louisiana Hot Sauce, as chagrined as I am to say it.]
*A reader on Shauna and Dan Ahern's "pork, knife & spoon" blog's re-printing of this recipe reminded me that these are Puget Sound cheeses. For those in other regions, just choose a hard cheese that is bold and flavorful and sharp enough to cut your tongue!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

S & H Green Stamps

Every once in a while someone will say something that yanks me from where I am to a long-ago forgotten place--forgotten because of how inconsequential it was In The Grand Scheme Of My Life.

Like last night.

I was sitting at The Hideout with a group of friends and colleagues, sipping a Lillet on the rocks, when one of them mentioned S & H green stamps.  Seems she had encountered some thing or another that made reference to them and had no idea what they were.

Since I was the Elder in the group (made manifest by the fact that I DID know what they were), I explained their history with the handy assistance of an iPhone and Wikipedia.

What I didn't explain, though, was the memory of a little red patent leather pocketbook stuffed with dollars and an "identification card" filled out with perfect cursive script and school photos of my friends and jauntily folded over strips of S & H green stamps.

Or the booklets that contained the sheets of them, that got fatter and fatter as more stamps were affixed, or the smell of a bottle of Mucilage or the feeling of running a finger over a full page of stamps and noting the ragged edges of the stamps as it went. Or the brown grocery bag that held the completed booklets and the redemption catalog next to Nanny's platform rocker and behind her snuff spittle can. Or the excitement of going, finally, finally, with a full bag of completed booklets to the S & H Redemption Center to turn it all in for some then coveted and now irretrievably discarded treasure.

To be honest, I can't remember one item I ever got for those stamps. The thing was not greater than the sum of its stamps, gathered 3 or 4 at a time and over months and months.

Petite green markers of delayed gratification, they were, like the practice of putting clothes on "layaway" at M.M. Cohn's in Little Rock until I had paid them enough money to pick the clothes up and take them home.

Typing these words, I think of how foreign this would read to someone half my age.

"Save S & H green stamps and trade them in for an object."
"Put clothes on 'Layaway' until you have paid for them."

As awkward and unfamiliar as bowing in Japan or eating with bare hands in North Africa.

And I lament something as I think about this, but I'm not sure what...

A practice, a ritual, a habit?

Surely not the S & H green stamps themselves, or the items they procured for me. Nor even the notion of delayed gratification.
I will go right now and tweet about this...
in 140 characters (instantaneous and succinct)...

and muse later about the slight discomfort I feel...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On gravy.

I don't experience things in isolation.

Whatever stimuli lap up on the shores of my consciousness join other stimuli, some still foamy, some soaked in.

My experience of a meal this time last week--a tangle of dishes, smells, laughs, and stories at a potluck--was layered onto the sum of meals shared with friends and family in every corner of the world over a lifetime.

So when I recounted to a new friend what red-eye gravy was (essentially ham grease and hot coffee), I was on a stool in downtown Seattle and, at the same time, in the kitchen in a farmhouse on a red dirt road in Van Buren County, Arkansas in the 1960s.

And when I talked to my dad on the phone this weekend, and he told about how he and his brothers still make red-eye gravy for Saturday morning breakfast at the cabin, he was holding a cell phone link between himself and his Seattle daughter, as well as standing knee-high to his own mother in the kitchen he knew first.

"Oh, I remember that sound," he said. "She would take up the ham and put it on a plate and while it was still sizzling, she'd pour that coffee in with a big old 'WHOOSH' and Lord, that would cause a cloud of steam." He paused. "I miss that old girl," he admitted. And I paused, too. Mamaw, in her dress and clip on earrings, but with sturdy shoes, an apron, and a lumberjack jacket--because a preacher farmer's wife is both a lady and needs to get the hogs slopped, after all. Mamaw with her slightly high-pitched voice and her flour bin drawer built into the cabinetry. Mamaw with her pans of biscuits and jars of sorghum.

Dad and I rehearsed whole litanies of memory in the instant it took the "whoosh" to cross the airwaves, but litanies require a moment of silence as punctuation. We gave it. And then we moved on to other matters: how the dogs are; how well the pond and lake are filling up; how I want to spend some time in the darkroom over Christmas with him and his brother with some old school black and white film and chemicals.

