Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Isabel's autumn adventure


Isabel flew off to Seoul, South Korea this morning to spend the semester studying at Yonsei University. I drove home to Marin County to spend the semester popping horse tranquilizers. 

I’ll just spit it out: I didn’t want her to go. I thought Seoul was a great choice back when she applied in the winter, but recent events and our idiot president’s rhetoric changed my mind. While I know the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula remains low, it wasn’t low enough for me. What was wrong with Shanghai? Taipei? Thailand?

Isabel and Mark were unconcerned. I litigated this. I lost. I am gracious in defeat.

It’s gonna be fine. She’s going to have a wonderful time, learn to love kimchi, speak a little Korean, drink soju. We’ll visit her at Thanksgiving. In the highly, highly, highly unlikely event the president starts a war with North Korea and something happens to my daughter, not to mention the 26 million other people living in the Seoul metropolitan area, I will make it my life’s mission to personally poison his chocolate ice cream. 

Joke. Duh. Like when he jokes about how cops should manhandle prisoners. Sidesplitting.

In the car going to the airport, I told Mark and Isabel that I was going to start cooking Korean food again so I’d feel close to Isabel while she was away. I said I was thinking of making a beef and daikon radish soup for dinner tonight.

Isabel said, “Sorry I’m not going to Rome, Dad.” 

Thats my girl.

Friday, July 28, 2017

What you reading?


your summer reading

Hello, he said. What are you reading?
Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.
Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.
Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
A constant what? Elisabeth said.
A constant constancy, Daniel said.
They went for a walk along the canal bank. 
Every time they passed someone, Daniel said hello. Sometimes the people said hello back. Sometimes they didn’t.
It’s really not allright to talk to strangers, Elisabeth said.
It is when you’re as old as I am, Daniel said. It’s not all right for a personage of your age.
I’m tired of being a personage of my age and of having no choices, Elisabeth said.
Never mind that, Daniel said. That’ll pass in the blink of an eye. Now. Tell me. What you reading?

Ali Smith’s latest novel, Autumn, is incredibly good. (If you want to read a more thorough analysis than I have to offer, try this.) I finished it in a day and every page or so stopped to reread some astounding passage so I could really let it sink in. I love the way she juxtaposes profundity with lightness, even absurdity. This book is full of big, serious ideas (about Brexit, age, time, love) but is also quick and witty and you never feel weighted down.

I can’t stop thinking about Daniel’s remarks about reading. Throughout the novel, instead of the usual and often meaningless “How are you?” Daniel asks people: “What you reading?” As he explains in that passage, he isn’t necessarily inquiring about a book (though characters in this novel read a lot of books), he’s asking: What is on your mind, what are you picking up from the world that is preoccupying you at this particular moment — what project, what political disaster, what cultural argument, what movie, what food trend — and what is the related narrative that’s unfolding in your head?

Or at least that’s what I think he means. At least that’s what I want him to mean. 

And isn’t that a better question than “How are you?” Obviously, “How are you?” is important — I always want to know how my friends are, whether they’re in any kind of physical or emotional distress, but when they’re not, and they’re usually not, thank God, the next thing I want to know is what they’re reading, either in terms of books or in that broader sense. A couple of my friends and I cut straight to “What you reading?” by mutual understanding, but I have never been able to put a name to that dynamic like I can now.
My baby girl polishes that glass!
It seems that this blog has become about what I’m reading, both in terms of books but also in that broader sense. I mean, it always has been, but I used to “read” about food and cookbooks and backyard chickens more than I do now. Hey, what do you expect? When I started this blog my kids were cute, naughty little chipmunks. Life is different now. Owen will be a senior in high school and Isabel appears to be all grown up. We went to visit her last weekend in Walla Walla, Washington where she’s working at a history museum and living in a bungalow with some friends. She has potted snapdragons on the front steps and goes to the farmers’ market on Saturdays to buy kale and potatoes, cooks herself dinner every night. It’s the young, pretty millennial who should be writing the food blog, not the chubby old lady with the reading glasses and the empty nest!

Except I’m the one who likes to write, so there.

Saturday morning when you are twenty and your enthusiastic parents texted you at 7 a.m. from Starbucks
Autumn. It’s brilliant. You should read it. It’s not a plotty book so if a propulsive plot is critical to your reading enjoyment, perhaps this novel isn’t for you. But why not give it a try? One of the characters, preoccupied by world events and sitting at a dying friend’s bedside, reads the opening passage of a classic novel* and thinks: 

The words had acted like a charm. They’d released it all in seconds. They made everything happening stand just far enough away.
It was nothing less than magic. 
Who needs a passport?
Who am I? Where am I? What am I?
I’m reading. 

