Friday, August 31, 2007

Happy Bread: A Response to Pollan's "Unhappy Meals"

I don't mean to beat a dead horse.

I know that it is all the rage to be writing about the ethical implications of food and the choices we make when we eat, and I don't want to just follow in the footsteps of thousands of others. However, as I've written before, I worry that the current awareness about food sources is a fad, and as we all know, fads fade. I worry about this for I believe that awareness about our place in the world is a trend we can't afford to let become passe.

Although I read the article a while ago now, I've been thinking about Michael Pollan's essay, "Unhappy Meals," found in the January 28th issue of The New York Times Magazine. He wraps up this well-constructed argument with nine central points, points to serve as guideposts to eating healthfully and thoughtfully. Mulling over how his claims apply to my life, I thought it might be an interesting approach to consider his nine suggestions and how they work in one person's everyday life. I decided to examine how I do or do not follow his advice, and what changes I can make, if I feel I need to. I thought perhaps reading what an average Joe (er, Joanne) does in his (ahem, her) life might be valuable; it might help dispell the "fad" quality of this ethical eating. Pollan may be hip, but I've never heard said that A Thinking Stomach is even close to hip. In fact, this little site (like its author) may be downright geeky.
"1. Eat Food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
Of course, my very white, very European great-great-grandmothers may not recognize the beauty of a chile or a the splendor of an avocado, two foods that are essential to my regular diet. But, they also wouldn't recognize Red Hot Cheetos or scary-neon nacho "cheese food," both items that I do not categorize as food. Pollan isn't talking about real food here; he's condemning processed food. Like everyone though, I have exceptions to the "processed food is not real food" rule. For me, it is corn dogs.

ECG and I make almost everything we eat unless we eat out. But one of the things that neither of us can make, at least not in the way that recalls my childhood, is corn dogs. When my father would be out of town for a business trip, Mom--left alone with two kids, however many animals and acres we did or didn't have at the time--would use the opportunity to heat up foods that were out of a box and easy. My favorite: corn dogs.

Full of chemicals and frozen, corn dogs may not be a recognizable food to my great-great-grandmothers, but I'll exchange them for the lutefisk fish they ate happily and which does not pass as food in my current world view. I have to allow a few trade-offs, after all.
"2. Avoid even those products that come bearing health claims. They're apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best."
I have never found a processed food that claims to be "low-fat" or "low-carb" that even tastes good to me. I think I'm safe from this argument because there are no processed foods in this house that fall into that category.

In college, I knew a woman who would eat several huge fat-free muffins each morning. After telling me how great and how low in calories they were, she encouraged me to split one with her. No wonder she had to eat several: they tasted like sweet air, and not in a good way. To me, healthy food has to first and foremost be actual food.
"3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number--or that contain high-fructose corn syrup."
I had to look in my pantry and refrigerator to see how I fare in this category. We have the aforementioned corn dogs in the freezer along with several Brazilian and Argentinean treats that serve the same purpose for ECG as corn dogs do for me. I thought the organic ketchup and barbecue sauce we get from Trader Joe's might be loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, but nope, it's real sugar. I looked at the ingredient list on every jar in my refrigerator, and found that with the exception of a very few Asian sauces, none of my jars had lists that contained preservatives or corn syrup. Full of mostly single ingredient jars--olive oil, tuna, coconut milk, and the like--my pantry is a preservative-free zone as well.

Why is this? When I buy condiments--the place in our household where preservatives have the greatest chance of lurking--I rarely look at the ingredients. I try to buy organic, when possible, but other than that, I hadn't really thought about what was in my jarred mayo (because, seriously, I am not going to make homemade mayo each time either of us has the urge for a sandwich).

The truth is I don't shop at traditional supermarkets much at all anymore. What I don't get at the farmers' market comes primarily from Trader Joe's (and for organic meats, Whole Foods). Don't get me wrong, Trader Joe's has some flaws--"organic" apricots shipped from China, to name one--but for the most part, the food is recognizably food. For example, here is the ingredient list from the bottle of ketchup: Organic Tomato Puree, Organic Sugar, Salt, Organic White Vinegar, Organic Onion Powder, Organic Spices.

This, of course, leads to his next point.
"4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible."
Hey single men. Are you looking for interesting, thoughtful single women who may also be foodies (and therefore able to connect you and your stomach to a good meal)? I know where you can find them: the farmers' markets. If I were a) single and b) a heterosexual man, I would spend time trolling in the greenmarkets across the country. The single female hipsters of America have discovered that eating fresh from the market is a good way to go: follow them.

