Nighthawks

I was listening again, after a long while, to Tom Waits “Nighthawks at the Diner”.  It is truly a beautiful live album, and an honorable homage to the painting by Ed Hopper (1942).  The song by the same name has a vivid description of a blue-plate special: chopped meat (“Salisbury steak”) smothered in Velveeta and Campbell’s tomato soup.  There are laughs, nervous winces.  Not only for the name of some familiar spot, but for the food itself.  It’s funny what we consider comfort food, the things we seek out to give a sense of place, of self.   The plate in question is not a memory of mine, but I can understand the sentiment.  My mother was a baker, in one of the worst home kitchens imaginable.  She was able to create things I will never fully understand, and that none have ever held up by comparison.  Husband knows the sentiment too; with a jones every couple of years for oven baked “BBQ” chicken.  I can’t stand his version, but for him it is a memory of his grandmother.  It gives him comfort.  The food our our decidedly not wild youth (unlike Wait’s Frank) has little sentimental value, but vague memories of greasy spoons with sour black coffee, “texas” toast, and generic specials do linger.

I remember when many of us were new adults.  College students with vague, naive aspirations.  We recalled watching the original crew of Saturday Night live in middle and high school, just old enough to be jaded about the disco movement and deeply fond of punk for the alternative it offered.  Tom Waits came out with Nighthawks in 1975, a cabaret and club singer from the outside track of music.  A federal government that was represented by images of Nixon leaving office and the end of the Vietnam war, was constantly on the television when we were children.  Ford and Carter passing through, then later, we were suspicious (and rightly so) of the promises of Ronald Reagan and his cronies.  We went from using electric typewriters to the first PC’s, then programming in simple language to the first internet.

 We were midwestern college students buoyed up by our youth and our ignorance, our heart-felt ideas, and knowledge that we were so very far away in both time and space from where the action was.  We separated ourselves from the strivers, the lying basketball players (who gladly got stoned in private), and the bible-readers. 

Many of us migrated to Chicago, then urban points east and west.  I do not have unnecessary fondness for that time, so riddled with insecurity and unease.  Time has taught me that regret is just another form of self-pity, and things not done are just things best left.  There were poets and musicians who captured our fancy, captured our ennui.  Some were trite and passed into history, some linger on and get resurrected by a new crop of young, eager to understand, eager to see.

 There will probably always be some urban diner, some questionable gut-filling food, some young people living out an awkward night of unfulfilled dreams and reckless mistakes.  A right of passage perhaps, and for some of us, remembered best in song; best in a live performance if you can get it.

Sweet, salty, and bitter

I finally understand why a tomato is a fruit.  Not the scientific reason, I have known that for a long time: in general, all fruits develop from the ovary in the base of the flower containing the seeds of the plant.  The tomato is born from the ovary of the plant after it is fertilized.  The flesh is made of pericarp walls and the cavities contain the seeds. Toms are an herbaceous plant in the nightshade family (irony there that given the chance over several seasons to go wild, some revert back) and the fruit is classified as a berry.

I ate a lot of garden tomatoes as a kid, and have long known the difference between the artificially ripened tomato-like things at the grocery, and the red, deeply flavored misshapen berries out of a garden.  But I always associated tomatoes with salt.  I have seen tomato jelly for sale and wondered why anyone would treat it as a sweet thing.  Until this weekend.

I bought a pint box of tiny orange tomatoes from a farmers market stand.  As I waited for Husband and kids, I sat and ate a few.  It was unlike anything I have ever had.  They smelled like tomatoes, the texture was of a good garden tomato, but the flavor was sweet.  Down right sugar sweet they were.  I continued to eat the whole pint, each tiny fruit bursting with flavor the second I bit down upon it.  I bought a second pint for Husband to try, as I rambled effusively about the flavor.  One bite and he agreed.

I was happy to have finally tasted a tomato that was the very definition of fruit, not just terrific tomato.  They were not the flavor of the “grape” tom, these tiny orange spheres are something else.  When I go back next weekend I will ask what variety they are.

Summer is in full swing with record heat waves, drought, pepper plant eating deer (I am now itching to shoot not only the dogs who randomly crap in our yard-damned the owners- but also the night stalking deer), itchy mosquito bites, bats swarming through the air at sun down, crunchy brown grass, and pots of basil that seem to multiply over night.  The split system heat pump and air conditioner we installed last year has been a blessing on days when the mercury has soared above 105, and the basement is always a good refuge from the heat.  The van shimmers and blasts out waves of throat-choking air when I open the door, and keeping the family hydrated is a constant concern.

The undecipherable tonking of speakers from a local baseball game sounds as the sun goes down, kids run dripping up the street heading home from the city pool.  Watermelon juice dries stickily on hands, chests, cheeks, and floors.  Cornhusks get composted, and the slow gray smoke from the black pot bellied grill wafts over the fence.  Cicadas sound early in the morning and late in the evening, and black birds converse as they take refuge from the heat in our black walnut tree. 

