famous peaches, dripping juice

Peaches, July 2013

“Famous Glastonbury Connecticut Peaches,” announces the hand-lettered, laminated sign at my favorite farmstand, Walker Farm, in  Dummerston, Vermont. Glastonbury’s about an hour and a half south of Dummerston. Which is about as far north as good peaches can be grown.

At Walker Farm, every display table of fruits and vegetables overflows. Each is, like the peaches above, interspersed with casual bouquets of seasonal unfancy flowers — snapdragons, black-eyed susans, glads. And everything is curated. Not just “local” but “Old Athens Farm” or “Scott Farm” or, of course, “Walker Farm.”  Not just “heirloom apples” but “Pearmain Abbey”  or “Sheep’s Nose” or “Northern Spy” or “Cox’s Orange Pippin.”  Not just “organic” or “conventional” (as at Whole Foods) but “organic”, “non-organic” or “low-spray.”

To me, a cook and gardener and someone who writes about and thinks about food, everywhere I look at Walker Farm I see invitations. These fragrant tableaus are infinitely more life than still-life… for life by definition is not still.  These fruits, these vegetables, are alive, breathing. This is their moment. They must, in most cases,  be eaten and soon, or they will rot.

Each basket of summer plums (first the purples, especially the small, sweet Methlens, then the yellow-amber Golden Transparents)… each tray  of vivid peppers, shiny as brand new Italian racing cars, each zeppelin-like striped squash: all saying, see me, observe my shape, my color. Smell me. Look at me. Would it not be a fine thing to eat me? To allow me to become part of you? In the way that you will eventually become part of the same humus from which I grew?

At Walker Farm, the cash registers are small islands in lakes of green, surrounded by bunches of herbs. Fountainlike ferny fronds of dill, slightly done-in by being harvested, semi-reclined, like Victorian ladies draped on fainting couches; proud upright full-of-itself basil, frilled party-dress parsley, laid-back coriander — relaxing, but not as much so as the dill, and mint, also upright and sprightly and excited to be alive.

Let’s see — cucumber-dill soup, or cucumber-mint? With yogurt, green grapes, scallion…. And, oh look, the ruby crescent potatoes, the Russian banana potatoes… Chilled cucumber soup (mint and dill?) and a bowl of potato salad — how lovely a dinner would that be, on a hot summer night, on the screen porch?

First-class strawberries don’t travel

All good food is rooted in “seasonal, regional, local.” This was true long before it became politically correct and a point of pride (and marketing) at restaurants and markets all over the U.S. I will not insult you by explaining why a strawberry, flown in from California to Vermont, is utterly unlike a picked-that-morning Walker Farm strawberry; the one large and spongy, with a hollow in its middle, faintly strawberry-flavored pulp;  the other small, dense, bumpy, bright red, spitting juice, ecstatic in its strawberriness. You know why. (Though, just for the hell of it, think about how you felt the last time you got off the plane at the end of a long flight).

Your receipt at Walker Farm is not as detailed as the display, but it, too, notes on each item of produce listed, “ours” or “theirs.” A Glastonbury peach is “theirs.” A Walker-grown organic Purple Cherokee tomato is “ours.”

After the first peach, there is no other

Though few may take the time to listen to or tell it, all good food is also rooted in story. Sometimes  the story is, in one way or another, “ours” and “theirs” (as when a Southerner says, “Oh, we don’t put sugar in our cornbread,” a statement that is a great signifier, though a Northerner may not recognize it as such; a Northerner may think all that is being  discussed is recipe, not regional identity, pride, superiority).

But, because food is seasonal, the story is also often  time-connected, and its web of associations spins out from time and seasonality. Summer; watermelon; picnic. Uncle Joe, who salted his watermelon.

I could tell you a story about a peach

About being a very little girl, biting into that peach, which, it had been suggested, I eat over the sink. It was so juicy, and, I was, like all young eaters, inclined towards a stickiness which tended to spread, after contact with something juicy.

This sink was in the Poughkeepsie, New York kitchen of my mother’s best friend, Dorothy Fields, who set a stool in front of it for me to stand on. The walls of much of the house were covered in 50′s style grooved wooden cedar paneling. Dorothy, and my mother,  were both young. I remember smelling, that day, a rank and distasteful odor at Dorothy’s; she had changed the diaper of her infant, Christopher. This process seemed to me disgusting, embarrassing.  A somewhat fastidious child, I went outside. Later, when I came back in, it did not smell as strongly.

My mother and Dorothy, talking adult talk, sitting on the couch. Christopher, asleep in his bassinet. That was when Dorothy offered me the peach (“Ellen? Would you like a peach?”), perhaps to buy the two of them a little more uninterrupted time. “They’re pretty juicy,” she added. “You’d better eat it over the sink.”

That peach flesh was dense, a bright yellow-orange blushed in parts with a fine veining of pink-red. It was perfectly ripe, tender but with the gentlest resistance, which gave way as my strong young hungry voracious teeth sank into its tissue. That tissue exploded into flavor, a taste even more vivid than its color, almost too intense. With each bite, my mouth was flooded;  the fragrance of ripe peach opened up and out through my nose into my brain as its copious pink juice poured down my chin and into the sink.

The grown-up conversation, the sleeping baby, vanished. The universe became that peach.

After I ate it, I turned on the tap. Rinsed my hands, rinsed my face. Dried them with a dish cloth. Came back to the world.

Now, again, I noticed how hot the day was.

And, now, as an adult, knowing when peaches are in season, I know it must have been July.

What comes again; what does not

It is July again, as I write this, the tail end of the month. My mother’s best friend, who eventually moved with her family from Poughkeepsie to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, to a home across the street from the one in which my mother and her family  lived, is long dead, of  bile duct cancer. My mother’s four best friends all died of cancer; I will say their lovely names here, now all but forgotten except to a very few people, so that just for a moment, in the memory of a peach, they may return to life:

Norma Hayes

Augusta Prince

Buena  Dapallonia

Dorothy Fields

Norma, left; Charlotte (my mother), center; Dorothy, right

Norma, left; Charlotte (my mother), center; Dorothy, right

But though they are gone, those four ladies who laughed, and drank vodka and tonics, and put Band-Aids on the knees of their own and each other’s children and who did not get to (or have to) face extreme old age, their fifth friend lives on. My mother, 98.

She is long past biting into a peach, or biting anything; we puree her food for her. (Though I am pretty good about rolling with the changes, when we had to switch from solid food to puree, I cried). At first, they were thick purees, often made ice cream-like by the addition of frozen bananas, and we (her caregivers most often, but occasionally me) fed them to her; spoon by spoon. For awhile. Now, another change: thinner purees that she can take through a straw — peach and yogurt, sweetened with maple syrup, thinned with apple juice, among them. Sometimes a substance I abhor but she now loves, recommended by her caregivers, is added: the canned nutritional supplement, called  Ensure (it was another change I had trouble with, not only for the Ensure’s  artificiality but because the only place I have ever seen it is on the shelves of  three different beloved elders, in the months before they died).

