Friday, December 23, 2016

Eulogy for Daddy

My father died this week. It was not unexpected. He lived with heart disease for most of his life and owed his relative longevity to the advances of modern medicine and the excellent care of his physicians. His own father died of heart disease at age 62.

Daddy's heart could not sustain him for as long as we wished. But in another sense of that word, he had the strongest heart of anyone I've ever known. His kindness and generosity endeared him to all he encountered. His friends are legion, especially for a man not inclined to gregariousness.

I can't recall Daddy ever uttering a harsh word about anyone, with the exception of my mother's cats; he admittedly only tolerated those creatures.

Daddy was the bedrock of our family, providing unconditional love and unwavering support every single day of our lives. I'm not exaggerating. Every single day. Never did Daddy not have our backs. When we made mistakes, he helped us clean them up. It was not his role as parent to judge or criticize, only to bolster and praise.

My dad was emotionally strong and resilient. I remember witnessing him cry just once, and this particular memory is instructive of his character, so I will share. When I was about 6 years old, I committed some heinous crime on a babysitter's watch. My parents had been out for a couple of hours, maybe for dinner or an office party, and the elderly Mrs. Grant was tasked with the care of myself and my sister. I don't recall my exact misbehavior, only that it was of a nature so abhorent that my mother – our usual disciplinarian – determined punishment must be meted out by my father for greater emphasis. [Before any readers get incensed at what I'm about to reveal, bear in mind that this took place in the South in the 60s. Culture, people.] Daddy took me to my room with a paddle, said this would hurt him worse than it would hurt me, and gave me a couple of light smacks on my behind. I was offended and let out the obligatory shriek, but he was right. I didn't cry; he did.

Now, I suspect Daddy shed tears when he lost his parents, although I didn't see. And if he had outlived his wife or any of his children, I'm certain I would have seen him cry. But the vast majority of life's troubles my dad faced with the awareness that he was to provide the shoulder for our tears.

Any positive quality I have came from him, and my mom. Any fault I have is due to my failure to live up to their example.

Miscellaneous lessons from my dad:

  1. Be skeptical of advertising. I may save 40 percent if I buy that thing on sale today, but I'll save 100 percent if I don't buy it at all.
  2. Most of the time, I will have less stress if I just do what my mother wants me to do.
  3. The Agawa Canyon Scenic train ride has overpriced sandwiches. Although, to be fair, most food concessions shared this misfortune in my dad's view.
  4. North Carolina is the best place in the world.
  5. In purchasing a car, choose it solely for its function, not its status. Never buy anything to impress the neighbors.
  6. People may not present themselves as the way they really are. My dad knew this long before social media posturing.
  7. Wear comfortable clothes, except when Mama says to put on something nice. (see lesson #2)
  8. There is no such thing as a free kitten. (I chose to ignore this lesson).
  9. Be forgiving. Everyone makes mistakes.
  10. Although not approved by Mama, a spoonful of sugar soaked with whiskey is an effective cough remedy.

Points on which I disagreed with my dad:

  1. We did not share the same tastes in food, with a few exceptions, such as eastern North Carolina barbecue, seafood and chocolate pie. He could not persuade me of the delights of cafeteria food, fried catfish, mayonnaise eaten with a spoon directly from the jar, or drinking ranch dressing from a bottle.
  2. Shopping at Walmart. He liked the evil empire.
  3. Voting for Ross Perot. He actually did that.   

Some people are said to be born with a silver spoon. I think mine was golden; my privilege was priceless. I wouldn't trade my exceptional parents for any of the world's material riches. Thank you, Mama and Daddy.

I'm so proud to be this Daddy's girl.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Berry, berry good

This is the time of which we dreamed during the long winter in northern Michigan. The beginning of summer and its gloriously fine weather also brings with it our short and delicious strawberry season, followed by cherries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. I recommend gorging.