We buried Husbands 15 year old cat last week, at the end of the dry flower garden.  The boys and I found a small concrete sleeping cat, which we put on top of a 2’x1.5’ rock over the grave.  It was a major passing for Husband, a singular marker of middle age.  He had rescued the cat from a shelter as a kitten, and it was his companion throughout graduate school.  Last fall it had begun “losing its mind” according to Husband, and even after being confined to the basement continued to cause problems.  I give him credit, for knowing what had to be done and doing it.  He sat with the cat while the vet gently slid a drug into the small furry body.  He made peace with his friend, and let him go.  When he brought the box home with the body, he dug the hole and I helped him cover it over.  It was not an easy day for any of us.

Summer can be a time of bounty and sweetness, and a time of loss.  I swore like a sailor when I stepped out one morning last week and saw the leaves from my sunflower and pepper plants stripped bare.  I gave up trying to keep any of the lawn green after three weeks without rain.  And I cried for my best friend and the inevitable act he had to carry out that lessened our family by one pet.  I watch as my 95 year old grandmother winds down her life and her body, my father making sure she is comfortable and eating- I must remember to take her some of the tiny orange tomatoes.  I think one of the great graces of middle age is knowing that life ebbs and flows in a complex forward motion of the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, and lots of just plain doing in between being born and dying.  It is this knowledge that keeps the darkness at bay for me, the knowledge that I can still be surprised by life and that I will at some time again be tortured by sadness, but the sadness will not last.

I have never liked heat; geographic regions where the sun shines down and the air seems not to move and the temperature hovers in the 90’s.   I like rainy and cool places best.  But where we live is not always a best-case scenario, and things that happen are sometimes simply part of life.  There is always my family, the cool of the house, and the promise of sweet, bright orange garden fruit in the middle of summer.  Most days, that will do just fine.

The Rules

I’ll be blunt: I grew up eating BBQ.  I learned from experts how to assess, eat, and appreciate BBQ.  I am not a vegetarian, no matter how rational the arguments are for that food style.  Do I feel a little guilty?  Sometimes.  Have I seen meat changes that scare me?  Oh yeah.  For example, when I was a kid, beef was grass fed on local small farms (such as ours) by necessity.  We took a bull to the butcher every year and had a freezer of small white packages to eat (but my mother drew the line at brains).  No fuss, no pretensions.  There were no massive nationally packaged meat recalls (even if there should have been).

This week we made the mistake of again trying beef labeled BBQ at a Virginia restaurant that gets high ratings every year from locals.  The brisket was not poorly trimmed, the ribs were not dried out.  But it was NOT BBQ.  They can wish all they want out here, but in ten years I have yet to find anyone who can do BBQ correctly.  No, I won’t be diplomatic and recognize what they call “Carolina” BBQ as BBQ (for the un-initiated, it’s roasted, boiled, or steamed meat with vinegar on it.  That’s not BBQ).

So here are some simple rules:

1.     BBQ is not toy food.  No cutesy buckets for bones, no cutesy oversized or cartoon stamped napkins, no hats.

2.     Smoke.  If there is no smoking of the meat, there is NO BBQ.

3.     BBQ is not haute food.  Not nouvelle cuisine.  No tiny portions with exotic toppings.

4.     Once past smoke- there is flavoring.  It can be rubbed into the meat (known as a “dry rub”) before smoking, or it can be bottled in an old Ball jar to ladle out on top at a customers discretion, but it is never, ever, just ketchup.  Or ketchup with a little Worcestershire thrown in, then slathered on meat when serving.  No no no.  And NO VINEGAR.

5.     The best BBQ comes from Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, or parts around these cities, 99.9% of which are WEST of the Mississippi river.  Sorry Chicago; never had good BBQ in the whole greater area, even though I love the town and lived there for several years.  Not in Detroit, not Jackson, not Atlanta.

6.     Beef is primary, brisket and ribs being the mainstays.  They used to be the crap cuts, and now one has a hard time spending the cash for them in the grocery.  Go figure.

7.     Pork is secondary, but a strong second.

8.     Chicken is third and tricky to do right.  It dries out fast, and the skin can be really disgusting if not dealt with properly.

9.     Sausages are not BBQ.  They can be extremely well crafted, and thrown on the smoker late in the game with other meat, but they are not BBQ.

10. You can add an endless variety of herbs and spices to your rubs and sauces, you can lay bundles of herbs on top while smoking.  You can use a single type of chip or charcoal to smoke, or a combination at different stages of the process.  You can use honey, molasses, brown sugar, or even kool-aid in your sauces.  But the sauces are usually, heck almost always, and I’ll be honest I’ve never had a good one that wasn’t, a variation on a reddish-brown in color.

11. You can fist fight over plain smoked meat, or sauced.  But it still has to be smoked first (number 2 needed reiterating).

12.  Places that advertise themselves as BBQ restaurants with cutesy logos, dancing pigs, fat men in messy white aprons and goofy grins- all do not bode well.  BBQ is understated.  It is serious business about the art of smoking meat.  Not vegetables, not fries, just meat.  BBQ was the food of the poor, the cattle herders, the communal church feasts; it was a way to cook, and preserve meat as well as make it tasty.  Remember that.

13.  Smoke takes time.  You can get amazing BBQ at a neighbor’s house, a shack, or a white linen table cloth place (but in my experience this is unusual, unless the eatery has been around for years and is on old railway and cattle drive routes).  It is truly not that difficult to do, but few restaurants seem to want to put in the time. 