But! My mother still lives in the same house, on the same street, Elm Place,  where she lived when she was a young working mother, with friends she adored, who came and went, including Dorothy Fields, right across the street.  Though  my mother’s own children, and the children of her friends, are now in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, families with young children live all around her on Elm Place. Some of those children even come to visit her. Here is one, Annaliese, who brought her stuffed baby elephant to nestle into Charlotte’s cheek (“A real one would squish her,” Annaliese explained to me earnestly.)

My mother is slowly, by infinitesimal degrees, leaving life. She is the last leaf on the generational tree that was her contemporary friends and colleagues.  She will leave, when she does, not in the dreadfulness that took her friends, one by one. Not for her the storm that blew Norma away when she was still green. Not even as  the other three went, when their particular leaf was starting to turn red or yellow.

No. My mother, Charlotte, is one of those brown leaves which clings to the tree, curled in on itself,  stubborn in its attachment. Until, one day, it, too — she — will let go.

“Time is a tree, this life one leaf” — e e cummings

I know I cannot know yet how much I will miss her, how tectonically my life will shift, only that this will be vast. But I know, too, that whatever its size, this grief will be comprehensible. For it feels like a natural ending, one that will take place as part of a natural cycle. To feel there is this — some sense to a death—  is a privilege and a blessing for those who grieve that death. As the last brown leaf,  I know my mother will have reached the end of a long, long season.

This is privilege for her, too. It is one her friends, who died incomprehensibly — too young and in terrible, painful  ways — did not have (nor did their families, in grieving for them).  It is one my late husband, who also died too young (44), but suddenly, in an accident, also did not have. The incomprehensibility of that death will stay with me. I am sure,  until I, too, let go of (or are pulled from) the tree.

I will grieve my mother when she goes. But that grief will not include the  “why” which deaths that make no sense bring. Deaths that seem “unnatural” tattoo the hearts  of the bereaved with whys. After thirteen years, I still find myself asking why, and despite deeply wishing that I did not, and knowing I will never receive an answer, about my husband’s being ripped from life so suddenly and violently, at a time when he was so happy in his life and our shared life was also in a phase so happy, rich, and fruitful.

When grief includes such a why, bereaved people are left with something they may not ever “get over” or “find closure” with, as well-meaning but clueless people sometimes advise. As David Richo, the wise Buddist/Jungian author of “The Five Things We Cannot Change “ (and many other books) notes, “Some feelings, for example those associated wih grief about a heavy loss, may never lead to full resolution. There is a note of inconsolability in some grief no matter how much we cry or are mirrored by those who care about us. We can say yes to the given that some of our experiences remain unresolved and unfinished.” Say yes to such a thing? How?  I don’t know. I know I must, because saying no is an option not on the table where truth is served. Saying no is a lie, one that is finally even more painful than submitting, voluntarily, with eyes open, to the yes.

But the agony of why — that, at least, is a phase of grief I will not have when my mother dies. She will leave, when she does, for a perfectly good reason. She will have completed her life. She will leave because it is time for her to go. She will leave because she is done.

She will have had, in addition to a full and active professional, artistic, social, and familial life in youth, middle age, and early old age,  half a dozen or so years of extreme old age that have been good in ways few people in our culture can lay claim to.

She has had tender care by dear people who see her as an individual, not a generic old person, and who have come to love her as the individual she is.  She has had regular, increasingly lengthy, visits from me (and the resolution of all that was once not good between us).  She has had occasional visits from her son, my brother,  who is also prepared to offer financial support when and should it become needed (as it will, if she lives much longer) so that she can continue to stay where and as she is — a generosity, on his part, should it come to that, which cannot be overstated, for it will allow this sweet status quo to continue.

A sad and terrifying addendum: the words above, which I just crossed out in early September 2013, were true has far as I knew, when I wrote them in late July. And I was so proud to write them — proud that my financially well-off brother, though he had been often dismissive of me at best and typically traveled far past that in verbal though not physical abuse towards me  — was actually willing to step up and give her this. As he had promised her when she was younger. As he had informed her attorney that month, that he would.

He then changed his mind.

Which now puts her future, however long it is, in jeopardy. And, having very little by way of financial resources myself, have me state of great anxiety on her behalf. I am oversimplifying here, but not by much. And I simply do not know what to do.

So strong was and is my wish for my mother’s well-being, as is my wish to be able to love, or at least like and respect, my sole sibling, that I let my desire for a redemptive act on his part overshadow 60 years of experience with an individual whose actions (though I am not a professional) align pretty clearly with what is described here. I do not believe, and I do not want to believe, what I, and my mother (fortunately unknowingly, on her part) are now facing; yet, had I gazed with eyes open to the many years of painful history, I could have predicted just such a turn of events.

But let us leave the story as I wrote it a month and a week ago, when this latest twist was still unimagined and, by me, unimaginable.

Her days, though bed-bound, are vast with laughter, good food, music (several of us sing to her regularly, and CDs are often playing, with both music she loved when young and the acoustic world beat African brought by one of her caregivers, which she seems to like even more; she actually sways in bed to it at times, dancing as she is able). We read aloud to her, sometimes, the books she herself once wrote for children.  She is even still, in some fashion, helping emerging artists and writers (this is another story, and wondrous, but not one for here). There are the visits of her neighbors, young and middle-aged. And all this is not in an institution, but in her own home (to which and from which I have come and gone, with increasing frequency, these last six years).

And, she will go accompanied by her very old cat, Tumbleweed.

Tumbleweed and tumble Charlotte, tumbling out of form and living, into the timeless life. Into what the poet Theodore Rothke called Great Nature. Which ends a life, all individual lives, those of cats and peaches and mothers. But which does not and never will end life itself.

Tumbleweed and tumble Charlotte: the two of them will go to ground, the same humus from which grow apples and potatoes, Cox’s Orange Pippins and ruby crescents.

The word ‘humility’ has as its root the word humus; we will all, eventually, go to and become part of it.

But I think there is work to do before then. As we watch our elders go to earth, we take part in vast unanswerable mysteries. If, that is, we face them with wide-open eyes,  with courage. If we do, we will, perhaps, grow some humility. How can we do otherwise, if we look at this journey truthfully, without believing that we will somehow be exempt from it, and from difficulty and pain in general? Will not such humility  help us when we make our own journey to humus?

I believe so, but I cannot say surely. As I age my certainties grow fewer and fewer. I know only what I see, and eat, and think, and feel, and  that is always changing. Because that is  the nature of sight, and ingredients, and thoughts, and feelings. I only know the present, and even that, only provisionally.

I know that now, again, the peaches are back.

And I know that though they will be gone in less than a week, not to return until next summer, they are perfection now.

Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life

Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.