I hung up, but stayed, Matrix-like, caught between there and here. At the farmer's market on Saturday, I didn't steer toward the things I might: chanterelles, local apples. No, I packed my bag with turnips and greens, scoured each stand for still-green tomatoes, accepted fresh cranberry beans as a local compromise (had we known them in Arkansas, surely they would have been our floral, fragrant legume of choice). I also tucked in a packet of pig skin, courtesy of Sea Breeze Farm, which I turned into cracklings later that day.

Sunday passed, Monday, Tuesday, and me still psychically stuck in the foothills of the Ozarks, but unable to leave work and other commitments aside to go there wholly.

But tonight was the night. I put rendered pork fat in my treasured skillet and put it in the oven at 450 to heat. I measured out two cups of stone-ground cornmeal into a bowl with a bit of salt, soda, and baking powder, and then quickly beat in an egg and 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk, plus a handful of cracklings. When the skillet was smoking, I pulled it out of the oven, swirled the grease around in a flash and poured it with the most luscious sizzle into the batter and beat like hell, quickly, and then quicker still back into the still blazing hot iron skillet, and back into the oven. [Whew. If that takes more than 30 seconds, start to finish, pitch it out and start over, friends.]

Beans were already simmering and the turnips and greens were in the pressure cooker (the jiggle also a sound of my childhood).

I tossed the green tomatoes in the leftover cornbread batter still in the bowl, tossed them in more cornmeal and quick, into a skillet with more rendered pork fat.

I cut up a bit of fresh onion and trimmed two radishes. Once the cornbread was done, I took it out and turned it onto a cutting board. No need to run a spatula around, this skillet is so well-seasoned that the cornbread slides right out. A matter of pride, that.

It was good. It was very, very good, in that way that memory foods are.

And now, full circle, the host of last week's potluck has sent a note that we are gathering again, impromptu. We can come in our sweats, our PJs. We can come as we are, because as we are is good. As we are: funny, smart, engaged, busy, committed, curious, talkative, sense-appreciators. Who know better than to let experiences pass. Who know to gather up memories greedily.

Who know that gravy is not just gravy.

Measurements for Cracklin' Cornbread + Cracklin' recipe

rendered pork fat or bacon grease

2 cups stone-ground cornmeal 
1 t. salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1 egg 
1 1/2 cups of buttermilk
1 handful of cracklings 
(process outlined in blog)

Cracklings: for 1 1/2 lbs. pig skin, cut it into strips, simmer in 2-3 cups water with 4 t. baking soda and 2 t. salt until skin is tender (45 minutes-1 hour). Remove from water and dry completely. Place skin side up on jelly roll-ish pan (i.e. heavy and shallow, but still a bit of wall) and place in 425 degree oven. Skin will blister and render fat (it's a mess when the blisters pop, no way around it). When the skin is rich brown and blistering has subsided, it's done. Cracklin' image here. Drain on paper towels. Clean oven. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

A rising tide lifts all boats.

My immediate response to the announcement that Condé Nast is closing Gourmet magazine has been waves of nostalgia. Not for what Gourmet is today, really, although I still love it, but for what it meant to the evolution of my food consciousness.

Growing up in Arkansas in the 1970s, Gourmet set me apart. I glimpsed in its pages a world beyond Velveeta and Cream of Mushroom soup, and in my teenaged brain, "apart" was where I wanted to be. My friends and I started a gourmet club and wrecked our parents' kitchens in succession, when it was our turn to host. I had my first taste of Lebanese cuisine in one of those gatherings, and I can still remember that initial explosion of exoticism in my mouth.

My parents were part of a similar, grown-up, club and the dinners ran the gamut: at one end, valiant efforts at trying to re-create meals from Gourmet's pages with the ingredients available at the Conway, Arkansas Piggly-Wiggly store; at the other, my Aunt Dena and Uncle Joe being emboldened to craft the epitome of 1973 glamour--a Gourmet quiche--out of a humble ingredient: poke sallet. The word locavore didn't exist yet, but surely that was a prototype.