14.  If you experience good BBQ, you’ll never go back.  You’ll be poisoned with wanting, begging, someone to surprise you and actually make BBQ instead of just advertising that they sell it.  Especially on the East Coast.

15.  Husband has mastered the basics of good BBQ and is experimenting every year.  This is one of the reasons I love him.  This is one of the reasons neighbors within a four block radius lift their noses in the summer, close their eyes, and wonder if we are going to have another backyard party soon.  It’s also the reason in our first years at our house, neighbors would come into my yard, faces creased with worry, because no one was home (I had gone to the grocery) and they saw smoke rising from the big black barrel shaped smoker in the back yard.  No, it was not an unattended or accidental fire.  They have since learned (oy, the East Coast).

     This is not an exhaustive list.  It’s probably not all the rules that need to be posted.  There are, I am sure, as many rules as there are BBQ competitions, and all of them posted somewhere on the web.  These are my rules.  The rules of my parents, grand-parents, and the people they came from.  These are my expectations, and the reason I am, like a fool, still sampling restaurant fare, and always expecting better.

     There are not a lot of places where smoking is an acceptable word.  This summer get out and smoke.  Read about how, ask around, you’ll figure it out.  Talk to a butcher- really, find one and talk to them.  Learn how to ask for a cut.  You might try to get to know a local farmer or two as well, someone who actually lets the beef on hoof eat pasture grass.  Think about going “co-op”, and buy a side or whole carcass with a friend, and have that local butcher cut it up for you.  Then start smoking.  Play with the herbs, eye ball that big stock pot and think about mixing up some sauce.  Oh, and number 16?  Have fun.

A weakness for cheese and a fondness for robots

I joined Facebook recently.  What a strange phenomenon it is.  I appreciate getting to share photos with relatives and friends who live at a distance.  I even appreciate people I knew finding me/being found, and being able to post links and other pieces of errata.  But I am still trying to understand this twenty-four hour news cycle, Twitter-fomatic orientation to the world that seems the domain of a generation younger than I.

Someone passed on the “tell me twenty five things about yourself” irritant that is popular right now.  I cringed.  I did not like the trend when it started, and am not much of a joiner that way.  My first response was flip, “Fingers, toes, eyes, ears and nose”.  When I considered it fully, I finally just said “oh, read the blog you lazy thing” and forgot about it.  Then, I came up with my own version of the challenge.  If you took a snap shot of your life right now, what would you title it?  I don’t particularly mean the micro level of the actual minute, but a more general sense of reality.  I decided mine would be “A weakness for cheese and a fondness for robots”.

Another friend forwarded a photo essay about egregious acts of culinary evil that “make you fat” from restaurants around the US.  Well, they are not responsible for my particular issues, I thought, but certainly having become more sedentary and having a weakness for cheese has.  When we were courting, Husband made a joke about my fondness for fermented milk by sending me the biggest hunk of cheddar (from Wisconsin) I had ever seen.  The man understood me.  The title also reminds me in some vague way of all things Monty Python, with some of Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit series thrown in (and I do like a bit of gorgonzola).   Cheese somehow sums up both the domesticity and absurdity I find myself in right now, and my fondness for it is both my downfall and my pleasure.

The robots reflect my Husband and sons’ fascinations.  This birthday the boys are begging for a robot cake, which I have figured out how to make thanks to many examples from Google images (no, not a cake that walks around- although that would thrill them, and the subsequent active narrative of destroying it).  Robots are everywhere in our home, and I have yet to completely understand the devotion to them.  Which brings up my latest food related idea.  Normally, if I had caught eldest son drawing on paper with one of my exquisite small bars of Madagascar chocolate that he obviously found on the ‘fridge door behind the butter (ok, I should have hidden it better), I would have been angry.  But it was cool in the house, and like a crayon it glided over the paper making an interesting brown robot.  Most chocolates have a high wax content, so this came as no surprise really, but my special bar had a low wax content so in any warmer weather it would not have had the same effect.  I thought about an Iron Chef episode in which a young pastry chef marveled and amazed the audience with his mastery of sugar, food coloring, and heat.  I wondered if such a chef could make a sort of edible rice paper parchment, and a chocolate crayon to draw upon it.  Little cartoons could be quickly sketched, and stuck at odd angles into small mounds of homemade ice creams.   Finally the Chef could respond to his devotees like political cartoonists in dark bars and cafes.  I have never heard of such a thing, so maybe I have actually come up with something new for once!  You “heard” it here first, folks.

When I joined FB and logged in as “trying to figure this out”, one witty person told me to ask a neighborhood kid.  If it were pure mechanics, I might have.  But the statement was addressing the larger issue of cultural context, and the varieties of meanings behind all the applications.  I still have not mastered Facebook, nor any of her sister circles of internet hell.  But I am learning, and to my surprise- am glad.  Maybe I am moving beyond the cheese.  What would robots eat?  What does this mass of circuitry consume other than time?  I wondered out loud.  My son’s reply:  “Metal mom.  Just like Iron Giant.”  Well, I have been a little short on iron lately.  Pass me the supplements. . . or perhaps no.  Machine age steam punk aside, that time has passed.  Wetware and silicon, electricity and bio-projects swirl in my head.  High-energy consumption gray matter, and we are back to a need for glucose doping.  That greediest of organs, our brains.  So maybe I am back to cheese after all, in moderation, with some crackers. 

