Sunday, July 29, 2007

Can't Escape the Taggers

I'm not keen on playing tag. In fact, when my brother and I were little enough for my parents to play games with, the four of us created an alternative to tag. We wouldn't just chase each other around and touch someone and yell "You're it!" We liked hide-and-go-seek more, but it still was a bit too tag-ish for us, so we invented a game we called "Spooky Doo." We'd play this game once it got dark and we'd turn out the rest of the lights so the house would be completely dark. One person would be the seeker and the others would be the hiders. Sometimes two of us were seekers and the other two hiders. I didn't matter how many there were as long as there were some of each role.

The seekers would count down while the hiders hid. At the count of 100, the search was on. Here is where the game changes from just a hide-and-go-seek in the dark. It was the job of the hiders to hide so well they couldn't be found and to stay incredibly alert, for it was the job of the seeker to not only find the hiders, but find them silently, sneak up on them, and scare the living shit out of them. This game inevitably led to screams and shriek-y laughter. I can still remember the way my mom sounded when we succeeded is startling her and how much all of us would laugh. My dad would play it cool; he led us to believe we never succeeded in sneaking up on him, but I'm pretty sure we got him at least once. The game was so much exhilarating fun that regular tag was a poor comparison, and so I've avoided it.

Until now. In the past couple months I've been tagged four times in two different ways. Three folks have tagged me for the "7 Things" meme (in which the blogger posts seven random things about him- or herself), and one has tagged me for the "Rockin' Girl Blogger." I'm not a meme-r or a tagger, so I find this position a bit uncomfortable, but I respect these great women who've sent a tag my way, so I'll take them up, this once . . ..

(To give the props where they are definitely due: The first to tag me was the elegant Susan at The Well Seasoned Cook, who consistently posts well-constructed recipes, often with an South-Asian twist. The second to get me was my pottery, canning, and farmers' market companion, Melissa, at Captain Crochet. The third, Christa--inspiring and indomitable as she gardens in her community plot in Washington, DC--at Calendula & Concrete. And finally, the funny, exuberant Rowena at Rubber Slippers in Italy nominated me for the Rockin' Girl Blogger award. It is a compliment to be considered by each of you. Thank you.)

If it isn't already clear, the "Spooky Doo" story counts as my first random fact.

As is stereotypically expected in members of my profession, I'm a reader. (Have you ever met an English teacher who didn't love to read? I mean, how could one be a decent English teacher if one wasn't a reader?) I try to get as many books as I can from the library, but I sometimes I just can't help buying books. The last five books I've bought--all from my beloved local independent bookstore Vromans--are: The Macrina Bakery Cookbook, by Leslie Mackie; Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert (who I keep picturing looking like Melissa Gilbert from Little House on the Prairie--Melissa Gilbert in Rome sipping cappuccino, Melissa Gilbert at an ashram in India, meeting a hot Brazilian man in Bali); Gallatin Canyon, by Thomas McGuane; Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, by Michael Pollan; and Flight, by my literary hero Sherman Alexie.

When I think of the meal that most says home to me, I can smell butter as it browns and the sharp squeak of lemon. I think of Saturday mornings and my mom's crepes with lemon, powdered sugar, and salted butter melted in the same pan in which she fried each crepe. No one makes crepes like my mom, and I've had a lot of crepes from lots of places that should make them well. I think that those who know me well may consider crepes one of my signature dishes too. I've made them in just about every environment imaginable--in friends' cramped kitchens, in a dorm's shared kitchen, even over a camping stove in the rain.

Tigger must die.

No, not the lovable bouncing tiger that kept Eeyore afloat while he fought his brave battle against depression--I would never wish ill upon that lifesaver. This Tigger is not a tiger, but a melon. Although I had read it was not a good-tasting melon, the picture of it was so seductively beautiful, that I bought and planted seed in my garden anyway. The picture did not lie; it is a gorgeous fruit. I mean, look at it:

On top of its charming red and gold stripes, it smells like heaven, even before cut open. It is a vigorous grower and bountiful producer. Doesn't it sound wonderful? Unfortunately, even when dead ripe, it tastes like very green banana with not-so-subtle undertones of garlic, black pepper, and garbage. It is my most disappointing crop.

Tomorrow, I'm pulling out its vines and considering what to put in as a replacement.