Date: July 19, 2013
Place: Screen porch of our home, Westminster West, Vermont
At the table with:

 

David R. Koff
Lori Randall Stradtman

 

Menu

To Start: 

Chilled Cucumber-Dill Soup
(with Green Grapes, Walnuts, Yogurt, Green Garlic & Scallions)

Then:

Yellow Wax & Pinto Bean Salad with Thai Basil

Platter of Sizzling-Hot Parsley-Buttered Assorted New Potatoes
(Ruby Crescents, Fingerlings, & Peruvian Blues) 

&

Golden Beets,
with an Almost Negligible Amount of Mango-Peach Vinaigrette
(with a teeny drop of Vanilla, & a Grind of Fresh Black Pepper)

For dessert,
(eaten as we watched a torrential thundershower lash & flash the mountains & trees):

Summer Fruit Pudding, Mint & Fresh Cherry Garnish
(The Fruits: Local Fresh Black & Red Raspberries, Currants, & Blueberries)

Served with a with a Pour of McNamara Dairy Heavy Cream

 

 

 

Poached: real as an egg (plus, cornbread as the center of the universe)

I remember being on Good Morning America — early spring,  1993 —  with less clarity than I do the Sunday afterwards.

When, in the kitchen of the restaurant I then owned, I was standing over a 16-inch skillet  of eggs, watching intently as they poached, the viscous transparent whites turning milky, coagulating in on themselves to cradle the small suns of each yolk. The dining room was full with guests out for Sunday brunch (though we got great reviews in Gourmet, may it R.I.P., and the New York Times, and Southern Living, I was always unreasonably proud of the fact that our place was the only restaurant in the county the health inspector would go out to eat; Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Easter brunch, there he and his family would be).

And, that Sunday  morning, a couple of days after the GMA appearance, I was in the zone. The groove. The wholly focused, addictive state professional chefs and cooks hit when they’re in the kitchen on a busy shift and there is nothing, nothing but the world of getting orders out, getting food out, hot and beautiful and in a timely fashion, to those who have paid you the compliment of believing you can and will provide it.  And then the next order, and then the next.

Someone was next to me; the woman who assisting that morning. She didn’t work for us that long; I can’t remember her name. Only that she was tall, had back problems, and was next to me by the stove at that moment when I was in poached egg universe.

And she said something to me, and it was so far from where I was at that second that I literally couldn’t understand it and asked her to repeat it.

She did, her manner edged in — what? sarcasm, perhaps? — a tone I read as wholly dismissive of where we were and what were doing at that moment — poaching eggs in a restaurant kitchen on a Sunday morning in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

She said, “It’s a long way from Good Morning America, isn’t it?”

Was she trying to be jokey-empathetic, imagining that, to me, being on a television show in New York was such a hugely big deal  that poaching eggs in my own restaurant’s real kitchen would have to be a come-down?

As I say, she had to repeat it for me to even come out of the poaching egg zone enough to have any idea what she was talking about… to even remember I had been on Good Morning America … to even remember what Good Morning America was.  It may sound disingenuous to say this: on one level I knew (though not at that exact moment) that I had just been on a television program which was viewed by millions of people. But — I don’t have a TV. There is no show I watch daily, nor have I ever. A “million” is not an amount, of anything, I fully comprehend.

Some things, I guess, look glamorous from the outside, and no matter how much someone tells you they aren’t in reality, you don’t believe it. Getting picked up from a hotel in New York City earlier that week by the GMA limousine at 4:00 a.m., the city streets unearthly in their relative dark and quiet; there was a little “Oh wow I can’t believe this is happening!’ but it was overshadowed by being so very, very sleepy. And having make-up put on you; what I remember is the make-up artist half-frowning and switching to a heavier concealer than the one she’d first picked up; the circles under my eyes clearly required more serious intervention. I remember it was hot in that room where she spackled on foundation, the light bulbs circling the mirror just like in the movies.

And then being interviewed by famous people who were only famous for interviewing  other people, some of whom were famous.

At some fundamental internal level none of this was important or real to me.  The eggs were.

I mean, GMA: yeah, I did it; I experienced it. I remember that the male interviewer, whose name was Charlie something — I would have to Google it to find out what — had a spoonful of the pumpkin tomato bisque I demo’d while the cameras were rolling and said it was “really good.” Then, after the cameras stopped rolling, had three full cups of it. With much more enthusiasm than he’d had on air.

I remember that the green room actually was green.

So the GMA experience was real, in its way. And it certainly helped sell books, for which I am grateful.

But it was not kitchen-real. It was not change-the-way-you-think-about-yourself real. It was not as real as an egg, the heat of the water in which it bathed gradually changing its strands of protein from liquid to semi-solid.
xxx
I used to say that the cornbread we served in that restaurant was the sun around which the planets of the menu revolved.

A basket of cornbread wedges, on my table in Vermont... the same table that was in front of the fireplace in the restaurant, back in Dairy Hollow days

The restaurant was in the Ozarks. To me, there was never any question that cornbread belonged there. This was a matter of  perplexity to some locals, who could not quite wrap their minds around the concept of  “cornbread” (a down-home food, loved but long traditionally associated with poverty) being served at a  “fine dining restaurant.”  I was, not to put too fine a point on it, doing local-and-organic-and-regionally-rooted-but-creatively-reinvented long, long before it was cool or even comprehensible. The first cookbook to come out about the inn, The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, was published in 1986 (it has just been reissued by its original paperback publisher, Cato and Martin, by the way. You can get it here, new).

(Just for a reference point:  according to Wikipedia, “The word ‘locavore’ was the word of the year for 2007 in the Oxford American Dictionary. This word was the creation of Jessica Prentice of the San Francisco Bay Area at the time of World Environment Day, 2005.”  So, we were doing that stuff nineteen years before there was a word for it. )

The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, written with my dear friend Jan Brown, and illustrated by then-Eurekan Jacqueline Froelich.

We called our style of cuisine nouveau’zarks; in fact, the first chapter of  The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook is entitled “Old-Time Ozarks Country Cooking vs  ‘Nouveau’Zarks’ Country Cooking, ” and in seven pages  it pretty much laid out the ethos which informs so many good restaurants today: respect and honor the place where you are, its history, ingredients, climate, traditions, people. Seek out local farmers, growers, producers, gleaners.

Take all that bounty — morels from the scruffy bearded guys who showed up each spring with their precious collected fungi — did I ever know their names, or how they found us? —   rabbits from the down-to-earth farm wife  whose husband slaughtered them the same morning she delivered them ( along with a quart of rabbit blood; yes, vegetarian me used this to thicken the rabbit gravy in the traditional French manner), and lettuces as frilly as full-skirted ball-gowns, UFO-looking kolrabi, voluptuous tomatoes, brought by  monks, sometimes in habit,  from Little Portion , a farm/monastery in Berryville, Arkansas (of all places, I was and am always tempted to add).  All this, delivered right to the restaurant’s back door… for there certainly was no farmers market in Eureka in those days.

So. Take all that bounty and… see where you can go.

But, even as I sought out and found Oklahoma prosciutto, Arkansas goat cheese, and even White River caviar (from paddlefish) — the kinds of foodstuffs that are now, but were not then, known as “artisinal” — there were some traditional dishes which were so good, so central, so perfect as they were, I just didn’t mess with them. Cornbread was one.
xxx

The dish I was poaching the eggs for the Sunday after the Tuesday I had been on Good Morning America was Eggs Eureka. Its creation came about  via what’s today called mash-up — ideas and influences from all over layer and conjoin to make something new. But “mash-up” is a distasteful phrase when applied to food. Eggs Eureka were in no way a mish-mashy dish.