Shaped like robots, of course.  Such conceptual fractals life seems to be, and I am out of bandwidth to follow the pattern for now.

“See you” on Facebook.

Downsize me-I

Many of us are downsizing.  Many of us never sized up; some for ethical and moral reasons, some for purely financial, some for both combined.  There are entire magazines now devoted to the “movement” of simplicity (as absurd and contradictory as that seems to me).  Eating out as it is called, is one of the first things to be cut from most budgets.  It certainly was from ours, and it happened a long time ago.  Less because we thought it was consuming a hole in our budget and more because we found ourselves just saying, “what the heck was that?” after most meals. 

Case in point:  the boys got to have McDonalds with their great-grandma yesterday, and I ordered a happy meal too (small portions).  It was as I remembered, awful.  Tasteless, oddly dry, and smacked afterward of a floating sense of ick.  The film Supersize Me got mass produced US culture right, but only touched upon the taste issues. That yuck sensation is the same one we get whenever we eat at chains, and why we developed the rule that we would not eat out unless it was a. food we could not cook ourselves (or at least not as well)  and b. that was actually good (ok, this conflates two rules).  After spending several years reading about food industries, as well as high culinary experiences (Anthony Bourdain is a great read for information and laughs) we found our rule was not only practical, but healthy as well.

Accordingly, there are but a few places in town we “eat out” (The second rule is only once every two weeks do we eat out).  Of three Thai restaurants in town, only one is any good.  The food is prepared with fresh ingredients, and the nuances of flavor are not watered down or changed for anyone.  The owners are a wonderful couple and their extended family helps out.  The matriarch has been trained in a variety of skills, and never fails to make beautiful carrot butterflies for the boys and flip to PBS kids on her flat screen when we walk in.  It is always a pleasure to eat at the café Thai Flavor.

There is an equally kind and competent couple who run the Saigon Café, our go to for Vietnamese food.  We can’t go without the boys watching the koi, or without me being amazed by all the framed expert textiles.  Never a bad experience there.

The co-op Little Grill is a funky place that offers live music in the evenings and lots of terrific young people who try to do a little good every week (Mondays all day are soup kitchen day- anyone eats for free no questions asked, and much of the food is locally grown and organic).  Breakfast here is always packed, and on weekends anyone not familiar with needing to arrive early will find themselves with a long wait.  The ambience is decaying 1930’s micro building that has been lovingly patched up with a variety of fun items and colors.  The food is generally pretty good, and while we are not vegetarian or vegan I am told the multiple items for those folks are very good (I try them, and eh- it’s ok).  The juice is always fresh squeezed, and the giant tub of Mr. Potatoes and parts are on a shelf with the monkey-headed Godzilla, available for kids.  A giant Gonzo rides an antique bike near the ceiling, and a paint-by-numbers Martin Luther King hangs next to ancient velvet Bob Dylan.  A small mirror ball hangs a distance from a beautiful antique wooden plumb, and local artists have work that rotate according to the vicissitudes of the co-op members.

With so many Spanish speaking immigrants in this area, you might imagine we have a few decent such restaurants.  Wrong.  Everything claiming to be Mexican or some such are absolutely awful, and several routinely riddled with health inspection notices.  I asked one of son’s preschool parents (She is Honduran, her husband is Mexican) if there was anywhere she recommended and she laughed.  She gets her tamales from an old woman who makes them out of her home for people who know about her, and her aunt makes her flour tortillas the old school way and offers them from home as well.  She promised to hook me up when she places her next orders.  Given my previous post, my dime bag of Garam Masala rant now has a parallel with my procuring of good “Mexican” food.

Four hours from the coast might as well be four days.  The seafood around here stinks (literally), and locally offered trout are incubated in ponds down stream from where the owners’ cows see fit to crap whenever they wish.  In essence, no thanks.

A terrific Korean couple owns Café Jako, and the husband of the two is a fun sushi chef, who is very good to kids.  The food passes the worth-it test, and satisfies our jones for sushi, tempura, and miso.

A new Indian restaurant opened up, and it passed the “worth-it” test.  The Blue Nile owners (Ethiopian food) renovated a building downtown and while not all the complexities of the regional foods are represented, it is fresh and it is good.  The ambience is hip, and in the evenings it becomes a club.  Husband argues for a nice bar downtown, Clementine’s, but I respond that while offering food, it is not where we would take the kids and “eat out”.

There are several other locally owned places.  Most of these are popular, or at least consistently patronized, but the food truly stinks.  They do not pass the “worth it” test.

We do not live in a metropolitan wonder where we could explore the culinary offerings for years, but what we have will suffice.  At least until we cut out eating out altogether, that next step in downsizing.  Prepping for this, we are experimenting with a large garden.  That’s what that big box of compost we have been making for a year is intended to feed.  We’ll see what we learn from this first year of serious gardening training and how it affects our diets.  Oh, that’s another “movement” I hear, Practical Yards or some other title.  If you can do it, good on ya.  As Garrison Keillor so eloquently pointed out, there is nothing better than fresh homegrown tomatoes and corn.  Producing it will downsize your waist, and consuming it will downsize financial leak I am told.  We’ll see.  I know my ninety-four year old grandmother took gardens for granted, necessities of life.  I hope we can tap into that Midwestern gene memory and learn. 