Seriously, in my weekly life, the farmers' market provides a frame. It is something I look forward to every week. At the market, I find the best, most fresh food that is grown only a few miles away, versus thousands. I connect, every week, with the people who grew the food and even build relationships with them. Shopping primarily from the farmers' market forces me to be a creative cook, one who can adjust familiar recipes to what is available seasonally and one who can invent dishes based on what I have. In addition, the seasonal eating that shopping at farmers' markets ensures always provides me with joyful anticipation. At the market this morning, the first pears had arrived. Pears! It's been months since I've had a pear! Now they taste all the better because they are perfectly ripe and in season, and because I haven't been glutted with bad versions of them for months. See, farmers' market shopping is not only good for the planet and your dinner plate, it is plain ol' fun.
"5. Pay more, eat less."
I don't believe that in the long run I spend more money shopping at farmers' markets for produce, eggs, and fish than I would by shopping in a grocery store. When I compare prices, I don't find them to be dissimilar, and when I purchase the quality of produce I receive at my market, I am much less likely to let it go to waste. As well, since I don't buy processed food, my kitchen is stocked with ingredients for meals, which are often, but not always, cheaper then the processed option. The exception, of course, is organic meat. Those blobs of flesh are pricey! But, paying more for them encourages us to eat less of them, and we often find ourselves enjoying a meatless dinner.

Because I have set out to eat as ethically and healthfully (two words that when you set out to do one, may lead you to the other) as possible, I find the pricing helpful. Although my observation is purely non-scientific, it appears that in the realm of organic foods, the higher prices often correspond to larger carbon footprints. Meats, even with an organic label, are still high up the food chain and therefore energy inefficient, and specialty items like gourmet mushrooms or vinegars are often shipped from far away. Their prices remind me to think before buying.
"6. Eat more plants, especially the leaves."
This is a challenge in our house. ECG doesn't like many green foods. He can't help it. He tries, he really does try, but chard, kale, spinach--these foods appeal to him in no way. I love them, but he doesn't, so we try to balance our needs with his tastes. He will eat salads, so we have as large a salad as I can pull together to fill out almost every dinner.

Using lots of herbs (and I do mean lots) is one way that I try to get green in his diet.

Also, I experiment with creative ways of tucking green things in places where they'll be less conspicuous. Getting "leafy" forces me, once again, to be creative.

Finally, when it comes to leafy greens, I have decided that I am not going to sacrifice my need of them for his distaste towards them, so if I can't figure out how to make leafy greens in a way that he'll eat them, I'll make them just for me.
"7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are."
I think this point is the hardest for me to follow. I can eat like the French for a meal, like the Thai for another meal, and like the Italians for a third, but I can't follow a traditional food culture for the majority of the time because my tastes are so diverse. I'm a product of my American culture, after all, one that pulls from all these other cultures.

So, I'm going to define my own food culture: produce-based. It is culled from many ethnic sources, but the primary guide in deciding what I'll make for a meal is the best produce I have available, not the protein source. The produce will guide the protein selection.
"8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden."
For a food and garden geek like myself, this isn't a hard guideline to follow. One of the things that I was reminded of this year, as I set out to build my own kitchen garden after having been garden-less for many years, is how much growing food connects me to the rest of the world. The connection to nature is clear because my meals depend on it. I welcome so many bugs, learning to get over most cases of the heebie-jeebies. For example, I found this molted skin of a praying mantis this week and rejoiced: somewhere in my garden is a praying mantis even larger than this skin and it is getting the bad guys.

And when I pulled out a sad tomato plant earlier this week, unearthing the egg I buried with it when I planted it, I shouted with joyful surprise. Certain it had already decomposed, I was astonished to find it still looking like an egg, but also happy that the earth held signs of me. I put that there. I have changed this soil. I have helped to make this dirt healthier.

"9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet."
ECG and I eat meat. An Argentinean born in Brazil, ECG considers beef an essential food group. When he things meat, he thinks beef, something he craves every day. However, we both understand the implications of beef (he nicknamed the section of Interstate 5 through the Central Valley "Cowschwitz"), and know that we need diversity when it comes to protein. We can find good organic lamb, pork, and chicken, all which we enjoy, but something we're very excited about right now is bison. We've discovered good grassfed organic bison, an animal that though huge, lives much more lightly on the land than a cow. As well, bison can satisfy the beef urge every once in a while. However, as I wrote before, our diet is more and more produce-based, and is occasionally meat-free. We eat eggs often for our protein, as well as cheeses and bean-combinations. We are trying to diversify our protein sources.