In short, in those days and in that place, saying one got a recipe from Gourmet Magazine was the culinary equivalent of steering a Rolls Royce into a crowded parking lot of Ford trucks.

So what has changed? Why is Gourmet closing? Many will lament the dumbing down of High Culinary Culture and blame the Food Network's "BAM!" and "How good is that???" approach to cooking. A little dab of EVOO and every person on the block has genius aspirations.

Others will point to the prevalence of food blogs and the immediacy of online resources, and to the wiki-tization of knowledge.

Still others will bemoan the cultural shift away from reflective practices...the slow turning of material pages in one's hands, by lamplight, in peace and quiet at the end of a day.

And surely all those things are somewhat at play.

But the good side of all these things is that people are now in love with cooking and food in all its cultural manifestations: from food blogs to twitter conferences to TV shows to mainstream movies about culinary icons to farmer's markets to CSA programs to farm-to-table dinners...people feel empowered to take spoon in hand and craft bread to break together with loved ones.

And in spite of my personal sadness that Gourmet is returning to dock, I can't help looking at all the many boats bobbing in the water out there and knowing in my heart that I learned to navigate my craft and love the water due, in part, to Gourmet's influence.

A salute to you, then, Gourmet. Ironic that your pinnacle status contributed to a democratization of food culture.

And I hope my parents still have all those back issues in the storage shed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Now that's service.

Many, many years ago, maybe 1989 or so, I was living in Wooster, Ohio.  I was in my first teaching job at a small, private liberal arts college in a midsized, practical, midwestern town.

I was teaching German cinema and finishing my dissertation and had found a dear friend in Elizabeth. Both of us struggled mightily with making a life in a place where our way of being in the world--brazenly devoted to beautiful food, personal adornment, much laughter, and, well, just generally EXCESSIVE in every way--seemed so counter to the culture.

We made common cause. We threw lavish dinner parties, and shared two apartments in one house, and spent Saturday mornings in our bathrobes eating croissants and drinking cappuccino out of her handpainted majolica imported from Italy.  Of Italian extraction herself, Elizabeth had quite a collection of dishes, and I admired them regularly.  At one point, her sister Teresa must have witnessed my envy, because soon she made me a gift of one of these cups.  Was it my birthday? I don't remember.

But after a while, I had my own collection. Piece by piece, friends added to it--every birthday a cup or a plate, larger serving dishes for larger landmarks.  Most of the pieces came from a little store on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, where I spent a good portion of my 1993 fall sabbatical. By that time, Elizabeth had left Wooster for good, and she was gracious enough to let me camp in the front room of her Bernal Heights home (underneath her landlord, whose devotion to Steely Dan knew no boundaries of time or volume).  There I pounded away on an article for the Women in German Yearbook and boarded BART several days a week to go over to the Berkeley campus and imagine that my Visiting Scholar status meant something fancier than, essentially, library privileges.

Where Prufrock measured out his life in coffeespoons, Elizabeth and I measured out that fall in dollars spent on culinary adventures up one side and down the other of the Bay Area.  Greens?  Did it.  Chez Panisse?  Of course.  And the dinner parties, oh, the dinner parties.

And still, we had our touchstone, which was Biordi.  We'd drive to North Beach in Elizabeth's Saturn, park, and either have a little lunch or coffee, or maybe wander around City Lights Books.  Each trip was different, but each ended with our noses pressed to the windowpane of Biordi.

Since that time, I have added to my collection by poring over the annual catalog that comes in the mail.  Occasionally, a friend will still send me a piece, or--as in the case a few years ago--I took my own trip to Italy and returned home with some bowls wrapped in articles of clothing.

This past December, I was in San Francisco again for a conference.  On my last day in town, my friend Joseph drove me to North Beach and I went into Biordi to see about making a purchase of plain salad plates and plain pasta bowls.  Because the dinner plates and cups and serving pieces are so ornate, I had started purchasing unpainted salad and pasta bowls, but I only had four of each (and eight each of the cups and plates).  The store seemed unchanged since 1993, and Gianfranco located my "record" in his index file box.  All my purchases were still noted there, and I was given a respectful acknowledgment for being a steadfast customer over the years.  I made my order, paid for it, left my mailing address, and left with a promise of a box of dishes from Italy about three months hence.