My memories of my great-grandmother’s city garden, which she tended into her late eighties, are some of my best.  The center was a long grape arbor, cool and dark to walk under.  Each narrow row shot off from this center.  The back row was entirely high sunflowers, providing a mask for the fence.  In the front were gnarled but fecund fruit trees, one on each side.  The bees buzzed purposefully, and the sun seemed to warm everything it touched.  The garden was her entire, long backyard.  It was meticulously tended, and beautiful.  When she died, I crept into her stone basement and lining all the cool wall shelves were ball jars of green beans and bacon, tomatoes, and all assortments of vegetables and fruits she had canned.  Husband, when his grandmother died, was allowed to take something from what she left behind.  He took her old ball jars.  They have traveled far and wide, and now maybe they will live again.

A blog I read recently ranted about all the crap we can and will do without (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-blanchard/attention-k-mart-shoppers_b_168273.html).  I’ll add that it is not only tangible crap, but experiential crap as well.  I’ll trade access to all that crap for the old ball jars, and knowledge about how to make our garden work.  It has been said that downsizing may ultimately be the best thing that happened to many of us.  I do not idealize the necessity of downsizing; there are too many folks of all ages (and I lose sleep over how to make sure it is not us) who will be without heat, homes, food, jobs, and the real necessities of life while the rich wave their hands and say it’s good for us all.

But for now, I am hopeful we are getting a bead on one facet of our lives, the food.  How to maintain quality and health and variety on a limited budget.  Grocery store offerings are not getting cheaper, or more healthy, and the collection of cookbooks we have needs more stains. 

More later on how this all plays out.

 

Just eat

I am sitting here eating a whole grain (really?  I have got to check the box information) pop-tart and drinking Red Rose tea with a shot of milk.  Gourmet snack of choice, of course.  My children are having 1. a kid box of apple juice, 2. a sippy cup of half juice and half water, and each gets one granola snack bar (bought at the local market in the “date off” bin).    For breakfast we had scrambled eggs with fresh mushrooms and the cheese left over from last night.  Milk and tea included.

Why do I detail this?  Because we got the Dean and Deluca Thanksgiving 2008 catalog yesterday (I am not sure why) and I flipped through it as I had my snack.  The photos and descriptions are entertaining, quite pretty even.  BUT– $45 for 16 caramels of normal, pop in your mouth size?  Nothing special thrown in like gold flakes (for that you go to Neiman Marcus), just cooked sugar and some food coloring.  So you get four of each color.  See?  Special- right?  12 cents worth of ingredients, 20 dollars worth of labor, 3 dollars of packaging, say a percentage of marketing that we’ll account for at 1 dollar, for a 26.12 total.  That’s generous too, especially on labor (let’s hope they cover health insurance).  So 25 of what you pay may seem to be profit (we are not discussing shipping and shipping profit cuts here).  BUT,  D&D are the middlemen.  They do not make the items they sell.

Whom ever buys these things should contact me.  I can put you together a killer gift basket or make you something from scratch for less.

Other items in the catalog? How about a small (2.4 pounds) sweet potato pie for $65?  Or sixteen cut out and simply decorated cookies of small size for $65?  A 13.5 pound hunk of prosciutto (that’s Italian for dry aged ham- which I can get locally, organically, for much less) for $400 (that’s over $28 per pound folks)?  Or how about an assortment of tired dried out, prepackaged appetizers like the ones off the Schwanns truck- 24 spanakopita (philo dough triangled with feta cheese and spinach, $45), 8 crab and lobster cakes the size of a quarter ($84), mashed potato toast (I kid you not), chili cheese tartlets, or seafood thermidor puff pastries in frozen packs of 48 pieces for $45-75?  How about a 7” diameter chocolate cake with a pretty candy cane colored frosting for $160?  Or a “13 desserts plate”, of a handful (small, very small handful) of almonds, dried fruit, nougat, (13 average snacks, about 1 oz. each) and so forth for $58?  Or an 18 pound “heritage” turkey for $160?  Granted, it’s organic and not the overbred white variety, but I got a 14 pound, free range turkey for FREE at my local grocery with the coupons I had collected.  Even last year when we blew the budget to buy an organic, free range heritage bird from a local bird man and had it butchered THAT DAY, it only cost us about $100, and it weighed about 24 pounds.

All I can say is “what the heck?”  Who buys this stuff?  I know D&D is used for corporate gifts, it says so on the back of the catalog.  But still—what?  Like the airplane catalogs that advertise for corporate gift giving?  Do they just tell their secretaries to order something, the grunts pull a catalog, and order it on a P.O.?  When others get it, do they say “send a thanks” and then pass it along to THEIR grunts?  What a cycle.  D&D are not the manufacturers either, they are the middle men.  So all the items are made to ship, a time sensitive problem for food.  Just go to the sources people!  There are plenty of high-quality bakers, wineries, and other high quality food producers who would love to sell you their goods directly.