I purchased a flat of organic strawberries, which is roughly equivalent to 8 quarts. Most of them are now in the freezer in zip-lock bags and will comfort me in winter smoothies 6 months from now. Here's my method of freezing berries:

* Slice off the caps and any rotten parts.
* Dunk the berries in a bowl of cold water to rinse clean.
* Drain in a colander.
* Spread in a single layer on a tray and place in the freezer.
* When berries are frozen, transfer to zip-lock bags and return to freezer.

Strawberries freezing in a pie plate
Of course, you want to use as many fresh berries as your tummy can hold while you have the chance, and I have some quick and easy suggestions.

This summer cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen, adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe, and further modified by me, was so good I had to make it twice. For the first go-round, I made it exactly as written, with the barley flour (yes, I had that on hand due to a winter experiment with barley bread). The second time I was out of milk and white sugar, so I used a combination of yogurt and kefir for the milk and turbinado sugar for the sweetener. It was equally good. When raspberries come in, I think I'll add a little cinnamon to the topping, and maybe a sprinkle of cloves.

I weighed the berries the first time, but just crammed as many as I could fit the second time.

Strawberry cake before baking
 The strawberries shrink a little in the oven and the batter rises around them.

Finished cake. Yum!
Other great things to do with berries:
* pancake topping
* oatmeal topping
* ice cream topping
* blend with milk and drink
* add to salads

Oh, the list is endless. Feast on them while you can!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Extreme Cooking, part 2

Today's post should have been day four on the theme of "sure, cooking is easy, but it doesn't have to be." The problem with extreme cooking is that it doesn't leave much time for blogging. Plus, the weather just turned lovely here in northern Michigan, and I've been wanting to take my cooking breaks outside. Finally I remembered my laptop can also go outside.

Dinner for four turned into dinner on the deck for nine, mostly due to my realization that four people couldn't possibly eat all of this. And we had leftovers, so now I'm trying to wrangle friends into stopping by for lunch. I still have a quart of chilled beet soup.

The most labor-intensive component of the menu was the burnt bread sauce for the slow-roasted carrots. The most difficult component was thinly slicing the gravlax. Even with a sharp knife, my carving skills leave much to be desired. I managed, but it wasn't perfect. The biggest hit was the pistachio dip with flax seed crackers.

I'll explain the recipes, but I don't have the patience to type them all in, even my barely-streamlined versions. Each one from Bar Tartine is pages long. If you think you're up for this type of cooking, I highly recommend purchasing the cookbook.

Also, you'll see now why I'm such a bad food blogger. After four days of cooking (not all day -- it wasn't that intense), I only have a few pictures. I get distracted in the kitchen and I forget to document every step. I have a few photos, but not of everything.

First, the popular flax seed crackers began with flax seeds soaked in a broth of kombu dashi, sundried tomatoes, onion, dill, parsley and garlic. (This meal was made possible by my Vitamix, definitely the workhorse of my kitchen).

After soaking for about an hour, I thinly spread the mixture onto four pieces of parchment paper and put them in the dehydrator for about a day.

Once they were crispy, I broke them into chunks. I didn't take a photo of the finished product, but I think I'll make more to take for book group later this week, along with this French Onion Dip from the chef-authors of Bar Tartine.

The pistachio dip, also made in the Vitamix, wasn't too fussy except for shelling a bag of pistachios, where were toasted with shelled pumpkin seeds:


Aside from those delicious green nuts, it had charred green onions, grapeseed oil, lots of garlic, charred green chile, lime juice and cilantro. Here it is in the blender:

I warned my guests to drink plenty of water (we had plenty of wine, too), primarily due to those crackers and the equally high-fiber bread on which I served the gravlax. The bread recipe is from Chad Robertson, the master baker who is a co-conspirator of Bar Tartine and the owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. I had made his Rene's Rye Bread during the holidays and loved it, so I was happy to have an occasion to try it again. It involves some planning as it features sprouted rye berries. I started those a couple of days before I made the dough and they were perfectly ready on mix day:

The wet ingredients were sourdough starter, buttermilk, barley malt syrup and beer. I used Bell's Smitten Golden Rye this time, just because I had a bottle in the fridge.

