Friday, April 10, 2015

No Longer Julia

I make bread.

That's an essential part of who I am. Ten years ago, it wasn't, but with each year since then, it has become more and more part of me. I make bread.

I weigh out the flour and warm water, then add the starter that lives in a quart mason jar, feeding it again before it returns to its home in my refrigerator. I measure out salt and sprinkle it in. I stir and stir. I wait. I fold. I wait. I shape. I wait. I bake. I listen to the crust crackle as it cools. I eat.


A few years ago, a friendly acquaintance gifted me the starter which she had named Julia. In a kitchen where she also makes cheese, brews various beverages, and experiments in all sorts of ways, the woman had raised Julia. When Julia came to me, it smelled of dairy and champagne. It baked into sweet, crusty loaves. In its jar, it stuck mightily to itself and had an almost stringy quality. I loved Julia because it allowed me to improve my bread cred. At my old home, Julia kept its dairy-ish scent and produced fine loaves.

Once, a friend asked me for an outer leaf of cabbage from my vegetable garden because he had read that organically grown cabbage harbored yeasts that made for a good sourdough bread starter. I told my friend I'd be happy to give him the leaf, but I didn't see how helpful that'd be. Even if the leaf did harbor certain yeasts, his kitchen wouldn't necessarily harbor the same yeasts, and whatever lived in his general atmosphere would eventually become the microbes that lived in his starter. In other words, if he took the buggers from their home, they wouldn't necessarily survive, but something else just as good would pick up the game. I gave him some of Julia and told him that Julia might change at his house, depending on what was already there.

When we moved up to the Bay Area this winter, Julia was one of the last things I packed. The night before our very-early morning move, I packed a cooler full of the perishables that were coming up with me, Julia included. A week after we moved, I made the first two loaves in our new home. As usual, I fed Julia before tucking it away in the refrigerator. The next time I made bread, I noticed that Julia smelled a litte more sour than before and it didn't quite have the same glutinous quality as it used to. But the loaves it made were fantastic; the internal chew and complexity of flavor below the crust were better than ever. Eventually, Julia transformed into a very, very sour—almost putrid smelling—starter that is as runny as crepe batter, though I feed it the same weights of flour and water as I always have. From this starter, I'm baking the best loaves I've ever baked, with better flavor, crust, and chew than what Julia ever gave me.


So, Julia is no longer Julia and needs a rechristening. It needs a name worthy of its ability to change and improve, relinquishing the old and making room for the new. Suggestions?

Friday, March 20, 2015

On Aging, or The Inevitability of Compassion

Last weekend, Indiana and I hiked the short but steep side of Sugarloaf and I started thinking about twenty years ago, when I was in college, while my parents lived in Arizona. One Christmas when I was visiting them, my brother and I decided to hike Superstition Mountain, from the Siphon Draw trail to the Flatiron. I am in much better shape now than I was in college; my brother, on the other hand, is and has always been a mountain goat, tireless, seemingly pain-resistant, and unstoppable. (An example: My dad and he hiked the Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon together once. After camping a day or two at the bottom, the day of the ascent, my brother carried his stuff up at his natural breakneck pace, then came back down, met my dad who was only partway up the trail—and my dad's no athletic weakling—picked up Dad's gear and carried it up, and took a nap in the car while my dad made it to the top.) Initially, I had been hesitant to try the difficult trail, but I wanted to spend time with my brother, and the area is so beautiful I consented.

Phone photo from the top of Sugarloaf last weekend: a hazy day over the bay. I have no pictures of the Superstition hike.
We got a late—a very late—start the day we set out to hike, so we began the climb after noon. It was winter time, but it was also near Pheonix, so I wore jeans and a t-shirt with my dad's old parka tied around my waist. The initial part of the hike was gorgeous and easy, a sloping rise studded with ocotillo and scrub. But behind rose a wall of rock, splitting the ground like the cracked and stained teeth of a giant devil's lower jaw. The trail ascended sharply, and we skittered over and around boulders, jumped over crevices, and carefully made our way up the siphon, the almost-bare stone slide spattered ever-so-dangerously with gravel that could send us shuttling to broken bones, or worse. I hurt and breathed hard. My brother taught me how to get my body and my breathing in a rhythm so I could hurt less.

We reached the top of Flatiron around 3:30pm, and my brother shimmied up an impossible-looking rock spire to get an even better view. I tucked against the spire to eat a tangerine and hide from the angry wind. As if I sat on the edge of a giant layer cake, the stone slipped down at what appeared to be a 90 degree angle from where I perched. The view crumbed away, infinite, wondrous.