I guess it is a niche in this capitalistic country, because upon searching the internet there are so many middle-people-corporate-gift companies in existence. 

Call me crazy, but I still go for quality and craftsmanship in items as well as good value.  My husbands art?  The materials are usually extraordinarily expensive (gold, silver, etc.) and he mostly uses recycled materials (including his stones), and even when not so expensive (bronze, nickel, etc) he is a painstaking craftsman who spends hours drawing and making an item.  He always seems to sell his work at a loss, and this is not unusual for most artists.  Even the good ones, unless they are very well known.  It burns us up that many who are just good marketers of their work (and the work is often complete crap both technically/craftsmanship wise as well as design and concept related) make money well above it’s real worth.

In food, knowing how to cook is an asset because nothing, absolutely nothing, is as good as fresh, homemade food.  It seems to be the thing no restaurant can duplicate no matter what the signs say.  Husband is an expert apple pie maker, having honed his skills over the years and cross applying his craftsmanship orientation to the process.  He also selects the freshest, local and good apples, and uses real lard in the crust.  It is the best apple pie I have ever had, anywhere.  I think it is worth, say a 9’ diameter deep dish, about $1000 a pie.

Anyone buying (I’ll even ship same day for an added cost)?

Where’’s my dime bag of Garam Masala?

Have you ever seen two grown people searching feverishly for a small bag?  Calls of “Look in the pantry!”  “I did!”  “Look behind the backup flour and sugar!” and  “I DID ALREADY!” ring through the hall.  In our family, creating food is our central addiction.  Husband may say books are my dirty little secret, but I have dislodged many, many volumes from my stash since we met (don’t look too closely at the basement storage room, those boxes I can’t part with). 

The food processor, ice cream maker, and KitchenAid mixer are three of my favorite objects.  They do not sit on the counter to display any expertise, but are usually covered with schmutz, cords flung awry.  These are working tools; metal machines with big motors.  This is my version of Tool Time, and when seeing muscle machines I find myself drooling and muttering ‘Gruh, gruh”.  But I am not a cooking wimp, given to throwing any little spice into my coffee grinder.  I use the granite mortar and pestle as well, pounding and grinding, then mixing, cutting, and warming over a small flame (Toasting spices can be very effective, especially before pounding up).  It is not just the consumption of our creations, these infusions into our body chemistry that we enjoy.  Making food is a creative pursuit for us, and as Anthony Bourdain has said, an expression of love.  Love for a process, materials, and ultimately the experience of sharing a meal.  There is a reason “home food” is a term we associate with our mothers, fathers, aunts, and holidays.  It is an expression of simple pleasure, and of love.

We do not have an orderly kitchen, but usually a clean one- a distinction people who like to cook, or have small children understand completely.  The cycle of used dishes and pots is constant, and each new day brings cleanliness, clarity, creativity, then clutter.  The cycle of addiction is truly hard to break.

Part of the reason the West has food and appearance issues is the weird juncture of the love of food and the crappy food we are marketed, and subsequently buy.  The movement to buy food locally, and as organically as much as possible is one I applaud.  I never used to like red meat much, and did a simple comparison test recently.  Steaks of the same cut were purchased at almost even prices; one from the usual feed lot “finished”-cross country shipped- hormone stuffed-mega grocery chain bin, the other of the grass fed, pasture living, little drugs, recently butchered, organic variety courtesy of one of our local farmers market people.  Husband, the defacto grill cook, cooked them rather rare and slapped them on a plate with a slight dusting of salt and pepper.  I usually don’t like rare meat.  A few bites of each and it was clear:  the local, “happy cow” was significantly better.  I don’t like the metallic taste red meat has, and it was missing entirely from the happy cow.  The other steak was metallic tasting, and had a strange other flavor too.  I am told the manipulations animals go through in our modern “production” (from embryo to flesh stripping) cycles creates high levels of stress hormones in the flesh that do not taste good.  I believe it.

As a child we had a steady number of nine cows.  One a year was hauled off to the local butcher (and usually one of the cows had a calf to replace it) and in return we got the standard small white packages with scrawled writing to identify the parts.  The first bull Dad took away, Red, was a bit of a shock.  Try explaining to a six year old where one of her favorite animals went, and expect some surprise.  I did not speak to Dad for several days.  It didn’t help that I abhorred (and still do) liver.  After waiting for what seemed an eternity for a meal one day during one of my growth spurts, Dad sauntered into the living room with a hunk of cooked meat in his hand, greedily taking bites out of it.  “This is that bull you won’t eat.  Mmmmm.  Good steak. . .you want some?” He hands me down the hunk, and I took a big bite.  “Bleah!”  I spit the bite out yelling,” That wasn’t steak- that was liver!”  He and mom laughed about that for years.