April came and went, as did the first part of the summer.  Then a phone call came, with an apology--turns out the order from Italy was all wrong, and we would have to start over.  Finally a box arrived, but it contained plain dinner plates.  Still wrong!

After several phone calls and e-mails, I got this note from Gianfranco:

I am going to Italy in two week and this time
I will ship them myself (if I have room in my suitcase I will take them here
with me on 9/22). Again my apologies!


Today, a box arrived.  It contained the right dishes.  They were wrapped in Gianfranco's shirt.

I was stunned.  The shirt off his back cradled my dishes all the way from Italy back to the west coast.  I'll send it back to him now, but I can't help thinking that it's probably the most improbable and charming gesture of customer service I will ever encounter.

And somehow in keeping with a man who sells beautiful vessels for the breaking of bread among friends.

The cup is Teresa.  The serving bowls are Elizabeth.  The coffee urn is Karen for my dissertation celebration. The small bowls are Italy and my parents and brother and sister-in-law and I sitting around a table drinking Santa Cristina (oh, that's just table wine, Bellissima!).  Each dish has been plated with something delicious and served to my family of friends in Wooster, in Memphis, in St. Peter, in Seattle.  Laughter has surrounded them, and love.  Hands, not only mine, have carefully, oh, so carefully, washed them in warm suds as the last wine is being passed around late at night.

Now I will wash the new plates and add them to the collection.  They have a tall order to fill, if they are to compete with their china cabinet mates for happiness plated and served.

They've got a good start.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Nothing is original."

And yet...

no one else, in the history of all creation, ever stood at the exact latitude/longitude coordinates as I did today at 5:30 PM on October 1, 2009.

I, alone, was there on Queen Anne hill in Seattle, surrounded by friends and strangers at the last farmer's market of the season.

Only I had a conversation--facing east--about the intersection of art and food while rain drops pelted me, and only my shoulder felt the weight of my Book Culture bag filled with chanterelle mushrooms and the last huckleberries of the season and two loaves of bread and a book. Only my back went rigid when I saw Becky throwing vegetables into a cast-iron skillet, since only I have spent a lifetime protecting my own skillet from being touched by anything but cornbread batter.

Only I took a picture of Keren and her little boy with my iPhone camera to distract him from the fact that he was fussy, and only I had the combination of a Banh Mi sandwich and a cup of burnt sugar gelato for supper in my car, pointing west.

And now I am home, between the seasons, with tomatoes bubbling on the stove, since they arrived in my CSA box somewhat worse for the wear.  I'm doing the unoriginal save: chopping them up and turning them into sauce, as generations of thrifty cooks have done before me.

No grand art, this.

But it's my performance, and no one else takes this particular spoon in hand, to stir this day's collection of memories into tomorrow's sustenance.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

To everything, turn.

I have a hook on the closet door in my entry.  In the summer, I come in from my p-patch and hang my sun hat on that hook.  When I reach up, little bits of garden dirt fall down to the floor.

Yesterday, I came in from work and removed the hat from the hook and replaced it with my raincoat. I raised it up and droplets of water splashed onto the bits of dirt still there from the weekend.

...this is a ritual moment, when water mixes with earth and signifies the end of a beautiful summer...

I stood there for a while, holding the hat in my hands, as reverently as a prayer book.

One sigh, one smile, one silent acknowledgment of a good summer in Seattle. begins the great silence...

But this year, let there be soup.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Triple Chocolate Truffle Cookies with Candied Ginger

It's good enough to have a sunny Sunday afternoon in late September in Seattle (it sounds like I'm hissing, if you read that out loud.  Trust me, I'm not).  But such a day high on a 26th-floor downtown patio overlooking the city, with a far view of the Puget Sound, Mt. Rainier, Lake Union, and Mt. Baker, surrounded by new friends, beautiful and lovingly prepared nibblies, libations, and laughter?  Friends, that's an embarrassment of riches.  Thanks to @bonnevivante for her hospitality.

Here's the recipe for my own lovingly prepared nibbly.  Fair warning: they're rich, they're seductive, they'll have their way with you.