Though I had wrapped up in the old coat on the top, I began to warm as we headed down, and I tied it around my waist again. It took us less time to go down than go up, but we were still racing against the setting sun of a short winter day. As the sun sank, so did the temperature, but I sweated with exertion. This time I skittered down the siphon like a crab, low to the ground, and in the grey, we had to be careful on narrow ledges. We passed only two hikers in the first part of our hike down; they were heading up. When we made it about halfway down, we encountered a twenty-something woman sitting, knees held to her chest against the gathering cold. She wore shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. Blisters glistened under the edges of her shoes' straps. Even in the dusk, I could tell she had pale skin and dark hair. We greeted her.

Phone photo: I took the less steep way down Sugarloaf.
She told us that she was from Flagstaff, where it was really winter, and her boyfriend had brought her down here for the day. She hadn't realized they'd be hiking, and since every other time she'd come down the mountains towards Phoenix, it was hot, she had thought she had dressed appropriately. But she hadn't, and she couldn't go any further, so she hunkered down on the boulder to wait for her boyfriend and his friend to finish heading up and back. We told her we had passed them, and if they did make it to the top, it would be a couple hours before they made it back. We offered her water and tangerines, yet she shivered and refused both. Company for her waiting, to walk her back down the mountain, we made our offers. She declined, resolutely.

Clearly set on waiting alone, she waved us off as we continued down the mountain. Soon, we were in the deep dark, our only light the desert night sky. As the trail eased up towards the bottom of the mountain, we nearly trotted along, knowing our mother must be fretting with us on the trail after dark. And, we were right: by the time we called our mom to let her know we were safe and at the car, my mom had already called the rangers to alert them that we were inexperienced night hikers still on the trail, and my dad was in his car heading our way.

Phone photo: in San Juan Canyon at the base of Sugarloaf.
Although it's entertaining to us all now, at the time, our late descent on the mountain terrified my parents, and in all the tension surrounding our return, I didn't realize until the next day my selfishness born of youthful narcissism. Reaching the top was less important than my parents' very real fear, and we should have saved our trip for another day when we could get ourselves together earlier. I figured that out then. But it's only in reflection, through years of experiencing both the real and metaphorical chilliness that life throws at everyone, that a very obvious truth strikes me. I'd never miss it now and I spent almost all of last week's hike fretting over it.

The girl on the mountain may not have wanted our water or tangerines or company, but what she needed, at the very least, was the old parka. If I took that hike today, I'd come down without a coat.


Monday, March 02, 2015

Blossom Time

When I was 17, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston changed my life. I had forever loved books, but none had shifted my perspective so powerfully before this novel; or, to think about it differently, previous to this book, I had not been aware of the work a book was doing on me. The book lifted me off my feet and through a hurricane. I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks.

Florida (where the book takes place) and California share at least one trait: in parts of both, spring arrives early. In my neighborhood right now, overgrown backyard fruit trees hang over hedges and fences, setting the hilly blocks snowy with petals and metallic with bees. The arsenic-sweet scent of prunus species trying to reproduce soaks into everything. This time of year, when the fruit trees go to it, I can't help but think of the novel:

"It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep."

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Soul Food

There are many problems with the book The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti, but there are many greatnesses as well. One such is this, a snippet of philosophy the main character Ambrosio shares that the author tucks away in a footnote:

"I have a litte jar in my cave," he said, "a four-liter jug, the last wine made by a good friend of mine before he died: Joselito. It is now the second anniversary of his death, and I'm always thinking of him. I think of how he might have laughed at this joke, or that moment. Any little thing will remind me of him. And once in a while I want to drink his wine. I want to drink him, not his wine. I take a swig of it, of him, and I put the cork back on him. Maybe someone who hears this thinks I'm off my rocker, but this is what I believe: When I give anything—wine, a tortilla, my cheese—I am inside that. And of all the people who eat what I offer, only a special few realize that there's a spirit present, that there's my love."


Friday, February 06, 2015

Oxalis Redux

One plant I keep coming back to over and over, especially since our move north, is oxalis. I've written about this genus before and how I love its ease as a garden bulb, the way it provides textural foliage interest and satiny color when it blooms, the way some species of it persevere in dry, alkaline soil.

When my in-laws were here a couple weeks ago, the three of us headed over the Golden Gate to wander through Muir Woods. There, matted in jade tufts under the ruddy columns of redwood colonies, one of the California's few native oxalises, Oxalis oregana lives. The leaves of this species make perfect hearts that close in on themselves when too much sun breaks through the redwood canopy. They need the shade, moist fine leaf litter, and climate control of the giants above them, and when they do bloom, their blossoms are shy shells of veined white or palest pink. They're precious plants, lovely and tender.



On another day, we spent the afternoon in Half Moon Bay, just a hop over the spine of the Peninsula from where my husband and I now live. There, dramatic sweeps of the invasive weed Oxalis pes-caprae (aka Goat's Foot, Cape oxalis, and many other monikers) sported carpets of silky lemon blossoms. It's impossible for me to stand among these banks of yellow and not think of Wordsworth and his daffodils, the natural beauty that sustained him in times of pensive solitude.