The dry ingredients included a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flour (Chad's recipe calls for spelt, but I already had wheat ground so used that) and whole rye flour. But this is the reason I warned everyone to drink plenty of water:

Look at all these seeds! Flax, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower.
The dough mixes up to slurry, about the consistency of concrete (so the recipe says -- I have no personal experience with concrete mix).

It sits in a warm spot in the kitchen for a few hours, then goes in a pan to sit some more. I use a pullman pan, which has its own lid. It rests in the refrigerator overnight and is baked the next morning. And it is awesome!

Now for that burnt bread sauce. As noted in part 1, I started this four days ahead by charring some day old bread and putting it into the dehydrator. The next day, the charred and dried bread slices were pulverized into a powder by the Vitamix and transferred to a jar for storage. I also charred, dehydrated and powder two bunches of green onions. Still, I was not done. I had to make a kombu dashi, which was simple: simmer seaweed in water and strain. But there was still more bread to char:

I charred onions:

And I charred garlic, arbol chiles and almonds. By this time, I was done with photos, so the rest of the story will be from my memory. All of those ingredients, along with a hothouse tomato, parsley, lime juice, honey, salt and pepper went into the blender and then into a bowl.

Next up was an almond milk sauce which was kind of easy because I cheated and used store-bought almond milk. Into the blender with the almond milk, a small cooked potato, a little serrano chile, more lime juice and honey. Whir, strain into a jar, store in the fridge.

The carrots weren't so complicated because I already had made the specified chutney spice powder in a previous recipe. I'm building my Bar Tartine powder pantry little by little. I warmed this in butter, then tossed the carrots in and roasted them in the oven at 250 for about an hour. The serving presentation -- and I really wish I had taken a photo of this -- was a big glob of the burnt bread sauce with the almond milk poured over it, the carrots spread on top of it all, and little green pools of drizzled carrot oil. I forgot to grate toasted almonds as a finishing touch, but it was still quite lovely and delicious.

I used this Serious Eats recipe for gravlax and mine looked almost like the photo except for the slices of gravlax appearing as if they'd had a shredder accident.

Dessert was stupid simple and a clear indication of my exhaustion by that stage. After all the dishes had been cleared, I popped back in the kitchen, tossed a few ripe bananas, some Breyer's vanilla ice cream, a sprinkle of cinnamon and most of a jar of Smucker's caramel sauce in the blender, whizzed it smooth, then trotted out back to the porch with the blender pitcher and two bottles of rum. I set it all on the picnic table and let my guests pass it around to help themselves.

Was it worth it? Oh, yes. Perhaps my mother was onto something when she told me, "You get out of something what you put into it." But then, I've never been fortunate enough to experience that laziest and most sublime of treats -- the perfectly ripe peach picked from a branch of a neighbor's tree hanging over the fence.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Extreme Cooking

A few months ago, I wrote an essay for the Oryana newsletter defending home cooking as a simple, economical way to get dinner. While that's undoubtedly true, there is another side of cooking, one that may be more open to the "elitist" characterization.

Welcome to my next experiment in extreme cooking.

Over the next four days, I'll prepare a multi-course dinner using methods and techniques unlikely to be demonstrated on the Food Network. This will not be a cheap dinner, nor will it be easy. I'll be sprouting, fermenting, dehydrating, curing, baking, and maybe even cooking.

The menu has a Scandinavian influence with most recipes adapted from my new manual of extreme cooking, the cookbook of Bar Tartine in San Francisco. I will be preparing:

Pistachio Dip with Flax Crackers (Bar Tartine, p. 216)
Chilled Beet Soup with Coriander and Yogurt (Bar Tartine, p. 158)
Chicory Salad with Anchovy Dressing (Bar Tartine, p. 184)
Gravlax with Coriander, Caraway and Mustard-Dill Sauce
Rene's Danish Rye (Tartine Book No. 3, p. 140)
Slow-roasted Carrots with Burnt Bread and Almond Milk (Bar Tartine, p. 224)

Because I'll be exhausted by the end, the Food Network can handle dessert, which will be Bobby Flay's Bananas Foster Milkshake, having nothing to do with Scandinavia or extreme cooking. It's a quick blender concoction, although I will make my own caramel sauce ahead of time.