Triple Chocolate Truffle Cookies with Candied Ginger

6 T. unsalted butter
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate**
2 c. bittersweet chocolate chips**
1 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 t. pure vanilla extract
1/2 c. flour
2 T. cocoa powder**
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. baking powder
1/2 c. chopped candied ginger*

Melt butter, unsweetened chocolate, and 1 c. of the chocolate chips together in a double boiler or at low power in a microwave. Stir and set aside to cool.

Beat eggs and sugar until absolutely smooth and add vanilla.

Sift together dry ingredients.

While beating egg mixture at low speed (stand mixer is easiest), add cooled chocolate mixture. When fully incorporated, turn to absolute lowest speed and add dry mixture slowly until just incorporated. Scrape down sides, then stir in remaining chocolate chips and ginger. The mixture will be the consistency of very thick cake batter or ganache.

Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Next day: preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll mixture (which is now quite hard) into 1 1/2 inch balls and place on ungreased cookie sheets (tip: when your hands start getting chocolatey, wash them. Otherwise, they stick to the dough and the cookies will have a rough exterior). Bake approximately 12-15 minutes, or until puffed and cracked on the surface. The cookies will be soft on the inside, so go by an exterior that is dry to the touch and doesn't yield to very slight pressure. Cool on racks.

*I have always made these cookies without this addition. Just tried it today and was hooked. You could use other dried or candied fruit (orange peel, dried cherries, etc.), but it's crucial that it be dried--liquid would screw up the recipe.

**Get the highest quality you can find.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Three Crushes

1.  The Container Store.  I don't go there to fulfill a practical need to contain something.  I go there to innoculate myself against chaos, to pick up vessels and binders and then visualize (yeah, just like in yoga or weight loss) a clean desk and spice jars all the same size and matching hangers.  I baptize myself in the waters of order and emerge cleansed of my sins of procrastination and not-putting-things-away. 

2.  Levenger.  It's not that I need pens and paper.  I could visit the supply closet at my office for serviceable writing paraphernalia.  No, it's that I need the vision of myself with the time to feel the weight of a good pen in my hand, to brush my fingers over luscious paper, to hear the sound of the nib as I write letters (with beautiful, measured penmanship) to each of my friends in far-flung places. Who, in a few days, will receive them and think of me.  They will shuffle to their respective desks and sit down with their own beautiful paper and pens, and they will sip tea as they craft a message back to me in the late afternoon sunlight.

3.  Sur la Table.  I don't really lack one thing in my kitchen, but in Sur la Table I can throw the most gracious, lovely dinner parties.  When I'm there, my mind is spacious enough to seat everyone I admire, and I make them the most savory, delightful nibblies.  We sit and muse and murmur and linger and smile and love each other and sip wine and tell stories and time stops and the candles never burn all the way down and tomorrow never comes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bright Star. A Review and a Review of a Review.

I started out in Women's Film Studies back in the day when we essentialized.  Women were this way and that way and it was different from men, and so were the films they made.  And then I lived through the realization that there were all sorts of other variables besides biology: women also had race and class and lived experiences and sexualities and nationalities, all of which were as foundational as sex and gender for shaping the stories they told. And recently I've been having discussions about women's voices and men's voices in the craft of film, and, let's face it, I'm annoyed at my (boy) neighbor's incessant viewing of loud, crashing (boy) action films.

So now I want to make an unapologetic, full-circle move back to brazen essentializing.  Because I just saw a "woman's film" and read a "man's review" of it.

Oh, Jane Campion, thank you.  Thank you for "Bright Star" and its lingering, sanctifying extreme close-ups of needles being threaded, of scissors cutting ribbons, of embroidered pillow slips.  Of fabrics and jams and teacups and interiors--the holy mise-en-scene of domestic spheres.

Thank you for the breath-catching scenes of fingers tracing a beloved's forbidden hand, the knocks on walls that served as telegraphic connection in the night, the suspense that you created as letters with red wax stamps and florid script were awaited one day, and another, and another.

Thank you for showing the hand-me-down social roles being learned and displayed in the young sister's blush, for the patient camera, the painterly nature scenes.