In my garden, I'm trying to branch out as well. This week, I placed my seed orders for the winter garden I'll grow in the little plot. I searched out a variety of leafy greens, varieties beyond the lettuces and arugula I usually stick to for salads. I'm trying out turnips, rutabagas, kales, chards, beets and broccolis. I don't have much space, but I can grow small portions of many things. I'll also plant peas and perhaps favas to not only add legumes to our diet in the spring, but nitrogen to the soil. You see, the greater crop diversity I have growing, not only the healthier diet do ECG and I consume, but the healthier my soil is.

If you think of my garden as representative of the agricultural world, the same rule applies: the greater diversity of crops grown, the healthier our nation's soils will be. For farmers to start growing those crops, you need to start eating them.

Oatmeal Buttermilk Bread with Flaxseed
Adapted from The Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook by Leslie Mackie.

When I first saw this recipe, I knew it was a bread for me. I love it. It is a phenomenal sandwich bread, full of flavor, fiber, and Omega-3s. So delicious--tender, moist, and sweetly nutty from the oats, flax and brown sugar--this bread is remarkably easy to make with the help of a stand mixer. It also incorporates multiple species, flax (genus Linum), oats (Avena Sativa), and wheat (genus Triticum), and can easily include a handful of nuts (if you so choose) to add to the genetic diversity and punch up the protein. It is a healthy food, but not one that tastes like "health food," and eating it just makes me happy.

This recipe makes one huge-mama loaf, too big for ECG and me to eat before it goes stale, so we cut it in half, wrap one side well, and place it in the freezer for later in the week.

You will need:
1 1/4 cups rolled organic oats
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup warm water
2 teaspoons dried yeast
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup oil (the variety you choose will beautifully affect the flavor of this already wonderful bread--try walnut or another interesting oil, or let the oat-y goodness steal the show with the clean flavor of canola)
scant 1/2 cup organic brown sugar
1 cup organic whole wheat flour
1/4 cup organic flaxseed meal
3 1/2 cups organic unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
a spray bottle of water
a 9 x 5 x 4 inch loaf pan

To make the bread:
Place the oats in a heavy bowl and cover with the boiling water. Stir to make sure each oat is moistened, and let the bowl sit on the counter for at least ten minutes as the oats absorb the water.

Make sure the dough hook attachment is inserted in your stand mixer. In the bowl of the mixer, pour the warm water, sprinkle in the yeast, and stir to help the yeast dissolve. Let the mixture rest for five minutes. Add the oats, buttermilk, oil, sugar, flours, and salt. Mix on low to combine the ingredients for a minute or two, then increase the speed to medium to knead for 10 minutes. Keep an eye on your mixer so it doesn't dance across the counter and on to the floor. The dough, after 10 minutes of kneading should feel alive and elastic. If it doesn't yet, continue kneading for another minute.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and place a plate on top of it to cover. Let the dough rise in a warm room (in this weather, all rooms are warm) for an hour or until the dough is almost doubled in size.

Using a dough scraper, push the dough out of the bowl and on to a floured surface. Flatten the dough, pressing out the air bubbles and pushing it into a long horizontal rectangle, approximately 12 by 6 inches. Fold the right and left sides (the short ends) towards the middle, then starting with the end closest to you, roll the dough away from you into a log. Let the dough rest on its seam for about five minutes.

Oil the the loaf pan, and place the dough, seam side down inside of it. When I make this bread, this step takes a little finnagling in which I press and pull the bread so that it fits into every corner. You'll most likely find the dough almost completely fills the pan already. Let the dough rise for a half an hour or 45 minutes, so that the dough extends beyond the top of the pan, but has not yet doubled it size.

While the dough is performing its second rise, heat the oven to 385 degrees Fahrenheit. When the dough has risen, spray the top with water. If you feel decorative, sprinkle a few extra oats on the moistened top. Place the pan on a rack one down from the center of the oven (the bread will continue to rise, and you don't want it sticking to the roof of your oven, do you?) and bake for an hour. As you can see in the picture, the bread will become a beautiful brown.

Remove when the bread is a rich medium brown and let cool in the pan for at least a half an hour. Release the bread from the pan (use a knife if it sticks and you need assistance) and let it continue to cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Going Back: The First Day With Students

Yesterday was my first required day back, though I had been going in sporadically for the last couple of weeks to make sure my classroom was in order, to plan, and to generally brace myself for the gargantuan transition that is the start of the school year. Except for the occasional musical phrase that escaped an open door as teachers rocked out to in their own classrooms stapling up bulletin board paper, arranging desks, and sprucing up the stale summer classroom atmosphere, the school was quiet yesterday. It held its breath.

