Friday, November 27, 2015

Post Feast

Yesterday, I gave thanks with a friend's large Sicilian family with deep roots in San Francisco.

We ate shrimp and more shrimp, pasta and more pasta, ham, deep fried turkey, mashed potatoes, winter squash, San Francisco sourdough, several desserts, and we drank lots of wine. The family extolled the virtues of a particular old school Italian spot for pasta, claimed there was only one good bakery to go to for sourdough, and explained facetiously that the difference between old and ancient vines was 40 years. I learned who to ask for help if I wanted to find a good flush of porcini. At the table, four people in as many generations of family members shared the same first name. Jokes, told a thousand times before, rolled out, polished and perfect. I laughed so hard.

Last night I came home very late after the meal that lasted for hours. My dog was happy to see me. My cat crawled into bed and immediately started to snore. I fell into dreamless sleep and didn't wake up—not once—until well into today.

I'm so grateful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Chiles and Hope

An outsider may think I'm living in a gray cloud in my new post-marriage-implosion reality, yet that isn't true. In many ways, the clouds have lifted in this unexpected life.

From the pots on my sunny deck, I just harvested almost all the ripe chiles: Aji Omnicolor, Cayenne, Pilange, and Chupetinho. A couple times in the last month, I have sat in the sun to eat one, mouth flooded with flavor and pain, my lips numb, sweat jumping up under my eyes. It hurts. I don't do this often. But when I do, the endorphin response is just so strong, and I feel amazing, hopeful, and alive.

I feel like tearing the chiles off the city and stuffing them in my mouth, until I'm crying and happy. I want to string them around my neck, inviting others to chew them off.

I feel hot.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Down One

In the past two and a half weeks, my dog has taken to the habit of sitting immediately behind where I'm standing and leaning into the back of my legs. He didn't used to do this, but now, whenever I'm standing and static, he makes sure to have physical contact with me. My cat, always a fan of of the crook of my arm at bedtime but less likely to choose to cuddle at other times, has recently spent more time in my lap than in years. In fact, nowadays, whenever I sit down, there is dog curled up against me on one side and a cat draped across my lap. They are creatures of deep empathy for whom I'm so thankful.

Because, two and a half weeks ago, the small two-person, two-animal family became no longer when one of the persons decided to leave it. Now it's a tribe of three: a dog, a cat, and me.

My people have been wonderful supports. But, when each day ends, it's just the tribe of three again, and for the millionth time in my life I'm glad I'm an animal person. Upon waking up one recent morning after sleeping on my side with my cat snoring gently against my spine, I remembered a brief passage in C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, one of the Chronicles of Narnia, a children's series I have read probably twenty times in my life. Here, the main character Shasta is terrified, stranded alone in a graveyard outside the city gates at night, without his (talking) horse and other companions, and something has just startled him by touching his leg.

He looked round; and his heart almost burst with relief. What had touched him was only a cat. 
The light was too bad now for Shasta to see much of the cat except that it was big and very solemn. It looked as if it might have lived for long, long years among the Tombs, alone. Its eyes made you think it knew secrets it would not tell. 
"Puss, puss," said Shasta. "I suppose you're not a talking cat." 
The cat only stared at him harder than ever. Then it started walking away, and of course Shasta followed it. It led him right though the Tombs and out on the desert side of them. There it sat down bolt upright with its tail curled around its feet and its face set towards the desert and towards Narnia and the North, as still as if it were watching for some enemy. Shasta lay down beside it with his back against the cat and his face towards the Tombs, because if one is nervous there's nothing like having your face towards danger and having something warm and solid at your back. The sand wouldn't have seemed very comfortable to you, but Shasta had been sleeping on the ground for weeks and hardly noticed it. Very soon he fell asleep.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015


Since moving up to the bay, I've encountered change in all parts of my life. Sometimes, I have to tell myself, as convincingly as possible over and over, "Change is good. Be open to growth. Change is good. Be open to growth." While other times, I throw myself headlong into the change and the growth because when one is in a vulnerable state, one is also in a fuck-it-all-just-try-your-best state, and I've come to believe one should take advantage of the opportunity such timing provides.

So, two weekends ago, I attended a butchery class just for women. The pigs were provided. Knives were provided.

Bailie had a metal, industrial scabbard for her knives that hung by a chain around her waist, so badass. She was my teacher. Like a kid so proud and enamored with the person in from to the room, I wanted to point her out to my mother, and say, "Mom, mom, mom! There's my teacher!" Along with nine other women, with Bailie leading the charge, I took the hands-on, knives-on, bloody and wonderful butchery class. In it, we learned to break down whole pigs. We also learned a lot about our own anatomy, animal husbandry, sisterhood, and the joys of learning.
The class was full of smart, curious women: A teacher who is former coast guard, mothers, a director of a film festival, foodie tourists from Iowa, college students. No one sat on the sidelines nibbling charcuterie and just watching. Each of us got dirty.

I don't want to tell you the particulars of what I learned about butchery, because you—if you're curious at all—ought to seek out a similar experience and throw yourself deeply into it. You should feel out of place and uncomfortable, but so interested, so hungry. It's an amazing position in which to be. 