Thank you for framing the narrative with sewing at the beginning--the binding--and with cutting at the end--the severing.

Thank you for poetry and sonorous voice-overs.

To be fair, the New York Times (boy) reviewer A. O. Scott loved the film as much as I did.  And while I agree with him that this is a film about poetry, social morés, social hypocrisy, and the power of chaste ardor, I can't help but marvel that I found the cinematically reverential approach to domestic detail so central to a film when A. O. Scott misses it.

I'm eager to discuss this film with girls and boys alike.

In the meantime, I'm dusting off my college poetry collections and leaving you, fair readers, with this pleasure:

When I Have Fears

by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Toad Suck and Twitter Synchronicity

I was sitting outside at Joe Bar today with @ChefReinvented (and Bubba, 'natch), scheming about an idea. 

After the scheming, we meandered on a conversational path that went from the food scene in Seattle to A Very Fun Business Idea Which Is Still Top Secret to how to manage worlds crashing together on Facebook to German cinema to why Berlin is a cool city with a textured identity to the fact that I'm from...

wait for it...


It's an improbable origin, true.  Even more improbable is that my very own father, also a schemer, schemed and dreamed up the now cultishly attended Toad Suck Daze festival.  Yep, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and I am the daughter of the original Head of the Toad Council.  The Head Toad.  Which makes me a Tadpole, I guess, but never mind that.

So @ChefReinvented and I had a good laugh over that and other things, and went our separate ways.  I went back to work, and then home, and then to the gym, and then back home to have a bowl of soup and catch up on what twitterlicious Friday night banter might be happening.

Up pops this tweet from @Herbguy: Proud to say I've been to TOAD SUCK, ARKANSAS. Anyone else been there?

I blink hard and look again.  Still there.  Toad.Suck.Arkansas. Now it's a small world, so I figure, OK, so maybe @ChefReinvented said something, or there was an earlier tweet that I missed while I was at the gym.

But no!  I check, and no.  Nothing was said.  This was out of the blue and @Herbguy is now suspected of being some sort of mindreader or being otherwise omniscient.

Or, it's like one of my co-workers says: "Twitter gets in your head, man."

Behold the fine cuisine of Toad Suck, NOT available on Twitter, in spite of its skillz:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mary Travers, Rest in Peace

Mary Travers died. 

"And when I'm gone, and when I'm dead, dead, and gone, there'll be one child born and a world to carry on, to carry on."

Laura Nyro wrote this when she was 17.  Peter, Paul and Mary recorded it in 1966. I listened to it in 2009 when I read of Mary's passing.

I can't explain why I sobbed.

Maybe because Peter, Paul and Mary were playing all the time when I was a child and I can sing all the parts to all the songs from some deep place of utterly embodied memory. 

Maybe because Mary sang for a better world, and her death makes me marvel at all that has been accomplished since she lifted her voice so many years ago, thanks in part to her.

Maybe because so much distance is yet to be covered, and her deep, resonant voice won't accompany our journey.

I'm listening to these songs over and over now on iTunes, singing along, and remembering the LPs and 10 Windsor Drive and my mom at the piano and my dad on sax and the harmonies that have sustained us all.

Mary, thank you for being one of the first voices I wanted to emulate, as a singer, and as a citizen of a scattered world.

Monday, September 14, 2009

3 seeds.

My friend Chris came into my office in late July with a bag of "Sarzana" squash seeds from Italy. She asked if I wanted a few, since they produced lovely, delicately flavored courgettes and were compact, plant-wise--meaning they didn't vine and trail off over everything in a 15-foot radius.

I loved the package: so very not "American seed packet" in format, with planting instructions in Italian.

I held out my hand and she tipped 1,2,3,4,5,6 seeds into it, which I placed in an envelope labeled "Sarzana" and put in my purse. A few days later, three of those seeds were in a mound of dirt in the front of my plot, and a few days ago, I harvested my first squash.

I sliced them thinly, lengthwise, dredged them in flour, and fried them up in hot olive oil until they were golden brown with some darker brown spots on each side.