First step is shopping for the ingredients. They look lovely:

To make the burnt bread sauce, I will need bread. I'll be burning the last of my caraway-coriander sourdough, so that means it's time to make more bread. Grinding whole wheat for flour:

Adding bread flour:

Mixing the dry ingredients:

The wet ingredients (I add a little yeast as an insurance policy because my kitchen isn't very warm this time of year):

Mixing the dry ingredients with the wet:

Old bread sliced to burn:

After broiling it in the oven for several minutes it is ready to go in the dehydrator:

Another do-ahead project, carrot top oil. I've blanched the tops of two carrot bunches, then whizzed it in the blender with a cup of sunflower oil. It will drain in the refrigerator, I hope.

Other Thursday night projects were soaking rye berries for the Danish rye bread and making another batch of yogurt. More to come!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Adult Education

I was schooled by my Southern mama to refrain from discussing politics and religion in polite company, which I understood to be any gathering in which my views may not be uniformly shared. But surely the internet is not such a place, so I need not set aside my training in good manners to bring up both topics simultaneously.

Some years ago, I had the great fortune to be acquainted with an elder of uncommon knowledge and wisdom. At the time, I was a church-going agnostic mother of two young children and Bob was a retired ordained minister and professor of theology, which perhaps is not typical ground for friendship, but my periodic coffee meetings with Bob and two other older gentlemen are among the intellectual highlights of my life.

At one of our meetings, Bob made a provocative statement which was quite radical for someone with his background: church, he said, is no place for children. To recount the entirety of this conversation would require a lengthy post best left for another day, but I will explain his key point as relates to the forthcoming history/politics tie-in. The underpinning theology and philosophy of religion, he said, is too complex to be understood by children, and so by necessity, the major concepts are simplified in youth religious training into stories that can be taught in Sunday School, usually with the aid of crayons. Unfortunately, many, if not most, church-goers limit their religious education to their childhood years. Even when they do embark on adult religious education, the mythologies established in childhood can be hard to shake.

I've thought of this conversation often in the intervening years, most recently after becoming aware that my views on American history may be subject to similar childish simplicities. My grounding in American history happened in the 5th grade, where I was required to memorize "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." (This was in 1970s North Carolina, where paddling was still an accepted punishment in schools.) I can no longer recite the famous poem, but it was a central component in an early education that established in my mind the War of Independence as a straight-forward struggle to overthrow a foreign invader and occupier. Subsequent exposure to historical information was not sufficient for me to question this view for the past 40 years, although I should note I chose to satisfy the history credit requirements at my college with art history courses.

A work of fiction inspired me to reassess my notions of the American Revolution. I've been reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series this summer (my knitting/reading/film blog is where I've been lately), and her main characters get into the thick of the Revolutionary War in the seventh volume, An Echo in the Bone. With the battle lines separating friends, neighbors and even family members, I felt as if I were reading about a civil war. Was it?

Living in the 21st century, I have many historical research tools at hand (yes, I'm referring to Google). With a few minutes of reading, I discovered numerous historians have taken the view of the American Revolution as a civil war, at least at its outset, and this understanding is reflected in high school lesson plans, supplementary materials and even a college course taught on the other side of the Atlantic. Had I continued my education in American history past elementary school, I likely would've been exposed to greater complexities. Was I poorly served by an education system that allowed me to discontinue significant academic inquiry into the formative period of my nation's history, or is my shallow knowledge my own fault?