Instead, they took that brunch cliche Eggs Benedict, making it local and making it Ozark.

Instead of English muffin, the foundation was wedges of our skillet-sizzled cornbread, split, toasted and very lightly buttered… we always had the leftover cornbread on hand at the restaurant.

Instead of Canadian bacon, we used crisp slices of Arkansas bacon (vegetarians got smoked tempeh strips instead).

A great big thick round of dense, juicy height-of-summer tomato, underneath that bacon, had no Benedict equivalent, but just belonged. And on top of all that, poached egg, sauced not with Hollandaise, but a ladleful of good old piping-hot from-scratch Sauce Mornay … cheese sauce. We tried it with milk gravy, which, especially if we had used biscuits instead of cornbread, would have been closer to traditionally Ozark… but the Mornay was just so much better.

A little grated cheddar atop that, an in-and-out run under the broiler to gratinee it, a sprinkle of paprika, a sprig of parsley, or maybe a spike of rosemary or a sage leaf, and out it went.

It was so good, and well-appreciated by those who ate with us.

One of our more well known guests was the feminist Betty Friedan, who wrote The Feminine Mystique. The weekend she was visiting us, the Eggs Eureka were on the menu. She told me, “This is so much better than any Eggs Benedict I have ever eaten anywhere, Crescent. This dish is… it’s genius. Pure genius.” Nice to hear from an icon, there’s no denying that.

And, Eggs Eureka began with our cornbread.

As much did, over the years.

Featherbed Eggs, our version of breakfast strata (where eggs and milk are poured over bread crumbs and seasonings the night before, and baked in little ramekins or one large casserole the next day, and they puff up just beautifully) — ours was done with cornbread crumbs, not wheat bread, plus green chiles and Southwestern flavors and “Arkansalsa” on the side.

Featherbed Eggs

 

More than half a decade went into writing The Cornbread Gospels.

Of course, the dressing at Thanksgiving was cornbread-centric. And eventually, I even began to do bread pudding with cornbread.

Five years after I left the inn and Arkansas, I wrote a whole book on cornbread, The Cornbread Gospels. Gospels with an “s”, because I had learned that there is way more than one right way to make cornbread. (Though most people who are cornbread lovers disagree — they think there is only one right way: the way their grandmother made it. They indulge me, mostly, in my insistence that  gospel be pluralized; but they know there is really only one right way: their grandmothers’.)

It took me about six years to write that book. There was researching, talking to people and sometimes eating in their homes, going to mills and to the National Cornbread Festival (see picture below; three generations of cornbread lovers). There was testing recipes, developing recipes, and writing. I finally stopped because I had to; it was time to end the book. I could have continued for another six years; this is what happens when you fall in love with a subject. There’s no end (and despite all that time, I am still learning things about cornbread I didn’t know and hence didn’t put in the book).

Three generations of cornbread lovers, at the National Cornbread Festival, South Pittsburg, Tennessee

Why did I fall in love with cornbread? Because it tastes so good. Because I was  genuinely was fascinated by the stories behind this American, and Ozarkian life-staple. Because the more you find out, the less you know. Because it turns out that everything is connected to everything and, because I was looking at cornbread, cornbread was right there in the middle of it all.

And, of course, because when you love something, you love something; you just do.

And I love cornbread.

xxx

Because I do, I still make it. Not daily, as I did when I lived in Arkansas and ran an inn, but here, in private life. in Vermont, at least a couple of times a month.

I should say cornbreads, again plural, because I don’t make just one kind. Sometimes I do the type we served at the inn, which is essentially African American (half cornmeal, half  wheat flour; a little sugar, not much; buttermilk; baked in a hot cast iron skillet). Sometimes I do the straight Southern cornbread (all cornmeal, no sugar or flour, buttermilk, skillet sizzled). Sometimes I do an embellished Southwestern style cornbread (green chiles, chopped onion, minced garlic, corn cut off the cob, grated cheese). Sometimes corn muffins, or cornsticks. And very very occasionally I do Yankee cornbread (as much or more flour than cornmeal, quite sweet, milk instead of buttermilk, baked in a cold pan instead of a heated skillet).

Sometimes, cornsticks...so good.

 

As I write these words, it is the height of summer. We bought too much fresh sweet corn on the cob (so easy to do) earlier this week, so I wound up making a spicy corn chowder. And nothing, it seemed to me, could accompany it more perfectly than cornbread: straightforward, unembellished, crisp-edged classic Southern cornbread. So that is what I made (the Truman Capote’s Family’s Cornbread, on page 13, for those of you have The Cornbread Gospels.)

Because there are only two of us here, even though of course we ate more of that always-excellent cornbread hot from the skillet, than perhaps was prudent, there were a few leftover wedges.

The next morning, at breakfast, I said to David, “You know, I used to make this really good breakfast dish back at the inn. We called it Eggs Eureka.”

And, then and there, half a country and fourteen years away from the inn, my beloved co-innkeeper long, long gone, I split and toasted the leftover cornbread wedges from dinner the night before. I didn’t make cheese sauce; it seemed like overkill for just the two of us. If I’d had tempeh bacon I would have used that, but we didn’t, so that, too, was skipped.

But there were slices from one of those God-almighty-I-love-summer tomatoes. And this year the swiss chard in our garden has grown with  exceptional, beautiful vigor. David went out and quickly harvested some, and washed it, and I cut it up and steamed it.

So the Vermont riff  on Eggs Eureka yesterday went like this: toasted cornbread wedge, nest of steamed chard with a little garlic, slice of tomato,  egg over easy (not poached), a little sprinkle of Vermont cheddar.

Eggs Eureka, the simplified version as made last Sunday, here in Vermont

And it made me think about Eggs Eureka, and the old inn days and what that woman — Vicky! I just remembered her name — Vicky! — said to me. And how much it perplexed me at that moment.

Ingredients, and the dishes we make from them, are always changing, as are the people we eat them with, and the circumstances under which we eat them. Always changing, yet affixed by memory. In time, yet out of time.

Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread, the second cookbook to come out of my life as an innkeeper.

How many times has the earth circled the sun since I stood in that kitchen with Vicky? Let’s see… the book that got me onto Good Morning America, Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread, was published in 1992. So twenty years worth of days. Twenty!

My beloved co-innkeeper, my late husband, Ned Shank, left this spinning globe twelve years ago (by which time we had already closed the inn and restaurant, founding a still-existent writers’ colony, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow). I left Eureka Springs two years after his death, to live in what had been my family’s summer home, in Vermont. Four years after that, I was joined by my present partner, David Koff, the gentleman for whom I made the sort-of Eggs Eureka last Sunday.