John McCain’s vote notwithstanding, everything happening right now is pretty gross. Autumn will make it stand just far enough away.

*I used to feel bad linking to amazon rather than an indie bookshop, but since Trump started hate tweeting at them, I feel not quite good, but definitely less bad. 


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Winter Wheat

new treasure
Back to my sweet California home, where the heat is dry, the pot legal, and all the young men have beards. 

Quick report on Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker, which I finished just now.

This 1944 novel is narrated by a young woman named Ellen who lives with her parents on a Montana wheat farm. She goes off to college in Minnesota, falls in love with a city boy, and has to drop out of college after a bad harvest. She milks the cows. She runs the combine. She goes to teach at an isolated rural school. It hails. It snows. It gets hot. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Throughout, Ellen attempts to understand her parents’ mysterious marriage and make sense of her own passionate attachment to the land.

I haven’t read a novel this straightforward in a long time. It’s not a children’s book — and it’s not flat or simplistic — but there’s nothing fancy going on with the writing here. I didn’t copy out any dazzling passages because there weren’t any. By contrast, 10 pages of my notebook are filled with passages from Rachel Cusk’s (amazing) Transit, which is the last novel I finished before this one.

Yet I suspect I’ll remember Ellen’s story long after I’ve forgotten what happened in Transit. This novel is what I think critics mean when they use the words “deeply felt.” I ordinarily dislike the term “deeply felt,” but it captures the emotional purity and intensity of Winter Wheat. It was a very clean and vivid reading experience. I loved it.

This isn’t a blanket recommendation. Not everyone will enjoy Winter Wheat. I read somewhere once that there are two types of readers, those who liked the Narnia books when they were children and those who liked the Little House series. I was a Little House kid. Winter Wheat is for us. 

There’s a lot of food in Winter Wheat, as there always is in novels set on farms, which may be one reason why I like them so much.  You’re treated to images like: “The bulb in its green paper shade shone down on chicken pie and candied sweet potatoes and Mom’s rolls.” A plot twist turns on a glass of homemade dandelion wine. 

I thought as I always do when reminded of the existence of dandelion wine that I would like to taste it one day.  I looked up a recipe. To get started, you collect three quarts of dandelion blossoms — and not the whole flower, just the fluffy, weightless yellow petals you’ve stripped off the green head. Three quarts!

Nope. Not today. Sadly, probably never.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Gone is gone


Credit: Library of Congress
A few years ago, I helped a woman in her 80s write her memoir. I did this under the auspices of a nonprofit that was trying to keep house bound elderly people engaged with life by telling their stories. When I saw the ad on Craigslist seeking volunteers, I wrote back immediately. This was right up my alley. I couldn’t wait to get started.  

The work was even more fascinating and rewarding than I’d expected. I loved my “learning partner” and I loved trying to get her story on paper. Once a week for a year I drove to P’s house, sat down at her dining table, and took notes as she told me about her life. Then I’d go home and type everything up, trying to make it flow as a story. Where the narrative seemed thin or behaviors went unexplained, I’d make a note and the next week I’d see P again and we’d talk some more. We circled back over her life scores of times and in every rendition something new came out, the story got richer. There was probably more food in this memoir than any in the history of the program, but there was a lot of everything. I hope she and her family were happy with the memoir. I was.

Early on P told me that she had not seen her father’s face since the early 1940s. He’d had a stroke at the salt mine where he worked and left behind a widow and 15 children. P had adored her father. There had been photos, but they’d been lost. It haunted her that she didn’t have a picture of this beloved man.

Well, telling me this was like waving a meaty shank bone in front of a hungry hound. A quest! I was going to find a picture of P’s father if it killed me. I wrote it down on my multi-page to-do list. For weeks I scoured the internet looking for pictures of black men who had lived in a certain region of Louisiana in the 1930s. I inquired about archives at the salt mine. I spent hours on the Library of Congress photo site. I googled every possible combination of keywords and then a few days later I’d think of some more and try those.

Every week or so I printed out a new series of photographs of unidentified men — men in overalls sitting on the steps of general stores, men sitting on carts, everything available —  and brought them to P. The first time, she looked at them with a strange expression on her face. She said, “I don’t know why they never show blacks who are doing well, they always have to make us look poor.” 

Indeed, all the photographs I could find of black men in rural, Depression-era Louisiana told a picturesque story of Southern poverty. This was not the way P remembered things. The disparity between her memories and the pictures the photographers chose to take — and our institutions to preserve — would be interesting to explore.

But that’s another story. What matters is that P never saw a picture of her father among those that I brought to her. It was always a long shot.