Everyone complains about the food in the UK, but when I think about my visit there, a lot of what I remember is really, really good food. Of course the fish and chips at blew me away, especially since they're often made with sweet, tender European plaice, which is impossible to find in the United States. I also had great Indian food, B&B breakfasts to die for, and darned good pub food made from local, fresh ingredients. I left England with a deep appreciation for rutabagas, or as the English call them, swedes. (I know there is a joke somewhere in there, but I can't seem to tease it out.)

Two nights ago, I was out for drinks with some friends, and wouldn't you know it, our waiter was a former student of mine. This is an interesting situation.

First, it was odd because I was drinking alcohol in front of someone who, no matter how well I get to know him as an adult, will always at least partly be the 15 year old boy who had a crush on a girl who was also one of my students. I can still remember where each of them sat.

Second, he was a student in my first year of teaching, ten years ago. He's now 26. I'm 32. His current girlfriend, a few years older than himself, went to the same university as I did in Washington, DC, and our tenures there overlapped. This 15-year-old-kid-who-isn't-15 and I are part of the same generation. I'm still wrapping my head around that one.

Third, after a few years in a good paying job, this "kid" is now waiting tables and working on building his career in stand-up comedy. I take pride in my classroom humor, and I'd like to think that he learned a few lessons on timing from me, but I fear what is probably the truth: he may be funnier than I am. I bet he'd figure out how to make that joke about the English swedes.

I moved from central California to Minnesota when I was 15 years old. It was late November, already frozen, and I remember we celebrated Thanksgiving before I started school there. My first day at the new school was understandably rough. No one showed me how to get around the school, and between my first and second period, I got completely lost and ended up in tears in the office. The gruff school secretary gave me no sympathy. She, chilly and silent, led me to my AP Biology classroom where the class was already in full swing, the teacher standing in front of the room talking. I sat in the only empty seat, pulled out my notebook, and prepared myself to take notes on the lecture. The teacher was trying to make a point about genetics, and to do so, he was talking about his trip to Las Vegas over Thanksgiving break. He was going on and on about something amazing he had seen there, some beautiful genetic anomaly: the white taggers.

I wrote down "white taggers." He talked about how strong, beautiful, and intelligent they were. I wrote down "strong, pretty, smart." I tried to follow the lecture as well as I could, but I was completely lost. What was this incredible creature that lived in Las Vegas, proved a genetic point, and sounded like someone who marked up walls for fun?

I asked my parents that night what they were, and at first, they were as puzzled as I. But after a little bit of discussion, we figured it out. You see, in Minnesotan, a "g" at the end of a syllable dramatically changes the sound of the vowels in that syllable. Yup, my teacher was talking about Seigfried and Roy's white tigers.

In Minnesotan, a rutabaga is called a rutabaga, a Swede is called a Swede, but a tiger is not called a tiger.

So, those are my seven random things about me. I'm not going to pass on this meme or to nominate someone else as a Rocking Girl (or Guy) Blogger, not because I don't think folks are worthy, but because I read and enjoy so many blogs that I wouldn't be able to choose. So, my "interweb" friends, keep on doing what you do so well: teaching me, making me think, making me laugh, and getting me to look at the world, at least for a moment, in a new way.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lack of Sleep, Miranda July, and Indian Weddings

I developed a serious head cold on the road trip that ECG and I took last week. I’m feeling great now, but in the middle of the trip, I was miserable. As much as I was awed by the beauty of my surroundings, I was plain-old, snotty, fever-y, cranky-sick, and sometimes it was quite difficult to appreciate where I was just as much as I should. On the second day of the trip, my eyes were watering so much from my cold that I couldn’t even see, which meant, of course, that I couldn’t drive. ECG is an excellent driver and handled the tiny, windy roads that day well, but without the opportunity to switch off every once in a while, I became frustratingly carsick. Sick to my stomach, sick to my head, and sick of being sick, I just cried. We stopped a few times so that I could get my rebelling body back in line, but relief was brief and all I really wanted was to get to our destination and sleep.

It is a frustrating fact of life that sleep is nearly impossible when one needs it most. At the cabin that night, the bed was uncomfortable: I didn’t know it was standard practice to build mattresses from rusty shovels and old playground equipment. I lay next to ECG and tried my hardest to sleep, but the mattress jabbed at my back and snot cascaded down my throat. The only solace I had was the book I had brought with me. It was No one belongs here more than you. Stories by Miranda July.