We had a garden, and every year it was more of a circus than an orderly enterprise.  One year my previously urban mother planted rows and rows of melons, not realizing how they reproduced.  Most rotted in the field, or were stealthily stacked next to the doors of friends and neighbors.  One year all the corn fell over, and another year the onions all rotted.  By contrast, mom’s baked goods were never in doubt.  The granddaughter of a professional baker, she had picked up many of his ideas and skills.  Her recipes are sparse notes, missing the changes and footnotes she held in her head, like most cooks.  I have yet to have at any restaurant, bakery or home the equal of her cakes, pies, cookies, or especially, her éclairs.  No matter how poor we were, she could manage to whip up an amazing dessert.  It was as if, in the vast rural wasteland into which she found herself, she would create her own small, private oases of momentary bliss and offer them to us.  Her offering of love.  She wasn’t always good at saying it, but she could show it.  The battered red apple cookie jar was never empty, and now it sits proudly on my counter tempting my little boys with what lies hidden inside.  It had been my Grandmother’s, and she had given it to my mother.  Love can come in the most subtle of ways, and remain in memory through the tokens we live with.

Of course the abundance of food we have in the US is a double-edged sword. There are enough articles clogging the newspapers about obesity (but don’t look too closely at how the BMI index was created or how it’s used), and not enough about how to can veg and fruit, and eat locally.  When talking to a fresh young Coop-extension agent recently, he admitted he knew little to nothing about the local food movement in all it’s manifestations, or organic produce and meats.  Still worse, he came from a mega poultry and beef industry family in TX, and had learned nothing from his grand folks about the small doing, of raising food, processing it yourself, and keeping it.  I find his educated, empty mind a travesty, if not a waste of my tax dollars.

We are not foodies who seek out the truly exotic.  I get my highs from small things, like the basil fresh from my garden with my fresh red tomatoes (no cast iron tasteless rocks), or in winter the fresh rosemary that grows near the lavender bushes sprinkled on a locally obtained pork roast; or eating breakfast eggs from “happy” chickens, as our neighbor likes to call his crazy bug eating, free range dinosaurs.  We share our tools, our materials, and the results with our friends.  In kind, we have had the luck to taste real Korean fish stew, exquisite Japanese vegetable dishes, Thai carrot butterflies, a northern Indian curry, and other dishes I am not well versed in cooking, or know how to tweak myself.  This is love: taste, experience, creativity, community, memory.  Who wouldn’t do unusual things for love: satisfy the addiction for sensation; slake thirst and hunger, while having substantive human connections?  Remember that the next time the anonymous dealer who parades his wealth via TV ads entices you with the promise of crisp fries, or easy satiating.  With just a little more effort, you could have so much more.  One more trip to the local international food mart and I’ll replenish my supplies.  I’ll scrounge my change dishes and get that small bag, that magic that will help transform the daily habits of life into bliss.  Who needs big pharma or illicit drugs when we can cook?

 

A new project

It seems fitting to post this on super tuesday.  Do you know your doctor?  Do you know your post-person?  Do you know your plumber?  Are there six degrees of separation between you and anyone interesting who is not a celebrity?  Do you want to begin to do something small, to participate without baggage, to begin to learn and care about the things that may only be superficial right now?  Pass it on. Expect to be rejected most of the time.  And keep doing it. Breakfast.Lunch.Dinner.

Equals across the table

Your family is invited to a meal at  (your name)  home

on the date and time of your choosing.

Please RSVP to:  (email, phone and mailing address)

at your earliest convenience.

____________________________________________________

 

When was the last time you made an honest effort to talk with someone very different from yourself?  How might a casual meal and conversation shared between disparate people bridge distances of position, diversity, opinion, and inform both?  Can a simple meal connect strangers, neighbors in a global community?

Our current world is both a small and complex place, often isolating and intimidating.  With a simple, sincere, transparent, and curiosity-based exchange such as a meal we believe we can begin to cross boundaries and learn about others.  There is no publicity, no material gain to be had, no hidden agenda.  What is intrinsically exchanged during the meal is the reward, harkening back to the most basic social meaning of breaking bread together.

We are opening our home, our lives, and ourselves as part of the experience and expect nothing in return but respect and sincere engagement.  The basis we work from when meeting strangers is to treat them as we would neighbors; people we are tied to as community members, but do not really know.  It is the effort to know and understand someone, and explore our combined worldviews that is the point, the root purpose of the meal.

Food restrictions regarding health are respected, but otherwise guests are offered “home food”; that which can’t be had in restaurants and is by its nature special.  We serve what we usually eat, using mostly local, organic materials.  For example, pot roast and mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, pies and cakes made from scratch, or omelets, toast and coffee might be offered depending on the meal.  Our core family members (4) are your hosts, and no other people but your family will attend. 

It is too easy to assume we know how other people live.  Small snippets of information disconnected from lives cannot capture enough to understand each other.  The biases that result from our assumptions have far-reaching implications.  We know the effects of ignorance in our lives, and want to dispel it.  We know the joys of curiosity, and we want to engage it (and yours) as part of this life-long project.  Please come be a part of this effort.  Sit a while, relax, talk, and have a meal with us.

Why you?

(short description of why we find the persons interesting, and why we think they ought to know us in some cases, such as state senators)

Who we are (your info here):

Both of us come from modest, midwestern backgrounds.  We have been discussing who we would like to have dinner with for years, developing a loose list of people we think are interesting.  Further discussion of this led to the formation of B.L.D., which is a blend of the personal, social action, and art in a life-long pursuit.