Yesterday about 60 teachers and 25 or so administrators, office staff, and custodians populated the campus.

Today, approximately 1300 teenagers joined us.

It's awe inspiring how a school seems to expand, like a balloon, when full of high school students. Everything is bigger, louder, more important, funnier, more amplified.

Today was a good day.

In the few minutes my rear made contact with a chair today, I scarfed down a lunch of plain yogurt mixed with chopped, juicy-ripe peaches and I crunched on slender raw green beans. Yogurt with fruit or jam is my go-to work lunch, as it doesn't leave me exhausted when I still have hours left to perform, but it gives me enough energy to get through the afternoon. Also, it is a breeze to put together the night before work.

Does it get redundant? Yes. Do I care about the redundancy? Usually not, but I am hoping to mix it up this year with other simple lunch possibilities, so I'm looking for your ideas. A work lunch for me has to have the following qualities:

1) It must have at least a little protein.
2) It must be very quick to put together in the evening (or morning, when I'm forgetful).
3) It must be relatively "light"--not heavy on anything that would slow me down for the rest of the day.

Any suggestions? I make no guarantee to actually eat the lunch you suggest, for I have been known to completely forget to eat my lunch when I'm running around between meetings or helping a student with an essay; however, I'll do my best to put it together and remember to bring it to school.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My Highly Subjective Melon Analysis

Frankly, I'm on the medium-side--not too large, not too small--a 36 B to be exact. I've never been one to wish they were larger or smaller, or even give them much concern. I like them and enjoy having them, but really, I've never thought about them too much. But lately, I've been giving my melons a whole lot of thought.

In this case though, it's the kind that grow on the vine. (Come on . . . I'm a high school teacher . . . I never get tired of boob jokes. If I did, my career would be in serious peril.)

This year, in my little octagon garden, I've grown four varieties of heirloom melons. The first to ripen, Tigger, was a complete failure. I'm not sure I've ever tasted a fruit that was quite so unpleasant as this little guy, bless his heart.

But I'll spare you the details about Tigger. I've written about him before and I just don't want to drag myself through that trauma again. Luckily, I have other crops on which to focus.

I'll write about Charentais next, for my success with this plant has been mixed. First, it isn't a healthy vine as it seems particularly susceptible to powdery mildew, slower to set fruit than other varieties, and downright picky about water. Too little--the fruit won't set; too much--the fruit ends up flavorless and soft. On top of that, the fruit are really, really small. On the rare occasion that a fruit has loosened from the vine in the perfect state, when all the requirements of water, heat, and other magical elements I have yet to discover have combined in just the right proportions, the fruit is a dense, juicy balance of sugar, musk, and acidity.

I'm not sure I'll grow this little French beauty again, at least not in the challenging conditions I have in my plot. Someday, perhaps when I have more room to give her everything that she needs, maybe then, she'll be more generous with what I know she has to share.

Partly because of the name which in itself tells an interesting story and partly because of its promised sweetness, I also planted Collective Farm Woman this spring. This may have been one of the best decisions that I've made in my garden, because this plant lives up to all the images her name suggests: she's sturdy, productive, and a survivor. Powdery mildew, the bane of all melon existence, may persistently attempt invasion on this vine, but each time, she works through it and keeps on trucking. This plant has set fruit regularly throughout the growing season, and although the fruit are small, they are sweet, sweet gems of silvery coolness. Each orb begins as a dark green speckled golf ball, but ripens into a golden orb, occasionally flecked with dark green, that falls into my eagerly awaiting hand.

The flesh inside is cucumbery-white, fragrant, and surprisingly crisp. It also demands to be scooped right up to the rind, for it doesn't have the "dead zone" that so many other melons have, that area between the rind and the inner flesh that is flavorless and disappointing. Nope, Collective Farm Woman is a sweetheart through and through. She's a keeper and will be making appearances in my garden for years to come.

The other melon I planted this year is Boule D'Or, another French heirloom, but one that has been much more pleasant than her finicky cousin.

This is one healthy plant, one that grows large fruit in abundance, and one that looks powdery mildew straight into its evil eyes and scoffs, as if to say, "Go ahead, try it. You ain't got a chance, you fuzzy wanker."