A couple of years ago, some of you may remember, Miranda July wrote, directed, and starred in an independent movie titled Me and You and Everyone We Know, which I saw in the theater (instead of my usual MO, watching the Netflix at home) with my friends J and ECC. It is a strange, surreal, lovely little movie. To me, it reveled in the ways innocence can give sickness and corruption a blow. It pointed out the ways that even the most broken can help heal others and how compassion connects us all. Despite the sorrow of the characters and the pain they experience, the movie is hopeful. In my sick, wishing-I-was-well-enough-to-wonder-at-the-beauty-of-my-surroundings state, that was exactly the kind of read that I felt I needed.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the kind of read I got. Miranda July is a great writer. She makes me think of the most accomplished draftsmen, those who make drawing seem so simple, but are able to create lines that get heavy with emotion and emphasis and lines that sometimes almost disappear to just barely suggest a form. I loved the craft of this book, but its theme upset me. Instead of exploring the connections of people, she wrote in the first person over and over again in stories of people who live closed-door-closet lives. She wrote about people whose selfishness is so powerful that sometimes they convince even themselves that selfishness is the same as love. Here characters lead mundane lives of disconnect without ever seeming to find the beauty of compassion that she explored in Me and You and Everyone We Know. Physically exhausted and sick, I was overly sensitive to emotional pain, and this is the last thing I needed. I read story after story, hoping to find the optimism I expected, but it wasn’t there. I finished, closed the book, turned off the light, and cried silently.

Still wide awake, I argued with Ms. July in my head. “You’re wrong,” I told her. “I know you know better than this. People are connected to each other. They do care about each other.” Tears made damp spots on the pillow on both sides of my head.

In the quiet dark, ECG rolled towards me. Asleep, he tossed his arm over my body and his moved face against my own.

I fell asleep.


I’ve lost track of how many years ago it was now, but my good friends S and L were marrying each other and I had the opportunity to be included in the three-day event that is an Indian wedding. Few occasions that I’ve experienced celebrate the giant web of human connection like an Indian wedding does.

For S and L’s wedding, hundreds of guests flew in from all over the world. L’s parents fed guest after guest before the wedding, and at the wedding, S rode up on a white horse while we all danced before him. Women were decorated with the intricate designs of mehndi and bright saris. After the wedding, every generation crowded the dance floor: old people danced with children, young people with parents. And oh, how we ate! Everyone was there to happily show S and L how un-alone they were, how many people were there to support them through their marriage. For those three days, four hundred people told S and L that they would be part of their lives for the rest of their days.

A few years later, when J and ECC prepared to marry, I tried to re-create some of the splendor of an Indian wedding for their shower. I found a talented mehndi artist willing to work at the party and I read everything I could on Indian cookery. In the weeks preceding the party, I practiced preparing what I planned to make. In all the Indian cooking that I did prior to and for that joyous party celebrating J and ECC’s life together, I noticed something unique about Indian food: in Indian food, no single ingredient stands alone or dominates. One spice brings out the sweetness in another, while the ginger often brightens everything. Something—sometimes cream, sometimes ghee, sometimes yogurt—works as a loom to weave together seemingly disparate flavors, and cilantro and chilies work in tandem to remind every eater that the food that he is eating was once alive and now it is part of his life. Indian food is all about how each simple ingredient supports the next to become something much more complex, exciting, and powerful than any of its parts.

Miranda July, this bhartha’s for you.


Baingan ka Shahi Bhartha (Mashed Roasted Eggplant with Cream)
Adapted from 1,000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra to what I have currently available from the vegetable garden. This is a rich dish, and exceptionally good smeared on burnt-edged naan.

You will need:
1 ¼ pounds of eggplant (I had a mix of Japanese and Italian varieties, which worked well)
2 tablespoons melted ghee or vegetable oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 small green ancho chilies, finely chopped
3 ripe arbol chilies, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon garam masala (or more to taste—I like more)
¼ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 large tomato, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, including soft stems
Scant ¼ cup cream

To make the bhartha:
Pierce each eggplant with a sharp knife. Over your grill or under your broiler, roast the eggplants until they are blackened on all sides and collapsing on themselves, then use tongs to place them in a bowl to cool a bit. When they have, peel off the blackened skin and squeeze the soft flesh and juices into another bowl. Discard the skins and roughly mash the collected flesh and juice.

