Monday, December 21, 2015

A Day Short of the Darkest

A year ago today, a day short of the darkest day of the year, I left my former home and drove up the state to this one. Yesterday I sat down to reflect on this past year, and I created a list of what I've lost, maintained, and gained.

A few hours after making my list, I had dinner at a friend's house. She made a good lentil stew, I brought a salad, and we drank beer and played board games. From the sitting room of her house on the hill, we could see the lights of downtown glimmering in the rain. I had brought, for dessert, one of my favorite wintertime sweets, Gramercy Tavern's Gingerbread. Instead of baking it in a big bundt pan, I had baked in two loaf pans, so I could bring one loaf for this meal and freeze the second for another time worthy of such a dessert. I served her a piece, and each of her roommates wanted a piece, then she and a roommate wanted a second piece, and I did too. And then the loaf was gone.

It's good, this cake, almost black, spiced with loads of ginger, some cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and a little nutmeg (and I add a pinch of salt, too). The base of oatmeal stout and molasses turns the whole cake moist and rich, and I cut down the white sugar by half so it's not so sweet that all the other flavors can't shine. But it's also something much deeper and older that a simple dessert. Eating gingerbread is eating history, the convoluted and violent intersection of slave and spice trade. It's dark. It's horrible. It's delicious. It was an appropriate capstone to the year I've had.

In the long run, according to both my logical list and the wisdom of my heart, I've come out ahead. Talking to my friend about this the other night, she told me that sometimes she chooses difficulty and darkness in order for the psychological and spiritual payoff. That's not my modus operandi. I didn't choose the darkness of this year, but so much sweetness has come out of it, that now, I wouldn't change it.

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. Roasted pork shoulder. 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 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 niçoise 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

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Hunt

After flops and dead-ends and lots-of-excitement-but-ultimately-leading-no-where-leads, after lots and lots of cover letters and answering, in interviews, honestly and confidently and then wondering, "Was I too confident? But then again, shouldn't I be confident?," I now have a new job for our new life in our new home. And, it's a good one: challenging, interesting, demanding of my teaching, leadership, communication, and creative skills.

We moved up here at Christmas, and I served as a long-term substitute for a friend on maternity leave—a temporary position that helped my friend and kept me busy while I looked for the right job for me—until school ended the last week of May. Since moving, I poured mental energy into finding a new worklife for myself up here, and not having a job nailed down taught me a lot. Here's some of what I learned:

1) Being unemployed is terrifying.

I started graduate school two weeks after I graduated from college. That very summer, I completed my student teaching responsibilities and, by August, I had the job I would hold for the next 18 years. Never in my adult life had I been jobless. Granted, I am very lucky to be married to someone with a strong career, so we have been able pay rent and feed ourselves, but this was the first time since I was 22 in which I feared I'd have to depend on someone else's income. And, I hated that. I hated losing my sense of independence.

Additionally, while I've always known that I'm an extravert (though I need my periods of solitude, just like everyone else), when my substitute position ended and an undetermined future of days alone in a place where I still didn't know many people loomed ahead, that characteristic rose up inside me like a spector, a ghost of fear, echoing around my head like the voice in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," except my voice whispered, "You must have community, you must have community."

2) Humility is tough for me but it is something I must embrace.

I went into the job search thinking I'd be immediately hirable. My resumé was stronger than any resumé I'd looked at while helping to make hiring decisions at my old position, I spoke well and could draw on many experiences in interviews, and I had a whole slew of recommenders ready to speak about my skills. But I didn't get that job, and then I didn't get that one, and then that one. And no one even responded to my application and follow up call on that one. I had one interview then another interview, and another and another, but they went no where. I would try to figure out why, why that school or organization didn't want me, what skills I didn't have, what I didn't answer well enough, how I could improve presenting myself. I believed—and I still believe—that it's always good to aim for self-improvement and every attempt at getting a job was another way to grow.

But, the part that I had to accept, that really only came to me in the last couple weeks before finally getting a job, is that I had very little control over whether or not a school or organization hired me. There were thousands of other factors which I couldn't even see going into the hiring decision process. I had to stop crying to myself, "Why don't they want me?," and begin taking a roll with each punch then hopping up to try again each time.

If employers didn't think I would be a good fit for whatever reason, you know what? They're probably right.

3) I should try for even the unlikely.

One of the jobs I applied for was—at least in theory—the dreamiest job I could imagine, one that tangled up my love for plants and people, but it was also something that I didn't have the required experience for. I pulled out the stops on my cover letter and refined my resumé for the position anyway. I called on the help of excellent friends who had relevant job experience to comment on my application before sending it in.

No, I didn't get it. But I got practice applying for that type of job, and it gave me a clearer idea of what I needed to have to get that type of job, so, if that is a career direction I eventually pursue, I've got an idea of where to go.

If you're chasing prey through the woods, whether or not you catch it, your prey will leave a trail.

4) I need to mind my own gaps.