Certainly we can't learn everything about everything. But ignorance is not bliss, and what you don't know could hurt you. Perhaps most of us can slide through our adult lives with our childhood religious and historical mythologies intact with no harm done. The fate of the republic is probably not dependent on a middle-aged midwestern resident's understanding of historical nuances. Still, I would like to broaden and deepen my knowledge, particularly in subjects where better education will enhance my life and help me contribute to my community.

In some areas, lifelong learning is a necessity, not a luxury, particularly for those in positions of influence. With his usual blend of humor and outrage, Jon Stewart illustrated the shocking scientific illiteracy of certain members of Congress who are charged with crafting legislation on climate change. This is one area in which we can't afford to assume everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten. We court ignorance at our own peril.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Muses and musings

[Part 1 and part 2]

Fortunately, my daughter did not have to depend solely on her workaholic-inclined parents to provide inspiration and role models for the slower-paced life she craves. This contemplative sphere is densely populated with writers, and although the journalist subspecies to which her parents belong have a natural habitat in the busy portion of that world, we share some of the same feeding grounds with the creative writers who get to spend more time thinking, so we are fortunate to introduce our Matilda to empathetic role models.

We also are blessed in northern Michigan to be immersed in a local culture that celebrates and supports writing. Our small downtown has several (yes, several -- that is not a typo) thriving independent bookstores, two of which are a short walk from our house and regularly bring in authors for signings and lectures. The occupational hazards and joys of writing are well-known to our children.

Matilda's most treasured muse is Stephanie, an ecologist and writer of exceptional skill who is my valued friend and comrade in community activism. Stephanie has shown kindnesses to my daughter that I could never repay in a lifetime. She has written Matilda letters, loaned books from her vast library and offered her house as a country retreat. (Among the highlights of Matilda's 17 years was a week the two of us spent housesitting for Stephanie, who at the time had a cat with a talent for bringing in live prey through the cat door. The week's visitors included a bird, a mouse and a baby bunny, all of which Matilda deftly captured and restored to the wild.)

I suspect one big factor in Matilda's affection for Stephanie is that Stephanie has always conversed with her as a peer, soliciting and respecting Matilda's opinions, never disregarding the input of a child. The two also have an easy rapport, which may be attributed to their shared introversion, keen intelligence and love of the natural world, as well as their proclivity for a contemplative pace. If Matilda spends significant chunks of time staring into space in Stephanie's presence, she will be praised, not censured.

Occasionally, Matilda has received such affirmations from a sage on a stage. One of the amenities of our book-loving town is the National Writers Series, which draws well-known authors to discuss their work before an audience of several hundred (also not a typo). My daughter has attended several of these events with me, and the writer who most inspired her was Maggie Stiefvater, author of several best-selling young adult novels.

In her appearance at the City Opera House last spring, Ms. Stiefvater was asked where and how she works. She rose from her chair and stretched on the floor of the Opera House stage in yoga corpse pose, staring at the ceiling and telling the audience that is how she spends the bulk of her working time. Matilda was sold! This was all the evidence she needed that writing was the correct path for her. (I can't avoid pointing out to Matilda that eventually even the novelist must put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.)

This brings me to the "well-rutted path" Ms. Stiefvater described in a TED Talk. [Really, I should link this video on the headline of this and the two previous blog posts to save you all the trouble of reading as Ms. Stiefvater captures this theme with eloquence and humor.] The achievement-focused path of Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities, so favored by striving families, is a reliable course for "success" defined as landing a respectable job that will afford consumer amenities. However, many of our artists, innovators, and creative agents of change did not find their way along this well-rutted path. I'm grateful for reminders that a C in high school physics does not foreshadow a future of crime or welfare dependency. It doesn't even preclude a career as a physicist! The results of any Google search combining bad high school grades and later success will provide solace to a parent with report card angst.

My crystal ball is fuzzy. I can't predict where the road less traveled will lead Matilda. In all likelihood, she will settle into an unremarkable adult existence, as most of us do, picking her way through the ordinary joys and disappointments of adulthood and defining happiness and success for herself. I know she will be guided by her own star; she insists on it.