The Vermont home in which we live was once owned by my Aunt Dot, who used it as a summer place. She had no children of her own and outlived her money; my buying it gave me a home with which I had connection but not as much association with loss as I had by that time in Arkansas, and it also allowed her to live out her remaining  days in her winter home, an apartment in New York, on East 57th Street. Three years after I moved up here, Aunt Dot, too, exited this green globe.

One day not long after I moved to Vermont,  I went down to New York for one of my periodic visits. I  had come to see Aunt Dot, in the apartment she was by then sharing with her caregiver, Zorina. Zorina was in the kitchen, and you could hear something being chopped.

“What’s that sound?” Aunt Dot asked me.

I said, “I think it’s Zorina, making your dinner. Do you want me to go check? ”

“Yes,” said Aunt Dot, very decisively.

I did. Then I returned to the bedroom.

“Yes, Zorina’s making dinner, ” I reported. “She’s chopped up some onions and some red peppers and she’s frying them in a little oil. I think it’ll be good. ”

Aunt Dot looked up at me, her exceptionally blue eyes always startling. “Will there be enough for Jim?” she asked me.

Jim was Jim Cherry, the man with whom she had spent twenty late-in-life years. They had dated in college, married other people, outlived the other people, and then, in their  70′s, got back together. They remained coupled until his death at age 94. That, his death, had been about 4 years before Aunt Dot had asked me if there would be enough for him.

I said, “Well, I don’t think Jim is coming to dinner tonight, Aunt Dot. But if he did, there’d be enough for him. ”

Aunt Dot nodded, and then she said, slowly,  thoughtfully,  “Where do all our Jims get to?”
xxx
That’s a  question, of course, to which there is no answer. And yet, somehow, at the largest table on which the deep feast is laid, dish by dish, season by season, memory by memory, absence by presence by absence, we  join together, the living and the dead, the harvests of a hundred years ago meeting those picked yesterday.

After a few minutes,  Aunt Dot said dreamily, “I know. You know that big house I have in — is it New Hampshire?”

“Vermont, ” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “We can have a dinner there. And Jim can come, and Ned can come, and Daddy and Mother, and Sissy, and you, and me… ”

Ned Shank and Aunt Dot, spring 2000, on the front porch of the farm, where I now live. They are both gone, and no now, from this world, forwarding addresses unknown. How much they enjoyed each other in life! I wish I believed in an afterlife, so I could imagine them enjoying each other still, in it.

I have a friend who makes the scientific case that all possible realities actually are, or have, or will, or can happen, simultaneously. He bases his argument on quantum physics; and it’s very convincing when he makes it, thought I can’t quite follow. But I do like to go there when he explains it; I like it a lot. I like the generosity of this idea, since merely to pick one skein in a life so lush and full of possibilities, yet bounded by time, is almost too poignant to bear otherwise.

To really help yourself to all that’s on offer at the deep feast takes accepting the unknown and unknowable.

Side by side with the known.

That the quick dazzle of celebritude a television show confers is fleeting.

That any given meal, too, is a brief transaction in a transitory world, where seasons and people and places change and change and keep changing.

And yet, that swiss chard will produce greens as well as seeds, allowing a kind of immortality in the form of next years’ garden.  That a hen will live and die, but hens themselves will go on laying eggs.

Some of those eggs will become chickens. And some of those eggs will not.

Some of those eggs, subjected to very hot water, will transmute from liquid to solid.

Will poach. Will become breakfast. Will become part of those who eat that breakfast.

And while those breakfast-eaters, too, will be here only briefly, someone will remember. Eggs, under the right condition, will always poach.

And this fact, like a recipe, is a love letter from the past to the present, and from the present to the future.

 

Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life

Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.

Date: Sunday, July 29, 2012
Place: the farm in Vermont, on the screen porch
At the table with:

 

Menu

Red Lentil Dal, with Potatoes

Brown Basmati Rice Pilaf

Mr. Panseer's North Indian Swiss Chard

Cucumber-Tomato Raita

Homemade (just made - still warm) Peach-Currant Chutney

Lime Pickle

Fresh Watermelon

goongoo: why there is no such thing as a definitive cookbook

A book is eventually finished. But its subject? Never, if a writer is lucky enough to have picked a good one.

I keep finding that out.

Back when I wrote Passionate Vegetarian (a process that began in 1991; the book was published in 2002),  I had an idea, one which seems to me now both hubristic and almost touchingly naive.

I would write a kind of vegetarian ultra-Joy of Cooking. If an ingredient of plant origin existed on earth,  a reader could look it up in the book and find it, clearly described and explained, with at least a couple of recipes or ideas for using it. I actually stated this, out loud, occasionally, as my objective, and worked diligently to achieve it.

A work in progress for a very long time, PV was a humbling experience for its author.

But though the book eventually grew to 1110 pages, weighed in at nine pounds, and won a James Beard Award, I did not reach that goal. And thank God for that.

Because the earth is hugely too vast for any one individual’s puny self to grasp. If  any part of that world, even its ‘ingredients of plant origin’, could ever be encompassed permanently in a single book, how much less our lives, and the world itself, would be.  Less mysterious, less interesting. Less filled with the chance to learn,  make discoveries with every step and every bite.  Less finding out that, as the Beatles sang, “The farther you travel, the less you know.” Less surprise. Less wonder.

Shortly after I’d sent off the PV manuscript  (though written on computer, it was the last one on which I submitted an actual paper  copy, which filled 3 large cartons), Ned, my then-, now-late-, but always beloved husband, returned from a trip where friends had taken him to a  fantastic international food market. “You would have loved it,” he told me. “But look what I got you!” He then cheerfully presented me with a bag of plantain flour. I didn’t quite burst into tears, but my thought was: how could he have done this? Here was an ingredient of plant origin that was not only not in the book but which I’d never even heard of.

Welcome to adulthood, Crescent; welcome to the fact that not only is being a know-it-all just not possible, even if it was, it’s much more fun to be a know-some-of-it, and live in a state of  open, soft curiosity.

Humbled by the Bean

I am learning this again with the legume family, through Bean by Bean, my latest cookbook. I’ve spent  six years on it, at the minimum. But legitimately and demonstrably, since I wrote another, much simpler cookbook called  The Bean Book, in 1971  — 27 years. Or perhaps even, in the largest sense, one more spiritual than linear, it took my whole life.

A legumagical, if not quite definitive, book.

But. If ever a person could lay claim to being knowledgeable about beans and writing a definitive book on them, it would be me.

Yet,  “definitive” , I’ve come to feel — starting with that lovingly given, less than graciously received sack of plantain flour — always means provisionally definitive.

On the one hand, despite my best intent and effort, I have, in Bean by Bean, written a book that is incomplete. On the other hand, I gave it my best shot, and in so doing I fell in love with a topic that is more than worthy of the years of attention,  curiosity, research, writing and recipe-testing I gave it.  Too, if the topic is inexhaustible, it means I will go right on learning more and more about beans, as I did about cornbread after the publication of The Cornbread Gospels. And to me, that is not Sisyphean but very, very cool.