In addition to my big, new, very exciting job, last month I took on a small side job: maintaining an organic vegetable garden for a family in a neighboring town. I found this opportunity through a neighborhood online bulletin board, and it has been a lifesaver for me. My arrangement with my employer also allows me a little space to grow some of my own plants, providing me the ability to keep some of my rarer seed strains going. More importantly, the job gives me place to have my hands in the dirt, my eyes in their deep observation garden mode, and my head organizing crop starting, maintaining, clearing, and rotating.

I no longer mourn the garden I once had. Taking this side gig has both filled and freed me. It feels so good.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Blank Slate

I keep talking about oatmeal and people keep asking me why. Why? Because it's awesome. It's not mushy or tasteless; instead, it's a fun canvas with which to play. Take, for example, my breakfasts this week. And, I didn't even stray into the realm of savory, but stayed with the sweet.


This is a favorite gild-the-lily version of oatmeal that I've written about before.


Since I know I like that teaspoon of bourbon in oatmeal, I figured I'd riff on the booze theme today and I made a version of rum raisin oatmeal. In the last minute or so on the stove, I dropped in the golden raisins and a teaspoon of dark rum. Off the stove, I stirred in dark brown sugar, then scattered walnuts and Maldon salt over the top, and of course, cream.


I made a tart seedling plum jam this week that didn't set up well but made a flavorful, tangy sauce that I wanted to try on the porridge, so I cooked the oats with a sliver of cinnamon stick and salt, sweetened very lightly with vanilla sugar, then dolloped on Greek yogurt and the plum sauce.


This morning, the overripe banana on the counter was my inspiration. After cooking the oatmeal, I stirred in a little dark brown sugar and chunks of the banana, then topped the bowl with walnuts I fried in a tablespoon of butter until the butter browned and the walnuts were fragrant. I added a sprinkle of Maldon salt for flavor and crunch.


I made a granola a few days ago that combined the flavors of vanilla, fennel seed, and grated orange peel for a delicious, Creamsicle effect. This morning, I worked with the same flavors. I sweetened the oats as they cooked with chopped dates, fennel seed, and a splash of vanilla extract. Off the heat, I salted the porridge, then topped with finely grated orange peel, almonds, and cream. This may have been my favorite bowl of the week.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Orchard Ghost

I think I'm going to haunt Filoli's orchard. I'm going to move into the leaning trellis webbed with hanging gourd birdhouses, make a mattress of tufted grasses, and fall asleep with whatever critters also feel comfortable there. While the grand house of the estate is wonderful, and the manicured formal gardens, so carefully pruned and color-coordinated, are models of a tightly controlled garden vision, it's the fruit trees where I want to be.

Maybe I'll turn into a beetle that bores into stately trunks of the old espaliered pears and apples. Or, maybe I'll be a floating salsify seed, dancing in the untended grasses and wildflowers under the trees.

This last visit I—the real me, the one that can't live in Filoli's orchard—came home and registered online for six of the many orchard walks through the summer to tour the fruit trees through their harvest season, tasting from their offerings, dreaming of which will eventually live in my someday home.

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


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.

Thursday, January 01, 2015


Ten days ago, movers packed a truck full with our furniture and boxed goods and headed north. They were to arrive at our new-to-us rental at 10am the next day. That night, our good friends came over and helped us pack our personal items into our cars, clean up the house, and say goodbye. E and I got a few hours of sleep on our old mattress that we dragged out to the curb just before we left for good at 3:30am, racing to get to the rental before the movers did.

It was a dark drive. My husband drove ahead in a pickup. In my little car, our cat yowled the whole night, but we tunneled along through black-dark and into the velvet charcoal of the Tule fog in the Central Valley before dawn. Dawn broke as we rolled over the hills south of the Bay, then we found ourselves climbing up the spine of the Peninsula, and we were here.

It's an imperfect house without a level surface anywhere in the place, but it has some gems: lots and lots of sun that streams in on wood floors, a huge front deck that looks out over rolling hills and treed neighborhoods, a room that will serve as an office for me—an office! The cat has already discovered the joy of floor venting heaters. And our dog, well, this move has been the best possible event for our dog.

The busyness of our move and the temporary living apart of me and E led us to recognize that we couldn't give Indy the time he needed in the interim, so this fall, we sought out a Bay Area dog trainer who focused on aggressive dogs. Indiana lived with this trainer for a month. When he came home to E at Thanksgiving, E had the fence already built in the back yard and had a warm lap waiting for him. The dog that came back to our family was still Indiana, with all of his noble love and loyalty to us, and his desire to crawl into our laps even though he's so big, but without the aggression towards other dogs that made both his and our lives harder. Our rental house has a dog park a few blocks away. In our old life, a trip to the dog park was an impossibility. Now, it's a joy.

There are many parts of this move that told the both of us, even though it would be very hard, it was the right thing, but this better life for a creature that we have loved but imperfectly served since the beginning of his time with us seals the deal. We're home.