We hope that this project might encourage others to go beyond their constraints, their contacts, and reach out into the world in a simple, deeply human way.  We are equals across the table, our preconceptions put aside, and connections to be made.  As part of our efforts, we take a digital photo of all of us together, give you a copy, and keep ours in the B.L.D. book.  These artifacts are not intended to be shared, or profit made from them, and we use the photos as neighbors would: to recall friends and events, and as documentation to track our lives.

What do you do with a desiccated orange?

In my hand I hold a wizened orange.  It got lost behind a bag of cereal and the sugar jar, just under the kitchen window.  Said window, missing trim now for a year from a rehab project for which Husband has not found time to finish.  I could do it, but it was not my project.  Thus a few nights of cold dry air seeping under the window turned this lovely fruit into- what?

If I was Martha Stewart (and I am not) I would probably advise myself to “Go ahead!  dry out a couple more, hot glue them with bay leaves onto a grape vine wreath for a decorative piece on the front door”.  No offense to Martha, I admire her: the divorced mom- spurned even though she did it all like she was supposed to, jailed for fuzzy reasons, no-nonsense boss, funny, getting old with wit and style woman.  But I do not confuse the woman with the hype, the product, and the M.S. magazine reading, Oprah attending types for whom the new mothering magazine Cookie has been designed. These women I generally avoid comparison to.  You know who I am talking about- a largely affluent, white, appearance obsessed base, aged 22-55.  Living in those June Cleaveresque, strained superficialities of homes, no desiccated orange will be found. 

After 55 I think these women just get drunk, break a few dishes and emancipate themselves, shoving the magazines into the trash and going out for a walk.  At least, I hope they do.  Because we have no magazines or films or TV to tell us what they do, only our personal experiences, our own mothers.  Entertainment executives don’t think they merit attention, are off the collective cultural radar except for rare parody or soppy Lifetime snoozers.

This orange?  This once ripe fruit, bursting with sensuous scent, firm flesh and bright appeal?  No, decoration is not for this objet d’art.  I am compelled to take a knife to the hard skin, see if it still retains any smell, and sate my curiosity about what is inside.  Is it black?  Is it soft and rotted?  Or is it stringy and hard, all the moisture drawn away?  My bet is on the latter, given how much it weighs.  I could toss it into the compost heap, that big box of organic matter we started in the back yard.  Where that compost will go next year is in question.  Our lovely black walnut tree, offering such cool shade in the summer, so good at keeping down weeds, is I just found out a poisonous, selfish thing.  Easily one third of our yard is hostile to anything but grass and the off-spring of the Big Walnut.  The only stretch of yard that nurtured my crazy striped tomatoes has become another in-progress home improvement site.  So what of this orange, this possible compost?  I am not sure where it will go now.

I have been told by a young friend whose family runs a large cherry farm in Washington State that we really don’t know fruit in the U.S.  Most of the “good” fruit gets sold to Japan, and most of our fruit is so engineered, so greenly picked, that it has no flavor, no textures, no taste.  Having read Epitaph for a Peach-
four seasons on my family farm (Mas Masumoto, Harper San Francisco / Harper Collins, June 1995), I knew fruit, like many things in the U.S., had become something other than the celebrated production of the fertile, ripened ovary of a flowering plant.  When I was pregnant, the only smell that could curb my nausea was that of a fresh orange.  Oranges revive the spirit, as well as the body.  Oranges glow, and color even the most drab scene- meriting its own crayon, a very own color concept.

My mother used to put an orange every year in our Christmas “socks” (those felt creations no more useful on a foot than the plastic fruit in her table bowl to our stomachs) and we would take the oranges out on Christmas morning, thinking to ourselves “What the heck is this about?” tossing them aside.  Later when she was clearing the torn paper, broken bows, and empty boxes she would sigh as she picked the fruit up and put it back in the kitchen.  Only once did she ever tell me that as a child, she had gotten an orange every Christmas, as had her mother before her.  Oranges used to be rare, a treat every bit as wonderful to a child as candy.  In the Little House on the Prairie books, I recall the iconic scene when Laura gets an orange and is thrilled.  Now days, if I can find an organic, reasonably fresh California orange (I have given up on Florida. The state ag powers are not interested in demanding decent worker conditions, restraining pesticide use, or ever offering anything edible) I am thrilled.  Hence my guilt at discovering this sad shriveled specimen.  My sons like oranges, and I had saved this one for them, putting aside my greed.  It silently slipped away, and was forgotten.

Excess at Christmas is more than just the toys, the noise, the lights and general public pandemonium.  It is as simple as having access to fruit everyday, even if it is not the best fruit, and forgetting it is there.  Once forgotten and now found, what does one do with a desiccated orange?  Alas, poor orange! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath been eaten but a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those pips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? 

This orange, like my mother, is gone.  All that is left is the memory of the orange, the knowledge of what a good orange is.  I place the desiccated wonder on the sill to ponder further, to remind me of what is passing.  Merry Christmas, mom.  The boys will have fresh oranges in their “socks” this and every year, as often as the fruit is available to us, and I will not wait to tell them all the reasons why.  I hope I never live to see the horrors of Soylent Green or Silent Spring, and I hope one of the last scents I smell when I go to meet you is that of a fragrant, fully realized orange.