Am I happy with the completed Bean by Bean, which, to most people besides me, looks pretty durned definitive? Oh, yes. I like its title, a lot, a title chosen not by me but collectively developed at Workman Publishing, with the final twist by the president of the company, Bob Miller.

I love the book’s design, inviting and readable, and its colors — black and a vivid, sassy green —bright,  also inviting,  exactly what I would have chosen had I been asked.  The illustrations? Most are lovely and seductive, especially those which lead each chapter:  sensual, respectful of the food.  That some of the smaller “spot art” pieces are cartoony,  caricature-ish  and to me, overly precious —  well, “You have to take the bitter with the better,” as my mother used to tell me, always adding, “As my mother used to tell me.”

But there is no bitter whatsoever when it comes to Bean by Bean‘s cover. It’s not just “the better”, it’s the best. The cover, that all-important piece by which books, correctly or not,  are often said to be judged, is luscious. It shows off the inherent sculptural  diversity of the book’s real stars: the beans. And it pictures them in an old wooden box, divided and pegged. If you look closely, and you’re into this kind of thing, you’ll discover one magnificent and telling subtlety:  the box is an antique printer’s tray. used, not so very long ago, to store physical type.  This adds a visual subplot, a brilliant undercurrent: the cover says “writing + beans equal this particular book”. I was wowed from the first.

And I have heard person after person say, “Great cover!” And, almost as often, watched as person after person runs their fingers over the shiny stock, and identifies each pictured legume,  sometimes pausing to ask my assistance. Chickpeas, split peas, pintos, lentils,  — what are these, Crescent, these  large speckled red-and-white beans, up in the left hand corner? They’re Christmas limas, I say, a delicious bean, taste amazingly like chestnuts. And these? Pigeon peas, I say.

Goongoo Peas: off the chart; at least my chart. Regretfully.

One day, I was sitting at my 96-year-old-mother’s kitchen table with two people who were looking over the cover in this way:  Carlene and Sharon, two of my mother’s caregivers. Both are Jamaican. “Split pea, kidney bean …. and this one?” Sharon  asked, “Is it pigeon pea?”  “Pigeon pea,” I confirmed.  “Yes,” added Carlene emphatically, nodding.  “Back home we call it goongoo pea.”

Goongoo! What a word, round and soft as a bean cooked to melting tenderness itself, instantly lovable.  But also, less happily: something leguminous I didn’t know, showing up right there at my mother’s kitchen table.   “Goongoo, ” I repeated to Carlene and Sharon, rolling its wondrous soft heft around. “Yes, goongoo pea,” said Carlene authoritatively. She and Sharon both nodded.

I  knew exactly where ‘goongoo pea’  belonged in the book:  in that long, much-disputed chart in the back. In the appendix.

Pigeon Peas: The Goongoo That You Do So Well. (Shown, a mix of fresh and semi-dried, of shell beans), courtesy of CherryGal Heirloom Seeds

Called Basic Beanery, my editor and I disagreed about it.  I knew a chart could only just scratch the surface: there are hundreds of bean varieties and they just wouldn’t, couldn’t all fit in a chart; she knew readers would want and appreciate  a chart.  (I was right; it is partial, and some readers and reviewers  have already gotten huffy about the absence of more esoteric and heirloom bean varieties. And she was also  right; some readers and reviewers have already praised the chart’s inclusion. )

There’s a column in the chart titled “Name(s).”  Under ‘Pigeon pea,’ the following  aliases are listed, parenthesized: “Congo pea, gandule; when split, toor dahl.”  But not goongoo. Congo; goongoo. More  internal rolling around: was ‘goongoo’ a Jamaicanization of  ‘Congo’?

Maybe I could… wait, Crescent. Your book is done. Goongoo is not there.

You see? Provisionally definitive.

Another area I keep discovering things: quotes, which, had I come across them earlier, would have been in Bean by Bean.

I love, love, love finding and using quotes which reference particular foods or dishes; quotes not just from culinary books but from  novels, travel guides, magazine articles, poetry (Rumi wrote a poem called “Chickpea to Cook“; Pablo Neruda wrote about corn, salt, hunger, flour, bread, tablecloths and many other food-related subjects ). Occasionally even a cartoon caption nails it (one that didn’t get used in Bean by Bean but should have, from the New Yorker, shows a boss announcing to a startled-looking room of employees: “Sorry, boys, but we’re cutting back on bean counters till we have more beans.” )

I love material like this, some funny, some sad, all interesting. Some quotes give information, but all offer context and vibrancy, revealing how people incorporate a particular subject — in this case, the bean — into larger life and their understanding of it.

And once I start thinking about something, it is astonishing how often related quotes turn up, often without my even looking for them.

Now,  mind you, there already are lots of good quotes in Bean by Bean. And, it must be said that getting permission to use such quotes, when they are still under copyright, is a royal, time-consuming pain in the butt. It usually entails going not directly to the author but to the publisher.

When you are able to go directly to the author, it’s a different story. It’s easy, even fun. I was able to email the novelist Diane Abu-Jaber, who graciously allowed me to use her sensuous quote on the lentil-rice dish known as Mjeddrah, from her novel Crescent. “The smell of food always brought her father into the kitchen. It was a magic spell that could conjure him from the next room, the basement, the garage… he would appear, smiling and hungry. And if it was one of his important favorites — stuffed grape leaves, mjeddrah, or roast leg of lamb — he would appear in the kitchen even before the meal was done cooking… Sirine thought that this was why her mother cooked — to keep her husband close to her, attached to a delicate golden thread of scent.”

Ah … now that’s context.

And many years ago, back in 1982,  I wrote Maurice Sendak for permission to quote  the line “milk in the batter, milk in the batter, we bake cake and nothing’s the matter!” from his  In the Night Kitchen. (I was able to get his address since we then shared a publisher.) Since the line was cake-related, I sent a sour cream pound-cake along with my request. Somewhere I have his scrawled reply: “Crescent — feel free to quote anything of mine, anywhere, at any time, in return for one of those sour cream poundcakes.”

But when you go through a publisher, things get exponentially more difficult. It takes an absurd amount of time-consuming bureaucratic paperwork, which must most often be done by snail-mail — not email, not fax. This is especially irritating when you consider how blithely everyone quotes everyone else on the internet, without even a thought of permission: as long as you give credit and a link, it’s considered a compliment, and helpful, to all concerned.

Plus, you always wind up going after permissions under an impossible  deadline. Why? Because you can’t get them ahead of time (like when you first discover the quote). Why? The Permissions Departments of all major publishers want to know a few things. How many copies will the first printing be?  How much will the book sell for? Will the quote you are asking about be set aside in bold-face or merely included in a paragraph?  All  perfectly legitimate questions. There’s just one catch: the author doesn’t know the answers. And her own publisher is likely to get tetchy if she asks “too soon.” Too soon is, in my experience, anything more than a month before publication. And, some questions have to be asked of the Sales Department, some of the Art Department, and some of one’s editor, who usually says, “That’s a good question. I’ll get back to you on that.” And may. Or may not.