When I had exhausted what the internet had to offer, I actually looked at my calendar and thought maybe I could travel to Louisiana and search in person for P’s father’s photograph. But even I am not compulsive enough to travel to Louisiana looking for a picture of a man I’d never recognize, a picture that probably didn’t even exist.

A certain personality type has a hard time accepting defeat on a quest like this. My personality type. Even after we’d finished her memoir, “P’s father’s photo” sat there in bold type on my to-do list. Occasionally I’d go back online and poke around. Time passed. Pearl had a debilitating stroke. One day earlier this year, with a pang, I crossed “P’s father’s photo”  off my list. P’s father’s picture doesn’t exist.

Sunday, I decided I was done with my family history research. I was never going to know why Abner and Cora and Orlan behaved as they did. Never. It was over. Yesterday, I was going to go to Mount Vernon and enjoy the end of my trip to Washington D.C. There was one last archive I hadn’t looked at, but it was a long shot. Some ladies who might have known something about the people I’m curious about had left behind diaries now held at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. But, really, such a long shot and such a long drive.

Big surprise, at the last minute I changed plans. No Mount Vernon. Instead, I drove almost three hours down a monotonous highway listening to agitating right-wing talk radio to William and Mary College. I bought a parking permit, found the library, found special collections, requested the diaries from a meticulous librarian, locked all my belongs in a locker. The librarian brought out diaries and put them on a shelf. She had me sit at a big table in view of her desk. Then, one by one, she brought me the diaries. She’d set each small, leather diary up on a foam platform and I had to use a little piece of string to weight down the yellowed pages as I read so the oils on my fingers would spend as little time as possible on the precious paper. When I was done, she’d take back the diary and bring me another.

My ladies had been admirably dutiful diarists. They had also been shockingly boring diarists. Every single day for years and years they noted that it was “terribly hot” or “cold and raw” and then listed who they had lunched with and whether they had embroidered or read in the evening. No emotion, no gossip, no commentary. Occasionally some major world event like an earthquake in Jamaica or the death of Grover Cleveland made it into these pages, reported as flatly as the latest garden party at Mrs. Lambert’s.

Thank God my people had also made it into the diaries! I hadn’t been completely delusional! They were right there in brown ink and the first time I saw that one of the diarists had gone to Mrs. S’s for tea (May 17, 1906), I gasped. But of course there was no record of what they talked about, let alone what kind of cookies they ate, what Mrs. S wore, whether she had put on weight, seemed happy or blue or worried. And so it went. Dinner with Mr. S. Travels with young S. Terribly hot. Rained all day. Father went on trip. Father returned from trip. Embroidered.

I’ve been surprised by just how much you can learn about the past, how many incredible secrets you can crack if you’re willing to spend the time. Strange chunks of the past really can be recaptured. 

But most of it is lost forever, really lost, like P’s father’s face. I had always known that the motivations and characters of the people I was researching were probably lost forever. I spent several hours hunched over those unilluminating diaries yesterday. I am glad I did. I shut the last diary, thanked the librarian, retrieved my belongings, drove three hours back to my airbnb, collapsed on the saggy little sofa, started a good book, slept well. The piece of the past that has preoccupied me for the last two months is not probably lost forever, it is lost forever. 


On to new quests.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

A comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush




Time to get that dated rant off the top of this page.

I’ve been consumed by a project for the last eight weeks that has nothing to do with food or Trump or anything remotely relevant to this blog, hence the dearth of posts. I decided to solve a seemingly small family mystery that ballooned into a bigger, stranger story and I got obsessed. All the energy that went into despairing over politics was suddenly diverted towards figuring out what happened with my family between 1900 and 1912. I think I figured it out. What I can’t figure out is why it happened and that part is tormenting me. I keep hoping I’m going to stumble across a cache of letters, some gossipy diary, or a juicy scrapbook that will shed light on the personalities involved and why these people did what they did, but having worked my way through archives from Broken Bow, Nebraska to Washington, D.C., I’m beginning to accept that if I really want to know what happened, I’m going to have to make it up.

Anyway, that’s why I haven’t posted in forever. Be happy for me. It’s kept me from dwelling on North Korea.

Other than eating it, I haven’t been thinking about food as much as usual, though that’s probably still more than most people. I made some cornmeal mush earlier this summer because I’d been reading so much about Nebraska circa 1900. They lived on corn. They burned it as fuel, boiled it, fried it, roasted it, dried it, ground it, and turned it into mush. Mush. I had never eaten mush. You may ask how mush differs from polenta and that’s a very good question. It doesn't. But it does. When you call your cornmeal porridge “mush” and put butter and sorghum on it you are in a very different imaginative place than when you open Essentials of Italian Cooking.