QUICKLY onto a paper towel; QUICKLY a sprinkle of sea salt and a few turns of the peppermill; QUICKLY a squeeze of lemon--just a few drops--and ooooooh, a race to the table to sit down while they were still blistering hot.

That's late summer on a plate, right there.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Twitter, Impressionism, and My Mind's Nose

@fourchickens Pressure cooker growing up in AR was always turnips and greens. I hear that jiggle sound, I smell greens in mind's nose.

Something about the 140 character limit on Twitter posts (like the one I sent above to @fourchickens) aligns well with the impressionistic modality of sense memories.

They, too, are fleeting and concentrated.  The actual smell of turnip greens (which I love) is not nearly as evocative as reading a brief tweet from @shibaguyz about their pressure cooker.  Which leads to calling up the sound in my mind's ear.  Which leads to a scene in my mind's eye. Which leads to the smell in my mind's nose.  Which is inseparable from the feel of steam on my mind's skin as I recall the countless times I stood just behind my mother holding vigil over a live pressure cooker.

And today: @bonnevivante posted an ode to pie crusts made with lard from an older NYT piece.  I read the word "lard" and my mind's tongue tasted and felt Mamaw's fried pies, and my fingers knew just how they had rested in my hand as a child, the grease and flour dust on my palm, wiped surreptitiously on my pants leg, when I knew I shouldn't.

Ohhhhh, is that recipe in the family cookbook, I wonder?  I haven't thought of those pies in years...the extra ones on a plate, tucked in between the Louisiana Hot Sauce bottle and salt and pepper shakers under a square cloth on the middle of the kitchen table...usually filled with the apples or peaches she had dried, but sometimes with chocolate...always gone before the next meal...

I think about what will linger about my life today.  When I'm old, what will I smell or read that will call up "Seattle, late summer 2009" and cause me to stop what I'm doing, throw my head back, and close my eyes?

What impression, what smell will bring me back to this day?  What will lead me to love the moment doubly--the then and the memory of then?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Frank Bruni: "I'm not the guy for this."

Frank Bruni is on a book tour, now that his book "Born Round" is out and he's no longer the New York Times food critic.

I just returned from hearing him chat with Warren Etheredge at one of the "Words & Wine" events that Kim Ricketts puts on in Seattle.  They talked about all manner of things: "eating widely" as a reasonable credential for being a food critic; mothers as stiff competition for Christian martyrs; good and bad food experiences; the expectation people have that you MUST be a good cook if you're a good eater (FB prefers to consume, he tells us); the reality that food criticism is no longer a "local" phenomenon in the internet age, and that a review is as much about a vicarious experience as it is about gathering data on whether a restaurant is worth (or not) visiting; the difficulty of finding synonyms for "tender" without resorting to "toothsome" and other verbal contortions.

I would have been content with hearing much more about any one of those conversation strands, but it was a different topic altogether that intrigued me the most, not at all food-related.

Bruni said that he often thinks, when first being offered an opportunity like New York Times food critic, "I'm not the guy for this."

And I wondered:

How does he get out of his own way in those moments?  How does he drive down the middle between humility and ego?  How does he take his self-doubts, his admitted issues with body image (which he battles not with fad diets but with exercise, good trainers, and a short attention span--being BORED with self-loathing, turns out, is more effective for him than The Cabbage Soup Diet), and STILL step right up to the opportunity and say "Yes.  I am called to do this" and go out and trump self-doubt with self-confidence?

It's not that I'm fascinated by the "imposter complex" as a psychological phenomenon (we'll save my own Ph.D. completion stories for another blog post). 

No, what I am musing on this evening is that, while there are many models of Ego Made Flesh who combine self-aggrandizement with success, they are far less compelling to me than Frank Bruni's combination of success and humility.  The ability to move between direct and honest critique of a famed restaurant and the statement that sometimes a 1/4-pounder with cheese is what's called for; the graciousness with which he indulges audience questions; the lowered eyes and covering of his face when Warren or an audience member points out his considerable attractiveness: these are endearing.

And while I might not say "no" to tagging along with him to a destination restaurant, the truth is that I left the evening thinking I would much rather share a conversation with him among friends, over scrambled eggs.  Or lingering over some modest fare made transcendent by embracing appetite, hospitality, intellect, and spaciousness of spirit around a big table of fellow travelers.