This vine gave me the same cold stare at first too, and made me work to figure out its needs. The melons were huge, and needed extra supportive melon bras to keep them from falling off the climbing vine. And, the first few fruit disappointed me. This is a winter-type melon, one that doesn't automatically "slip" off the vine when ripe and emits no fragrance through its hard shell, so it was very difficult of me to determine when to pick the large fruit. I picked the first two when they turned yellow and seeped a bit of sap at the joint of the stem and the fruit. The fruit pictured above is one of those that I picked too early, and now that I know a bit better about judging ripeness on this plant, I know it is too pale yellow. Inside, the flesh was bland, mildly honeydew-ish, and as ECG said, "tasted like stem."

I decided to let the fruit hang on the vine and discovered that they continued to change color to a dark, golden mustard, close in color to the Collective Farm Woman pictured above. They netted more, and although never slipped from the vine, just seemed to "call" me more. I think it is best to let this fruit stay on the vine as long as possible, longer than what seems logical.

What I wait for this way is worth it: a sweet, yielding flesh that starts medium green just inside the rind merging to peachy-coral as it reaches the seeds. It is tender, intensely honeydew-meets-pineapple, and just plain delicious. I will definitely grow this plant again.

I've learned some things about growing melons in tight spaces; I also still have some questions. Here's my run-down:

1) Good idea: Create melon towers. Wire two square, collapsible tomato towers, one on top of the other. As the plant grows, weave the plant through the wires to coax it upwards, rather than out. Plants grown this way will need more water than conventionally grown simply to ensure the turgor pressure necessary to defy gravity. They will also need bras.

2) Bad idea: Clump the melon towers together in the center of the garden. Even though the melon grows up instead of out on the tower, crowding them in the center of my garden this year made it harder for breezes to pass through and and limited the sun on at least one side of the plant, making each plant more susceptible to melon plague: powdery mildew. Next year, I'll space them in separate corners of the octagon to make sure each gets plenty of sun and air.

3) Truth learned: Growing melons vertically means smaller fruit. Heirloom melons often tend to be smaller, but growing upwards means that they will probably be even smaller than usual. It is just harder for the plant to furnish the fruit with the materials it needs to grow large. This is not necessarily a problem, but if you're looking for huge melons, you need a huge plot on which to grow them.

4) Question: Organic solutions to mildew? I won't spray sulfur--it just causes too much damage to the rest of the mini-ecosystem it touches. Does anyone know of any completely environmentally sound home remedy to help keep the disease at bay? Or, should I just shut up, stick with the hardier plants, and deal with fuzzy leaves because powdery mildew is part of how the world works? I'm beginning to think that the last may be what I need to do.

So, is growing melons worth it? By heavens, yes. If I didn't, I wouldn't know the diversity of flavors the melon world offers, I wouldn't have ever tasted a melon as sweet as a Collective Farm Woman at its peak, and I wouldn't be able to have cooling salads composed of Charentais, Collective Farm Woman, Boule D'Or, and nothing else.

Believe me, these melons are spectacular when they are naked.

Friday, August 17, 2007

There Exists More Than One Home

I love it more each time I go there. Is it possible a place can become more beautiful? Or, is it that I see it in a slightly different season each time I visit, and am therefore presented with more and more by which to be delighted?

My parents moved to Taos, NM a few years ago, built a house there, and have made the place their home. It is my new family home, and although as a family, we have never lived in one place for long, my parents' house in New Mexico seems so stable and rooted that it feels like it is the long-time family seat. Going there feels so good, despite its quirks (and believe me, there are many), that it is where ECG and I have decided to get married, knowing that our friends and family will be happy there too.

This last trip to my parents' house started elsewhere. They picked ECG and I up in Denver and we spent a couple days exploring Southern Colorado, especially the sights surrounding Colorado Springs.

We went to Garden of the Gods.

Can you believe that this used to be someone's back yard?

In 1909, the descendants of the family who owned The Garden of the Gods deeded it to the city of Colorado Springs with the stipulation that it be free to the public forever.

We drove through the windy, narrow canyon to visit the kitschy but fun 7 Falls.

The waterfalls are lit up with colored lights to glow in the evening. I know, I know. Cheesy. But, I have to admit, it was entertaining at the same time. I tried to take pictures in which the colored lights didn't show as much, but if you look closely, you can catch a strange blue glow in the wet corners of the rocks.

My parents had booked us rooms at Red Crags Bed and Breakfast, a charming old mansion on a hill that is now owned--get this--by the original Doublemint Twins. I saw two blondes on a tandem bicycle ride by me while we were there, and of course, I had to believe it was them.