I could have eaten the whole pot of delicious, hot, humble mush, but exercised my famous iron self-discipline. The next day I made patties of the leftover mush and fried the patties in butter because I’d read that’s what people did in the old days. Fried mush was even better than regular mush, crusty on the outside, warm and creamy on the inside. There are abundant reasons to pity the Nebraska pioneers — sod houses, child mortality, winter — but cornmeal mush is not one of them.

After that I tried to find other old Nebraska dishes to try, but fried heart, chokecherry pie, and dried carrot coffee did not make my mouth water.


Now I’m in Washington, D.C. finishing up my research. After this, no mas. I am cutting myself off. Enough is enough. I’ve been staying in a kind of desolate apartment complex in Rosslyn, Virginia and eating microwave popcorn and blueberries for dinner, but last night decided to boldly venture out. According to Google Maps there was a crab restaurant just a 4 minute walk away in this bland neighborhood. Really? Yes, indeed there was. Right there, tucked amid all the boring apartments, was a boisterous, crowded restaurant with a line out the door. Since I was alone, I waltzed right in, got a seat at the bar, and ordered a half-dozen crabs which were served to me on a sheet of thick brown paper. The woman on my right was drinking bourbon and Diet Coke, a drink I hope never to taste in this lifetime or the next. The couple on my left were drinking Bud Lites and they showed me how to eat Maryland blue crabs. By the time I was done with that massive pile of crustaceans, we were good friends and my hands were filthy. It was a pretty perfect evening. 

disgusting!

Friday, May 26, 2017

A furious rant

mi abuela, making tortillas
Really. This is a ferocious rant. Probably not what you came here for, but if I’m going to blog at all, this is what I’ve got today. 

I woke up yesterday morning to the audiotape of Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte assaulting reporter Ben Jacobs in Montana. It was horrifying. If you haven’t listened, you need to. Perhaps even more chilling than the attack, though, was the parade of moral midgets, including members of Congress, who justified Gianforte’s brutality, even reveled in it. We all know there are thugs out there, but who wants to see them defended by fellow citizens, let alone lawmakers? Who wants to find out that the sickness is systemic?

It appears to be systemic. Thanks, Trump. While I don’t think he’s the source of this ugliness, he unleashed and legitimized it. I am more disgusted with my country than I have ever been in my life.

Also trending on my Twitter feed yesterday morning was a sad, tawdry little story out of Oregon. Two young women went down to Mexico, learned how to make tortillas, started a food cart in Portland selling burritos made with their fresh tortillas, and gave a kind of dippy interview to a newspaper. This utterly banal story led to venomous charges of cultural appropriation and, apparently, death threats. In the comments thread and follow-up articles, so-called progressives alternately vilified and belittled the tortilla-makers for “appropriating” Mexican culture. (There were a lot of comments in support of the women as well, which is heartening.) One minute the women were attacked as “horrid” colonialist predators who viciously robbed secret tortilla recipes from impoverished Latina grandmothers, the next they were mocked as frivolous “Beckys” who thought it would be “cute” to filch someone else’s cuisine for their darling little cart.


The women shuttered their business a few days later and vanished from social media. 

A lot of reasonable people disagree with me, but I don’t believe cultural appropriation is a problem. I think the crusades against cultural appropriation are illiberal, mean-spirited, divisive, stifling, unAmerican, riddled with contradictions, ahistorical, and often just a flimsy excuse for self-righteous leftist scolding  — and worse.  I am pretty sure the critics in Portland who went after the tortilla makers were less interested in helping Mexican abuelas they’ve never met (and never will) than in scolding and shaming white girls. They were getting off on putting white girls in their place. There’s a lot of that going around these days among leftists of all races, including whites. Young white women seem to piss people off just by existing. 

But that’s not my concern right now. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think there was a more serious problem with this saga than the loss to Portland of a white-owned food cart

These scoldings — these intemperate tirades from the left — exact a price. All liberals end up paying that price, even those of us who despise the culture of scolding. We’re paying the price right now and it’s miserable. Meanwhile, cultural appropriation foes like those in Portland continue to blithely, arrogantly run up the tab. 