It’s aggravating. I would never do it if I didn’t deeply believe in how much the right quote gives.

But even so: once the book is completed, turned in, edited, quote permissions achieved, off to the press, printed and bound, and finally, finally in the hands of readers,what is one to do when new unlooked-for quotes that would be perfectly relevant,  still just keep on showing up?

Accept that definitive is provisional? Again?

While working on Bean by Bean, I only found one quote that fit the baked bean section, for instance.  It was from Mary Cantwell’s memoir. American Girl: Scenes from a Small-Town Childhood. ““The kitchen has two stoves, one gas and one coal, and Esther keeps saying, ‘May, don’t you think it’s time you got rid of that old thing?’ Ganny won’t listen. She puts her bread to rise on top of the coal stove and bakes her beans in its oven.”  That one’s in the book.

But after the book went to press, I came across another baked-bean-related quote, in Alex Witchel’s memoir Girls Only.The book’s at a friend’s house, not in front of me now, or, of course, I’d quote it directly here. But, it included the word “Mommy”,  and had a tone of longing; both funny and exquisitely sad. The point is, it would have been a perfect addition to my book. But I found it too late.

Then, I came across this, which the King’s Cake recipe really would have benefited from. It was in the strange, compelling novel  The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. It’s 1941, and Leningrad is under siege. A young tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, though  close to starvation,  describes a painting:  “There is a party in progress…a feast to celebrate the Day of the Three Kings. The traditional pie has been baked, and the older man in the middle must have gotten the piece with the bean inside, because he is wearing the crown of the Bean King. He is surrounded by happy, jostling couples, children… “The king drinks!” Glasses are raised… (there’s) the Bean King’s son-in-law… They are boisterous, rollicking. The only stillness… a hound whose eyes are focused with canine intensity on the ham in the Bean King’s lap.”

I do not have such a pie in Bean by Bean, but my King’s Cake with its hidden bean, would have been so much more marvelous with this quote. Why? Because, unclunkily, that quote tells the reader, food and art and celebration are connected; how can it be otherwise? A quote like that changes writing about food to writing  the world through food:  the deep feast.

And, then, going back to baked beans, I found this, in the novel Tracks, by Louise Erdrich: “Every day I took him to the shop and we set to work — sprinkled fresh sawdust, ran a hambone across the street to a customer’s beanpot…” There’s a whole discussion in Bean by Bean about how, to some people,  beans without a hambone or salt pork is unthinkable, while to other people (vegetarians) its inclusion is equally unthinkable. Would not that quote, simple though it is, have been perfect right there?

This was not my first Louise Erdrich / Bean by Bean quote heartbreak, however. I’d already noted and set aside for use one from a short story of hers, Plague of Doves, which appeared in the New Yorker in 2004 (this gives you some idea of how long I work on these things), and which I longed to include in Bean by Bean. It was this: ““ For one whole summer, my great-grandparents lived off a bag of contraband pinto beans.”  What a delicious invitation of a quote that is; it just makes you want to know more, and it also emphasizes, indirectly, beans’ amazing ability to swell and feed many on little.

But, the New Yorker couldn’t give me permission because by 2008, Plague of Doves was a novel. This necessitated going to the book’s publisher, which advised that it required eight weeks to answer permissions requests, which meant that I couldn’t get permission in time for  Bean by Bean‘s publication.

Given how long I work on a book you wouldn’t think that limited time could cause omissions other than in seeking quotes from publishers. But it does.

Like the possible tweak to Julie’s Peanut Butter Cup Brownies. This recipe is in the book, and it should be; these brownies are a great, much-loved recipe. But they do contain both peanut butter chips,  a non-natural foods product containing hydrogenated fats, and cut-up Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups.  I knew, I just knew,  that with enough time to fool around in the kitchen, I could come up with a just-as-good, and considerably healthier, alternative to both, which I would’ve liked to offer as a variation.  But I just ran out of time to do this.

In that context,  imagine with me, if you will, when after I did a 45-minute long interview on On Point with Tom Ashbrook,  a listener, Eric Spears, commented by email, under that brownie recipe, “Surely, there must be a way of making these things without stooping to the candy (Reeces).” To which another listener,  who gave his or her name as “Secretly Likes Reece’s”, added, “You know, I think the pb chips are worse… ” Yowch!  But then “Secretly Likes Reece’s” offered a natural foods alternative: Sunspire Peanut Butter Chips, and noted, “I’ve checked the ingredients on Reeces and at least the regular sized ones don’t have either high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenized oil.” So, there you go. Live and learn; just not always in time, however, to get that new learning into your book.

Laughing in the studio with Tom Ashbrook at On Point (you can just make out that there is quite an array of food spread between us).

(Relevant Digression: Sometimes I imagine a kind of hybrid book that new technology could make possible. It wouldn’t be a Kindle-type downloadable book, mimicking the print edition but delivered to the reader in a new form. No, it would be its own thing: it would have links, and there would be a way for writers to incorporate new information and discoveries, perhaps in a contrasting color. I have long regretted that with the advent of writing-on-computer, we are losing the incredibly valuable archives of writers’ drafts; we see only their finished versions, not the process by which a writer got there. By  later addition, clearly visible — hence the second color — we could re-incorporate some feel of the process that those old scratched-over first and second drafts used to give young students of writing. That may seem a long way from Sunspire Peanut Butter Chips; but, speaking as a writer,  it isn’t. End of Digression.)

Another time thing: Bean by Bean does not have a recipe for Gado-Gado, the fantabulous Indonesian main dish salad, which not only has a peanut dressing (peanuts are legumes), but cooked, chilled green beans, tofu, and bean sprouts, making it a quadruple play in bean-world. I really wanted a Gado-Gado recipe in there, but there was one small problem: I had never been to Indonesia. So, what it would have taken, timewise,  because of the admittedly perhaps-over-perfectionistic style in which I do these things, was something like this:

  • using my culinary connections to find a native Indonesian who spoke English and was a chef or at least a good home cook
  • contacting, then interviewing, him or her about Gado-Gado and its history, background, regional variations
  • Googling various Gado-Gado recipes and possibly watching You Tube videos on Gado-Gado making, comparing the recipes with each other and with the information and recipe or recipes I’d gotten from the Indonesian source
  • combining what I liked best of all the recipes and narratives with my own sensibilities to develop one or two theoretical working recipes, which would be both traditional but with some twist that made it mine
  • testing these recipes, analyzing what I liked and didn’t like, and getting the opinions of a few other trusted tasters
  • Then, after doing all this, writing the final recipe in ultra-clear, detailed fashion, putting in all the little fine points only actual kitchen experience would have taught me, and which most internet or chef recipes omit, for what would’ve been Bean by Bean’s unique Gado-Gado.

When I turned in the manuscript, I had many recipes marked TK, which is copy-edit speak for “to come.” Some I had done once but wanted to revisit. And some, like Gado-Gado,  I had not yet had time to do. Same thing with the classic Italian beans baked in a glass flask, in an open fire. I do so little open-fire cooking that I felt this was going to be a big deal to do and get right; maybe it would work the first time (after the same level of research as just described), but maybe not.