ECG and I stayed in the Teddy Roosevelt Room, so named because he was an occasional guest of the home's original owner and would stay in that room. I wonder if he bathed in this tub?

The last day in Colorado, we drove to the top of Pike's Peak.

The trip takes drivers along a two-lane road, winding along, switchback after switchback, and changing from asphalt to gravel to asphalt again. The views from the road are spectacular, but the trip itself is pretty harrowing driving and not for the weak in the knees. Pike's Peak, you see, is pretty darned high.

The altitude shift knocked the wind out of our sails. I felt okay, but just slow, as if had I tried to be my bouncy self, I would find that I was glued pretty tightly to the earth. Despite this, standing along the edges of the peak, it didn't feel as if we're part of the lower earth. We felt more a part of the sky.

People and other creatures come from all over to visit this place.

After climbing so high, we drove back down and south, towards Taos. Finally pulling into the gravel road leading to the top of the rise and my parents' house was like slipping into a warm bath. Even though I've been on vacation, I haven't felt as if I'd relaxed nearly as much as I'd expected to by this point in the summer. ECG has been experiencing the stress of transitions at work as well, and the both of us nearly collapsed into incarnate forms of inactivity the moment we arrived.

We spent most of the first day watching the sky.

Another full day was spent on wedding preparations: getting the wedding license (New Mexico is pretty lax on quite a few points about which other states have strict stipulations--we were able to get our wedding license 8 months early!), visiting the bed and breakfast where we will both marry and hold our reception, and spending an afternoon with the minister who will marry us. Doing all this talking about the wedding helped me imagine the event a little more clearly, and with each step closer to the day itself, I'm more and more excited. ECG and I both know that a marriage is much more than a day, but still, what a day it will be!

While at my parents', I was also able to wander around the fields and hills near the house with my dad and family dog Maddie. It is beautiful country, one in which each shift of light changes the entire atmosphere.

My mother, the woman who has taught me most of what I know about most of what I know, has started a very productive kitchen garden this year--the first year the fence was in place to keep at least some of the wild critters at bay. Her squash, strawberries, tomatoes, and other plants are all quite happily producing away, but what really takes the prize for healthy productivity is her rhubarb. Planted just this spring, the plants are already hefty and harvestable. ECG caught this picture of me considering whether or not a gargantuan rhubarb leaf could serve as an umbrella in the impending storm.

The summer storms are a way of life in northern New Mexico, but this summer has been particularly wet, and the hills seem greener than I've seen them in summers past. Oftentimes, agriculture in the summer time can be tough, a battle against the sun, the wind, and the quick draining soil (and in fiction at least, against other people; remember The Milagro Beanfield War?) . However, agriculture is a centuries-old way of life in northern New Mexico, and one that has been managed at least partly by the ancient acequias that the Spanish started to build when they settled in the area over three hundred years ago. Each area has its own mother ditch and each mother ditch is managed by a council of landowners in the area. The president of the council is called the mayordomo, and he oversees the fair distribution of water from the acequia to people in the community.

It isn't a perfect system, but it is an ancient one, one that has seen little change in the centuries since its inception.

On the day we headed home to Pasadena, we were to fly out of Albuquerque, and since we had the luxury of time on our side, we decided to take the high road to Santa Fe and explore a bit, rather than the straight shot to ABQ. The high road is the old road (and in northern New Mexico, remember, old means centuries, not decades), and it is dotted with tiny towns and old stucco churches.

We stopped in Chimayo, the home of El Santuario de Chimayo, a church built on ground that is believed to have sacred healing powers. On Maundy Thursday each year, hundreds of thousands of people pilgrimage on foot to the church, with the hopes of taking away some of the soil and being healed.

When we got to Santa Fe, we felt hot and dusty, just as if we had traveled the route years before, except in a wagon, not a car. We didn't rise to the prospect of wandering around the beautiful city of Santa Fe. Instead, we chose the simple, quiet sanctuary of the park next to the church, a place full of dappled shade and benches. It is a place we've rested before and I'm sure we'll rest again on the way from Taos to Albuquerque to catch a flight to places far away.

Taos isn't a home I chose, but it is one I've fallen into and in love with. This place reminds me with each visit back how lucky I am to have more than one home.

P.S. If any of you are curious about the emu from the last post, I didn't see that bird on this trip, but on the day-long road trip to Santa Barbara wine country for SWW's birthday last week. That is a whole other story . . ..