I’ve always been a liberal. I want liberal candidates to win elections, liberal laws to be enacted, liberal values to prevail. I would argue that going after people for cultural appropriation is not just illiberal in itself, but it impedes liberal political progress, by which I mean winning elections. Pillorying white female entrepreneurs is not how we, on the left, persuade white people in places like Montana to embrace the Democratic platform. It is not how we get people to stop voting for turds like Greg Gianforte. Indeed, these petty cultural tirades are one reason why white people in Montana vote for turds like Gianforte. Anyone who thinks voters in Red States don’t hear about tortilla nonsense in Portland doesn’t watch enough Fox News or check in at the National Review. Right-wing media outlets make damn sure their audiences know about it every time a yoga class is canceled because of  “cultural genocide.” Oh, those hilarious, asinine libtards! You can see the journalists licking their chops when they get to report that a Latina student at some elite college has decreed white girls can’t wear hoop earrings because it’s offensive to the “black and brown bodies who typically wear hooped earrings” and asks: “why should white girls be able to take part in this culture.”

Why indeed. And a good follow-up question would be: Why should ordinary white voters embrace this bullshit? Honestly, why? If the face of liberalism is a supercilious, censorious, self-righteous snot who rails against young white women because they sell tortillas, we have an electoral problem. Also, I need a new party.

Look, I don’t think the left is the primary driver of recent repulsive behavior on the right. Far from it. But some of us seem to be doing everything we can to make things even worse. I’m a white, lifelong liberal with a Latina grandmother who actually showed me how to pat out tortillas — and if I find this stuff obnoxious and alienating, it sure isn’t winning over harder hearts and minds. I hope the cultural left enjoyed its little “triumph” in Portland, that the “victory” of putting two naive young women out of business was sweet.  Because the electoral victory of the despicable Greg Gianforte —  a real, substantive victory that unfortunately requires no scare quotes —  is anything but. 

Back to more palatable fare soon.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Morning in America, May 2017

You can also eat it straight out of the jar. 
Jennifer, looking at her phone while still in bed: There’s no way Trump is going to serve out his term.

Mark: Well, you know what I think.

Jennifer: Right, you think he’s going to serve his term and get re-elected.

Mark: I think he’s going to serve all four years. Of course he is. He loves this stuff and what’s going to take him down?

Jennifer: Nope. Something is going to happen and he is going to resign. It will be sudden and swift. Let’s make a bet! You agree to go with me to the orangutan sanctuary in Borneo someday if he leaves office before his term is up. If he makes it to the end, I agree to go on the driving trip around the Great Lakes.

Mark: I’m not going to bet something that would make one of us unhappy.

Jennifer: I wouldn’t mind going to the Great Lakes.

Mark: Really?

Jennifer: You’d truly mind going to the orangutan sanctuary?

Mark: You know I would.

Jennifer: How about this: We get a dog if he leaves office, we don’t get a dog if makes it to the end.

Mark: I’m not going to bet something that would ruin our lives.

Jennifer: How about this: If he stays in office the full four years, we move to a townhouse without a yard or any animals.

The conversation petered out at this point because I get bummed thinking about the townhouse. Our imminent move to a sterile townhouse when Owen leaves is an ongoing joke that I increasingly worry is not a joke.

I went upstairs and pulled out the jar of Alton Brown’s overnight coconut oats that I mixed yesterday. I’ve been wanting to try this recipe since I first opened EveryDayCook back in December, but kept postponing because it looked incredibly fattening. I finally got tired of wondering what it tasted like.

What did it taste like? Ambrosia. The internet is packed with recipes for oats-in-a-jar that look like this one, but I have never tried any of them so I can’t say if Brown’s version is better or worse, only that it’s delicious, a creamy melange of oats, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, and nut milk topped with with crunchy coconut flakes. I ate my oats slowly, as I would a pudding, savoring every exquisite bite. I will be making this again, probably within hours.

I’ve made some adjustments to the recipe. Brown calls for 75 grams coconut milk and 75 grams almond milk — but he doesn’t specify the type of coconut milk. Does he mean the thick, rich coconut milk in a can? Or the thinner, lighter coconut milk you find in jugs in the refrigerator section of the supermarket? I went with the latter and used Califia Farms unsweetened, blended coconut and almond milk. But really, you could use any milk you want — soy, cashew, dairy. I also felt you could use less syrup and go easy on the dried fruit. I omitted cinnamon. 

You need a scale for this. 

Alton Brown’s Coconut Oats

150 grams mixed nut milk (see headnote)
12 grams maple syrup (or less)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
40 grams rolled oats
30 grams dried fruit (or less, or add fresh berries when you eat the oats)
2 grams chia seeds
3 grams flaxseed meal
pinch of salt
toasted coconut flakes for topping

Shake the milk, maple syrup and vanilla in a pint jar until well blended. Add everything but the coconut flakes and shake the jar again, very vigorously. Screw on the lid. Refrigerate overnight. Top with the coconut flakes. Serves one.