And, if the position in which you find yourself feeds you lunch, even better. Our teachers served us potato salad, just cooked and slightly browned red potato slices tossed with green beans, olives, scallions, and basil in a red wine vinaigrette. Carafes of wine. Dead ripe figs. An assistant butcher at the shop told us he was proud of us when he needed to bring an extra platter of meat out for us—he said he had never had to bring out more for a class before. But it was pork, perfect pork, and we were strong and hungry. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Getting Fed

I spent the week straddling the fourth of July visiting my friend Sarah Heller in Lexington, Kentucky. This is the third time I've visited Lexington, and it likely won't be my last.

Heller is a great host in so many ways. Her home is a ship sailing above a garage, all dark, softly lustrous wood and art hanging in every available spot. When a wet, heavy storm passes through, rain slams the roof and the back walnut above drops nuts in time with the thunder. She's funny and kind and nowadays has a funny and kind boyfriend. When I'm there, the laughter and bourbon flows, long slow walks ensue, and there's plenty of exploration at whatever pace we feel up up to for the day. We get along really well.

Additionally, she's the type of person who I most admire and the type I seek out. My husband is one such person and my closest friends fit this category: insatiably motivated folk who keep trying through challenge and even failure. She's had some real challenges, my friend Sarah, and on this trip I got to hear her speak about some of them at the Kentucky Governer's School for the Arts, a summer program at Centre College for very talented, creative high schoolers. She spoke of her failures, of her transformations, of the ways she's found new ways. The kids were rapt. "Fail, fail, don't be afraid to fail," she told them, for in stretching for what seemed impossible, they'd find their successes.

A Lincoln monument on the Centre College campus.
I've cooked for Heller, she's cooked for me, and we've cooked together. This is important. We've fed each other. How many friends can you say that about? In how many instances is the feeding mutual? One night, she made me and Nick, her boyfriend, ratatouille, and a following night, Nick and I used leftover ratatouille as a sauce for a homemade pizza, jazzed up with diced prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and chile peppers. Another night, we all riffed together on a ridiculously awesome salade ni├žoise accompanied Heller's mothers' broccoli salad, rich with more of that prosciutto subbing in for bacon, a sweet and sour vinaigrette, and Miracle Whip (if you're in the South, you better make sure you call Miracle Whip dressing, not mayonnaise). I made a peach-marzipan tart.

No rolling pin. No problem.
I'm talking about food, but I mean more than food. I came home with a painting by Heller, one that could only come from her brain. And on the multiple flight legs back to California, I read a book: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. The premise of this book makes it sound dark and dismal, but it turned out to be one of the most uplifiting books I've read in a long time. Most of the book takes place after a pandemic that kills most of the world's population, yet a small band of artists persists, the Traveling Symphony, who borrow Star Trek's statement as their motto: "Survival is insufficient."

We must feed and be fed.

My new acquisition from Sarah Heller hanging in my home office.

Linda Dove's Ratatouille
Another friend, the poet Linda Dove, makes the best ratatouille I've ever had. While very different from Sarah Heller, Linda is in her own way an assemblage artist. She constructs her ratatouille like a mosaic, a collection of disparate parts that merge into something so lushly rich it's hard to believe there isn't an animal fat anywhere to be seen. Her poems are like that too, words put together in surprising ways, twisting meaning mid-line, turning into something new. You think you know what you're reading, then all of a sudden, you're reading something new. I hope this ratatouille works the same way on your tongue. Here's how she's told me how to make it—it's a loose recipe, just a list of ingredients that work really, really well together. I've made it following her directions many times now, and I'm never disappointed.

You will need:
Zucchini, thick slices
Eggplant, thick slices
Onion, thick slices
Tomatoes, thick slices
Sweet red peppers, thick slices
Whole cloves of garlic
Fresh basil leaves
Strips of lemon peel (yellow part only) removed from the lemon with a sharp knife or vegetable peeler
Good olive oil
Juice of that lemon or two you massacred above
Salt and pepper

To make the ratatouille:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil a dutch oven and layer the ingredients in the order listed above. "Repeat, repeat, repeat," says Linda. Cook, uncovered, for an hour. Linda serves the ratatouille with hummus (she says, "I like the creamy with the melted veggies, and the overlap of lemon and garlic"), and I like it piled next to really good bread.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


This past week, my friend James drove up from Southern California for our long-discussed ocean fishing trip. I had booked two spots on a charter fishing boat out of Half Moon Bay for Tuesday. We were excited. Two days before the trip, James had brunched with his cousin in Monterey, overlooking a glass-like ocean. The weather had been so wonderful.


You know where this is going.

To quote George Costanza, "The sea was angry that day, my friends."

We carried food (far too optimistically, it turned out) with us and slapped scopolamine patches on when we left the house, around 5:30am, just in case we were bothered by the slight wobble of a calm ocean. By 7am, we were on the boat, and soon afterwards, we were exiting the harbor. The captain warned us that the ocean was bad. He threatened swells taller than men.