Here, on the bluff above the ocean, these flowers shine, shine, shine. I know Oxalis pes-caprae is invasive—of it, Bay Area garden writer Pam Pierce writes, "Experienced gardeners say that it is unlikely you will ever get rid of Cape oxalis completely. In fact, some joke the best way to get rid of Cape oxalis is to move." Metaphorically, though, I admire the weed's tenacity and perseverance. It's blooming its head off in a new home, making this foreign bluff a joyful place, something its cousin who stays home in the safe shelter of others cannot do.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

At The Wheel

Adrenaline and adventure drove the first two weeks here. That adrenaline is gone. Despite the fact my parents-in-law were in town for a week, providing company and opportunities to explore our new locale, I have been feeling very sorry for myself the last few days. I've felt alone, missing my communities of friends, coworkers, gardeners, and neighbors. I left behind a house and garden I loved, and right now having a garden again seems out of reach. I've put my name on the community garden wait list. I'm #23. Real estate is very expensive around here, so I don't know when or where we'll buy another home and another yard of our own. Meanwhile, the course of my professional future is murky at best. I know where I'll be working in one month but have no idea where I'll be working in eight months. I miss certainty and rhythm. As a result of all of this, I've had a few teary pity-parties.


This week, I began to take the helm. I found a nursery that will soon become part of my regular stomping grounds. I went to my first class at the local pottery studio and instantly found people with whom I could easily talk. I began to tell people what I want to make out of my life here—to feed a garden and a community and to write—and talking to people leads somewhere. Silence and self-pity lead nowhere, just circling in on themselves, pulling powerfully down, a slow drain of stagnant water.

Because yesterday the sun was bright but not too warm and the hills were calling, Indiana and I hiked the trails of the City of Belmont Open Space, a hike that will soon become a habit. The views are expansive, the trails edged with the good kind of wild, and the hills are steep enough to toughen up this ass of mine. I've needed to kick my own ass.

I'm beginning to feel better.

When my in-laws were here last week, we visited the docks in Sausalito. The houseboats of Sausalito have no plots of land. They have a dock, decks, sun, and people who clearly love plants. These gardens are funny and beautiful, land or no land.



The deck out front of our rental home will be my yard. I have sun and love. I can make my garden here. Now, it's time for me to focus on the community building and writing. Anyone know of a job for someone who can garden, teach, write, and teach how to garden and write?


Friday, January 09, 2015

Lemon


On our last night in the old house, my friend Sarah picked 20 pounds of lemons for us to stow away in our cars for the trip north from the bountiful Meyer lemon tree. The tree was already in place, producing but small and scraggly, when we moved into the house. Our first winter there, I layered 6 inches of partially composted horse manure under the tree. The next year, I built in-ground worm composters (bottomless plant pots with a heavy stone or concrete over each) around its drip line. I cut out dead branches and bathed it periodically to remove smog and critters. The tree took off. It grew wide and tall and dark-green-lush. I had to cut it back twice a year because it wanted to be huger than I could manage. Every winter, it gave me enough lemons to use for every purpose imaginable, to share with local friends, and to send to my parents and friends across the country. This year, thanks to Sarah's faithful help, some of those lemons followed us to our new home.

Most of what I've done since I've lived here is unpack and arrange. Also, I've walked the dog. Other than that, I have made things with lemons: Meyer Lemon Vanilla-Bean Marmalade, lemon curd, roast chicken with a lemon stuffed inside, a very lemony bean salad, Moroccan chicken, lemon salt, lemon poppy seed cookies.

In order to save the fragrance and punch of some of these last lemons, I've made a half gallon of preserved lemons. Preserved lemons are the anchovies of the fruit world—you either love them or you don't. Similar to anchovies, they're very salty, pungent, and a little funky from their slow ferment, and they are used as a flavorant. They're made similarly to anchovies too, packed in salt and their own juices. When I saute kale or chard with garlic and minced preserved lemons, people (not my husband) ask me what makes the kale taste so good (nothing could make kale taste good to my husband). The preserved lemons—along with saffron, ginger, cumin, pimenton, garlic, and olives—are what make Moroccan chicken special, they zip up green veg and salad dressings, and they do wonders in a seafood pasta. By setting that half gallon of Meyer lemons on the basement shelf to ferment for a few weeks before going into the refrigerator, I'm saving the bounty of the tree at our old house for a while longer. Those lemons will grace our meals for the year to come.

Here, at our temporary-for-who-knows-how-long rental house, there is a sad little potted lemon tree already in place on the sunny deck. It needs more soil in its pot, some judicious pruning, and fertilizer. It could use a bath. I bet I can save it. I'm certainly going to try.