But I won't be surprised if she does something extraordinary. Perhaps 30 years from now, I'll look back at this photo and wonder if she was sizing up the lawn of her future home.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A different beat

Among the many mixed messages our culture gives kids, the advice on conformity must be among the most confusing. Officially, we value individuality. We urge them to "think outside the box," "march to your own beat," "dare to be different," or in the words of Apple, "think different." When we seek to inspire, we praise non-conformity. But woe to the teen who takes this to heart!

In reality, the last thing many achievement-oriented parents want to encourage in their children is non-conformity, unless they define it as "getting a 4.0 when the rest of the class is below 3.8." Otherwise, parents are more likely to encourage their children to fit in by steering them to popular activities, clothing styles, entertainment choices and like-minded peer groups. 

she made her own Halloween costume
Even in my social circle, in which disdain of the "dominant culture" was a recurring theme back in the playgroup days, the acceptable box is only slightly more accommodating. Enlightened parents may celebrate some examples of coloring outside the lines, such as little boys in pink or a family's refusal to own a television set, but questions on academic attainment are usually confined to "how" or "where," rarely "if" or "why." Much debate may occur on whether little Zooby will fare better at Montessori, public, charter or home school, but the unquestioned assumption is that Zooby will go to college.

Let me be clear: I include myself among those parents. For most of the past two decades, I've approached my parenting role with the assumption that my two children would share similar views on how one should navigate life. While my favorite metaphor to describe my ideals was that I was a gardener nurturing seeds, not a potter shaping clay, in truth I behaved as if I were growing bonsai or topiary rather than wildflowers.

To escape my box, I needed a good teacher, and fortunately I had one in my daughter, the proverbial square peg who will not be pounded into a round hole. [I'll refer to her as "Matilda," in honor of her favorite childhood literary character.] Through strong non-violent resistance to most efforts to "school" her or train her to productivity, my Matilda has taught me to reassess my own notions of success and purpose in a more radical manner than I had previously experienced, even through my studies of voluntary simplicity.

I have learned that time spent staring at the ceiling may be the most valuable of all. This has been a difficult lesson to absorb after decades focused on perfecting my multitasking skills to the point that I almost can't read a book unless I'm simultaneously engaged in another activity. If I had been a student of the Harry Potter generation, I may have been nicknamed Hermione after J.K. Rowling's smarty-pants heroine who shifted time to take more classes. Watching my daughter sit for hours, doing nothing that I could detect, was puzzling, and for many years, a problem to fix. (I think I've read almost every advice site returned by a Google search on "gifted and unmotivated.")

The first clues that Matilda might be on to something emerged when I began to notice that some of my adult friends welcomed her company. Matilda has always, even as a toddler, generally preferred the society of adults and has accompanied me to activities and social engagements whenever permitted. My adult friends tolerated her society with equanimity, and as she grew into her teen years, their interactions evolved. No longer just a tagalong, she increasingly participated in the conversations, and I observed that adults seemed to enjoy and even elicit her contributions.

It finally dawned on me that Matilda's agile mind was far from idle during those countless hours spent staring at the ceiling. She was engaged in one of the activities most endangered in our crazy-busy culture: thinking. More specifically, sustained and critical thinking. Like Charles Darwin, my young naturalist needed time to sort and catalog her observations. I thought she was "doing nothing," but her mind was a hot oven, baking something new from the ingredients she had kneaded and left to rise. The result would much later be issued as a report, typically with a "did you notice" or "I figured something out" prologue, often to the astonishment of an adult unaware that teens thought about such things.

But most importantly, that "doing nothing" time was key to her well-being. When I let go of my beliefs of what should be happening and observed what was happening, I acknowledged that every single incident of discontent, meltdown or outright misery came on the heels of parental pressure to do something. If I just let her be, her inner butterfly emerged -- curious and ready to explore the world, vitally engaged with every interesting thing she encountered, and comfortable in her own beautifully unique skin.

Tomorrow: my muse's muses