Heat the ghee or oil and a heavy bottomed pan and cook the onion until golden and the edges are beginning to brown. Add the garlic and two kinds of chilies, all the spices and salt, then cook, stirring, until the mixture is incredibly fragrant (about one minute).

Add the tomato and cilantro, and stir as the tomato juice cooks off, for about 6 minutes. Mix in the mashed eggplant. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or so, as the flavors meld. Stir in the cream thoroughly and remove from heat.

Serve this mushy, smoky bowl of hot lovin’ immediately.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Midsummer Jams

No stories or pictures here right now. It is midsummer: slow, hot, and incredibly relaxing. The most exciting thing I’ve done since returning from my trip is chop off my hair. My bare neck feels so good in the heat.

But, slow hot days are great days for jam making. I stay in the safety of my air-conditioned house, listen to good music or old episodes of This American Life, and jam away. Apricots—my favorite jamming fruit—are close to finished for the year, but the rhubarb is here all summer, as well as peaches and berries. Here are three recipes that I’ve had great success with this year. I’ve made several batches of each and certain friends are clamoring for more. The first two jams are my own recipes, but the last comes almost directly from The New Preserves, by Anne V. Nelson.

Rhubarb Blackberry Jam
Makes three ½ pint jars

1 ½ pounds rhubarb
Juice of a small lime
2 ½ cups sugar
1 generous cup of blackberries, picked over for dirt and moldy fruit

Wash the rhubarb, quarter the stems lengthwise, then chop in a small dice. Don’t peel the rhubarb—the peel helps hold the rhubarb together to give the jam body. Mix the rhubarb, lime juice, and sugar together in a medium bowl, cover the bowl (with a lid or simply by placing a circle of parchment paper over the rhubarb mixture) and place overnight in the refrigerator to macerate.

When you’re ready to make jam the next day, place a sieve over the pan that you plan to make the jam in. Pour the rhubarb through the sieve so that the liquid collects in the jam pan. Set the fruit back in the original bowl while you reduce the syrup. Bring the syrup to a boil and cook until it reaches 221 degrees. Once it reaches that temperature, add the rhubarb and the blackberries. Stir to combine and cook for another 10 minutes or less, until it reaches 221 again.

Remove from heat and seal. I follow the USDA’s guidelines on hot water bath canning, which are available here.

Rhubarb Vanilla Jam
Makes three ½ pint jars

1 ¾ pounds rhubarb
3 cups sugar
Juice of one small lemon
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Wash the rhubarb, quarter the stems lengthwise, then chop in a small dice. Don’t peel the rhubarb—the peel helps hold the rhubarb together to give the jam body. Mix the rhubarb, lemon juice, and sugar together in a medium bowl. Stick the vanilla bean into the mixture. The seeds will fall off and into the mixture; they will provide visual interest and great flavor. Cover the bowl (with a lid or simply by placing a circle of parchment paper over the rhubarb mixture) and place overnight in the refrigerator to macerate.

When you’re ready to make jam the next day, place a sieve over the pan that you plan to make the jam in. Pour the rhubarb through the sieve so that the liquid collects in the jam pan. Stick the vanilla bean pieces into the jam pan, then set the rhubarb back in the original bowl while you reduce the vanilla syrup. Bring the syrup to a boil and cook until it reaches 221 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it reaches that temperature, add the rhubarb. Cook for five more minutes then jar and seal according to the USDA’s instructions.

Blueberry Peach Jam
Makes four ½ pint jars

1 ½ pounds peaches (I choose smaller, intensely flavored peaches instead of the really juicy ones for jam)
1 pint blueberries
2 ¾ cups sugar
Juice of ½ a lemon

Wash the peaches really well, scrubbing off their fuzz. Don’t worry about peeling the fruit for this recipe. I promise that the peel will not detract in any way from the quality of this jam. Cut fruits in half, remove pits, and small dice the peaches. Wash the blueberries, removing any stems or spoiled berries. Place the fruit in a bowl, stir in the sugar and lemon juice, cover the bowl, and place in the refrigerator overnight.

