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 Erlk├Ânig 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