It was horrible. As soon as we made our first stop over relatively shallow water to catch our black rockfish limit, most of the 26 anglers hugged the rails, puking—sometimes gently, sometimes violently—over the edge of the boat. I tried to will my nausea away, but found after catching a fish and trying to concentrate on it well enough to remove the hook and toss it in my gunny bag, that I couldn't hold it. The attempt to focus amplified how unstable the fluid contents of my body were, and I vomited over the side of the boat. Puking provided immediate albeit temporary relief. My friend James held out from the vomit party, but he was pretty green around the gills just the same. One man, a former member of the Coast Guard, was so sick I worried about him as he hunkered down on the back of the boat, only lifting his head towards the water occasionally to throw up. But, Wallace, our deckhand, stayed cheerful and helpful as he moved from person to person, hosing puke off the boat, helping to dehook fish, smiling when the rest of us couldn't. He was the hero of the day.

Pleasantly for us, within an hour or so, the scopolamine patches kicked in, and then both of us were free to enjoy the ocean. We brought in a steady haul; each of us caught 8 of our 10 allowed fish. The captain teased me about puking for fish, and I was well enough to laugh along with him. When I felt human again, being on a boat in the ocean was beautiful. To get from fishing spot to fishing spot searching for other species of rockfish, we flew over and between waves, the boat cutting into the cold green. I hung out along the side of the boat, facing forward, and the spray coated the front of me, drying to a wild mineral tang on my face. We saw whales blow, one even lifting its huge dark body out of the water. Sunfish dotted the surface of the choppy ocean, and gulls followed us wherever we went.

As we headed back to the harbor in the afternoon, Wallace lifted a guttered board from the side and strapped it down across the width of the boat. He set a hose of ocean water on one end and fit a slotted fence in place across it. Taking a wide, elastic-kneed stance to roll with the waves, he dumped a gunny sack of fish behind the fence, then cleaned and fileted our catches. The hose water carried guts and skeletons over the side of the boat, on which our trailing flock of gulls swept down to feast. Watching him work, I realized that a couple hundred years ago, I could have watched nearly the same scene. The cycle of fishing and cleaning and gulls could have come from a Melville novel, but Wallace smoked a cigarette, not a pipe, and I, thank God and science, had a scopolamine patch.



Last night, I brought rockfish ceviche to a party. I felt like a rockstar when I told other guests I had not only made the dish, but had caught the fish. I didn't, mind you, tell them what I used as bait.

When I make ceviche, I use Hank Shaw's basic recipe with some riffs, and I urge you to read his post as he explains the risks of raw fresh fish. In our case, I vacuum sealed one pound portions and threw them in our very cold chest freezer right after we got home from our fishing trip. I feel comfortable using the fish in a raw application, such as ceviche.

I recommend the grapefruit juice and addition of zest that Shaw uses in his recipe, and the fresh corn his recipe calls for is essential. However, instead of a diced Roma tomato, I prefer halved cherry or grape tomatoes for the sweet punch of summer flavor. Also, on occasion, I've added some mint and a healthy dollop of coconut cream to make the whole mixture lush and tropical.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Green Manure

Green manure and cover cropping are relatively synonymous; both describe plants we purposefully plan on knocking down and digging into the soil without harvesting from them. In fact, the harvest is the plant itself, feeding the soil from which it grew.

Where I'm hired to maintain an organic vegetable garden, I planted part of the beds with a summer mix of buckwheat and cowpeas. In other seasons and for other purposes, I'd plant something different.
Cover crop just after emerging from the soil.

The plants in bloom, just before cutting down.

Cover cropping can solve a myriad of garden problems. Some crops can protect soil from erosion, some can fight against root knot nematodes, others build tilth and inhibit the growth of weeds, but the most common use for cover cropping is to increase soil fertility by adding organic matter and often nitrogen. In my client's garden, I wanted to keep soil that wasn't growing food during the summer as healthy as possible, housing microbes and beneficial critters. I also wanted to continue to add nitrogen, so the buckwheat and cowpea combo was perfect. The plants grow well in the heat; the buckwheat builds organic mass very quickly; working in symbiosis with mycorrhizae, the cowpeas collect nitrogen from the atmosphere.

The felled crop.
I planted the mix last month, dosed with inoculant to give the cowpeas a jump start. Yesterday, the plants were mostly blooming—buckwheat is a great beneficial insect attractant, by the way—and ready to be cut down. Since it was only about 30 square feet I had planted, it was easy for me to use shears to cut the plants, after which I shoveled them into the soil. Turning the plants bottoms up, I could see the root nodules on the cowpea plants, housing nitrogen. That nitrogen will feed other plants, along with the nitrogen and other minerals the buckwheat will release as it decomposes. Additionally, the decomposed material will eventually serve as a sponge, helping the soil to maintain even moisture. It will be a happy home for all kinds of good insects and micro-organisms. Since the weather is currently quite dry, I watered the area I had turned under to help kickstart decomposition. In three weeks, remnants of the green manure will have turned into rich soil matter, and this area will be ready for planting fall crops.

Nitrogen nodules on cowpea roots.

More Resources:
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education's Write-up of Cover Crops
Sustainable Agrigulture Research and Education Program's Explanation of Cover Crops
Rodale's Organic Life on Cover Crops