When you’re ready to make the jam, pour the fruit mixture into the jam pan and bring it to a boil. Occasionally skim the foam off the top—that is where the leftover fuzz and impurities will collect. Stir once in a while to make sure that the jam doesn’t stick to the bottom and scorch, and bring the mixture to 221 degrees Fahrenheit. When it hits 221, it’s time to kill the heat and seal into jars, following the USDA’s guidelines.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Into the Hills, Into the Mountains

ECG and I recently returned from this summer's first expedition. I write expedition because, as I was reminded this journey, that we don't just travel. We full on explore. On this trip, we explored the hills and mountains of Eastern California.

We took few freeways, staying mostly to two-lane windy mountain roads. Occasionally, the roads were paved one-laners. More times than probably wise, we took roads that looked like this:

Although ECG's preparation armed us with two GPSs, a laptop, and a Microsoft Streets and Trips map of the entire journey, there were still times that we were completely lost, but as the wisdom of hindsight always teaches, getting lost usually leads you right where you need to be.

We didn't see much traffic, and when we did, it was different than the traffic we see every day.

The small winding roads brought us to places we forget exist in our non-roadtrip lives, even though they have existed for millions of years and will exist long after we're gone.

The roads brought us to wildlife that doesn't come when called and gardens that don't grow under our care.

They brought us to majesty.

And although that majesty is brilliant and a reminder of all the things that we aren't, after touching its brilliance, it's also nice to come home to all the things that we are.

My garden welcomed me home happily.

Monday, July 02, 2007

A Farm Family

As the hot sun headed towards the ocean yesterday evening, Mike Taylor and his family welcomed me and two friends to his backyard farm. We were greeted at the door by his pretty, cheerful wife Andre and pretty, cheerful daughter Michaela and eventually escorted by Mike into the backyard. There, grapes hung from arbors, rotating crops of corn rose at different heights, and tomatoes vined everywhere: over cages, over children's toys, and over each other.

I wrote about Mike Taylor once before here, but had not yet had the chance to see the source of his incredible produce. But seeing where everything came from, and the incredible use he made of every corner of his garden, exceeded my already high expectations. The quality of food that he brings to the market has to come from somewhere good, that I know, but this, this "mini-farm" of his, is a miracle.

As we wandered through the edible maze, he picked goodies for my friends and me. He placed huge, splitting heirlooms and tiny golden tomatoes in our hands. He gave us zucchini and cucumbers, basil and mint, peppers and more tomatoes. Michaela skittered through the bushes, finding perfect boysenberries and bringing us each one, held in her hands like the most precious of treasures. She brought me a hot pink and purple fuschia, and gingerly placed it in my hands, telling me it was her favorite. I bent down next to her and tenderly caressed the petals, then hung it between my fingers. I told her I always thought that fuschias looked like ballerinas. She looked at me, smiled, and said, "Look at all her ruffles."

Soon, our arms were so overloaded with the Taylor family bounty, that Andre had to rescue us with a canvas grocery bag.

Michaela proudly introduced us to the chickens, cats, and iguana, listing their funny names and endearing attributes. Everyone took turns holding the rabbit. Finally, after exploring the vegetable vines, herbs, and fruit trees Mike grows, we all sat down in a cool, recessed patio that he built as a place to escape the heat. Strawberry plants hung in pots around the edges of the patio's roof, while boysenberry vines created a green wall on the south side. Michaela worked as the waitress for the evening and brought us each a cold beverage, and we began to talk. We talked about books we've read among us, Pollan, Kingsolver, and Salatin. We discussed family, spirituality, and the way spending time so close to our growing food can help us heal, both as individuals and communities. We talked about big questions--how can we help our nation become more responsible with its resources?--and small things we love--mojitos.

Today, as I remember last night, I have been mulling over the overused word sustainability. It is such a buzzword right now, all over the magazines and essays we read, on NPR, and dropping from hipsters' mouths over and over again. Sustainable is cool. I whole-heartedly appreciate the thoughtful way that Mike Taylor raises food, protecting his soil for generations to come. I admire the way he considers water usage, synergistic crop plantings, and seasonality. These are all important practices that I consider "sustainable farming," but when I think about last night, I realize that by buying from Mike Taylor, I'm not only helping to sustain the health of this planet, I'm also sustaining something more intimate: I'm sustaining his family.