I'm glad he thinks he's "not the guy for this" as he greets the world every day, because if he did...he wouldn't be.

Monday, August 31, 2009

I like to play dress-up.

I don't have The One Big Passion.  I've always thought I wanted one.  To be a Potter.  To be a Weaver.  To be a Writer.  To be a Photographer.  To be a Painter.  To be a Filmmaker.  To be a Singer.  To be a Chef.  I've done or still do or want to do all those things.  But none exclusively.

I've always thought I had some kind of ADD, some deficiency that made me unable to concentrate on just one thing.  Or that I just hadn't found the one thing that would get me to settle down.  I was the Bachelorette of Callings.  No commitments, baby, no tying me down.

But lately I've been thinking it's altogether something else.  I reckon it's not an accident that I loved to play dress-up as a child.  When my parents would go out, I'd go into their bedroom and turn their closets inside out and upside down as I put on one thing after another.  Mom's stuff, Dad's stuff--sometimes combined--and always accessorized with whatever trinkets and oversized shoes allowed me to inhabit and move freely in the faraway worlds in my head.  There were soundtracks in there and smells and furniture and pets and foods.  I would invite my real friends (of which there were few, truth be told, until I got older) to come over and participate, but they got frustrated by my inability to stick with one narrative.  I was in and out of a story before they ever got past "once upon a time" and, really, what was the point of trying to keep up?

In college, my first roommate used to throw her hands up at my habit of sitting in front of the stereo, changing LPs like a short-order cook flipping pancakes, Al Green to Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony to Dave Brubeck to Linda Ronstadt and all the time singing along on not one, but ALL the parts.

And now I'm officially middle-aged and on a trajectory toward dotage, I suppose.  I embrace the irony that my depth is my flightiness and I give deep and solemn thanks that I can clap with joy at so many things, all on the same day, and DO.

There's a term for this in German: "Lebenskünstler"--someone who is an artist and whose medium is life.  It sounds much more impressive in German, but really, it's just a fancy way of saying that I'm someone who (still) likes to play dress-up.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

culinary stream of consciousness

It started pretty innocently: ever since I moved to the west coast, 3 summers' worth of time, I've been awed by the fact that I can actually get Real.Cherries and Real.Figs and Real.Huckleberries.  Sure, I'm happy about other things, too, but I got over my Salmon.Euphoria pretty quickly, and the catch in my throat when I round a bend and get a glimpse of Mt. Rainier is no longer accompanied by an audible gasp.

But the fruit?  Still inspires actual hand-clapping.  My latest thing is working up glazes for figs, running them under the broiler and then scraping the fruity, bubbly, steaming goo off onto a scoop of hard-frozen vanilla ice cream and then RUNNING to the couch to enjoy it mid-melt.  If I trip, it's no good--pre-melt and post-melt are not the same experience, and plus, there's the mess on the carpet.

Last night I made some with orange juice and balsamic vinegar, and the flavor took me instantly to a childhood place: 711 E. 17th St. in Little Rock, AR, sitting on a counter stool at a bar with a yellow top and a boomerang pattern, watching my great-grandmother, Nanny, making Lane Cake.

I actually hated it.  My little girl palate wasn't down with vinegar in a cake frosting, and Black Walnuts had some sort of acrid thing going on that alarmed me.  And raisins?  Meh.  Too "lunchbox" to be on a cake.  But somehow the taste memory lingered--like a happy virus lying dormant--and it came alive last night, transformed into something that made sense.

Turns out, though, that Nanny's recipe wasn't at all traditional.  I've been poking around on the internet, and hers didn't have candied cherries or coconut or icing, per se.  It was a vanilla-y, butter-y cake (well, oleo-y), and it had a cooked filling that featured vinegar, Black and English walnuts, pecans, and raisins that oozed out from between the layers and down the sides.

So what to do?  I'm thinking of taking my fig/balsamic/orange thing and some of the other components of Nanny's cake and see if I can't come up with a hybrid.   She was a great experimenter, so I feel certain she would approve.

First challenge: I'm not in the Ozarks.  Where do I get Black Walnuts?