And given an unconscionable amount of  wait-wait-wait-wait-okay-now-turn-around-and-get-this-back-to-us-in-24-hours stuff from my publisher (one expects some, but on this book, it was way over the top), plus an eleventh hour out-of-the-blue Oh!-We-just-realized-this-is-too-long-cut-it-by-a-fifth-by-Friday, I realized there was not only not going to be enough time, there was not going to be enough space in the book. I said goodbye to Gado-Gado, and to Beans Baked in a Flask, and a few other things.

But, in the end, I said hello to a good book. Nobody, it turns out, sees the missing Gado-Gado and beans-baked-in-a-flask but me, because it wasn’t missing to them, any more than the quotes that arrived too late. They see. and taste,  the 7-Layer Middle Eastern Mountain, which is a great recipe, and easy, with authentic roots but hybridized in a brand-new way by the author (she said modestly). Or the-so-fresh-it-practically-leaps-off-the-plate  Sugar Snap Pea Salad with Orange-Mint Vinaigrette. Or the CD’s Chile Mole, which, oh Lord,  really is so good, sweet and hot and rich and seductive, impossible to stop eating. “… the recipes,” wrote an amazon reviewer, Richard Stringfellow. “I’ve tried 3 thus far. The edamame, bok choy, and broccoli skillet was first up and it’s a lovely winner. Lemon juice and zest offset the sharp flavors of the broccoli and meld very well with the edamame. The Connecticut Kidney Bean casserole with mushrooms, red wine, and tempeh bacon was a hearty main course that took the chill out of the air and filled it with delicious conversation. Finally, the lentil, mushroom, and barley soup is divine with white wine adding a subtle backbone to the dish.”

Preparing dishes from the book "a la carte" to be wheeled into On Point. In the foreground to the left, Julie's Peanut Butter Cup Brownies; beside it, a mini Rose of Persia Cake (made with chickpea flour); peeking out from behind the chips is the 7-Layer Middle Eastern Mountain Dip, and I'm holding the Sugar-Snap Pea & Orange Salad with Orange-Mint Vinaigrette.

And they see, too, the Deep Feast aspect of it…the non-recipe, storytelling, integrate-everything-into-everything approach that is the heart and soul of truly good writing, about food, or the bean, or anything else. I was thrilled by this review in the Denver Post by garden writer Susan Clotfelter; she praises the recipes, the “encyclopedic reach”, the quotes, and “an irrepressible spirit of celebration.” Another amazon reader, Rachel Lamb, was kind enough to describe my writing voice as  “… honest, passionate, life-embracing…” I am almost embarrassed to keep quoting her extravagant  and generous praise, which I only hope I can live up to: “Crescent is the ultimate Girlfriend of all of us who love cooking. SO much more Oprah than Martha… the real deal, she hasn’t been invented by a cable TV mogul (there’s) approachability and empathy, what you see and what you get is trustworthy, real, experienced, improved, shared… In Bean by Bean you learn that you can eat the greatest comforting food on earth AS you save the earth…”

Not a word about the missing gado-gado.

The great New York Times book reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt once wrote, of a marvelous book about salmon fishing in Scotland, The Spawning Run, “I highly recommend this book to anyone with the slightest interest in anything.”

I can promise you that although I am a vegetarian and have not the slightest interest in fishing per se,  Lehman-Haupt was absolutely right.  William Humphreys, The Spawning Run‘s author, wrote the world (love, sex, culture, fish, geography, human beings in their infinite and quirky variety) through salmon fishing, and I remain enriched for having been right there with him by reading his book.  That is what I aspire to do — to write about small things that reference the largest possible life-questions. Though I may never succeed. Though I get driven crazy by things like getting permissions or unreasonable deadlines along the way.

But this aspiration can be met only by forgetting all about it, laying aside the irritants of publication to the best of one’s ability, and, instead, writing, thinking, and falling in love with both the act of writing (again, as always) and the subject.

As I did with beans. And still am. And will be, I think, for the duration. Provisionally definitive is good enough for me.

It had better be, because if we tell the truth, provisional is really all there is. About anything.

A pot of Jackson Wonder beans, a variety not mentioned in Bean by Bean, is presently simmering on my stove with ancho chile, and coriander seed,  diced butternut squash, and sauteed onion. It attests to this.

As goongoo is my witness.

 

Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life

Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.

Date: February 16, 2012
Place: On Point Studio, WBUR, Boston
At the table with:

Tom Ashbrook

Menu

A Very Down-to-Earth Sampling Lunch, on the Air

7-Layer Middle Eastern Mountain, with Stacy's Pita Bread Chips

Sugar Snap Pea Salad with Orange-Mint Vinaigrette

CD's Chile Mole

Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Buttermilk Cornbread

Julie's Peanut Butter Cup Brownies

Rose of Persia Cake

grateful for garlic

We interrupt these slow-moving meditations n the largest, deepest nature of food and eating (Part 1 and Part 2 of Will the Circle Be… with Part 3 still to come) o to bring you… garlic.

In Vermont, right around when we gardeners harvest squashes, dig potatoes, beets and turnips, and watch the forecast to get all the tomatoes in before frost — we’re also planting. Garlic.

This is  simple to do: Break apart heads of garlic, put each clove root end down in the chilly soil, with a few inches between cloves. Cover back up with soil. One could do this in September; I rarely get to it until November. Sometimes the soil’s already bladed with small sharp shards of ice. This year, though we had one early snow before Halloween, I could be doing it now, in December.

Each of these garlic cloves becomes, eventually, a head. But not for awhile. Awhile that seems as far away as summer does right now, though I know, cognitively, that it was just 6 months ago that I last harvested garlic, some of it on a hot July day when I’d just come up from swimming in the pond.

All summer long, I swim in our cold, secluded pond. The garden lies between the pond and the house. Coming up from the pond, I wandered through the garden that particular day and did some impromptu harvesting.

It’s almost as hard to imagine, now, swimming in that ice-glazed pond which will soon be solid white, as it is to believe the garlic’s there, vital, hidden below inches, soon to be feet, of snow. In Vermont, there are many years when we may not see bare ground from December until April.

Look past America’s Thanksgiving iteration, Pilgrims-Indians-turkey, and you’ll find a praise-song lifted throughout the world: the harvest festival. Look past Christmas, the celebration of the baby Jesus’s birthday, to the pre-Christian time of Solstice. No one knows for sure at what time of year Christ was actually born; it was perhaps the original good marketing, on the part oof the early Christians, to slide it in at the time of the year when the earth turned back toward the sun, and dark was once again eaten by light; a time that was already celebrated in many cultures.

Such festivals always reference not only harvest and religious occasions but time itself. Barren winter becomes fecund spring, riotous summer, fall’s abundant multiplicity. Then, again, winter’s little death. The shortest day and longest night of the year, Winter Solstice, marks the return to the longest day and shortest night of the year, Summer Solstice.

Since I’m a cook and gardener, Thanksgiving comes naturally to me, much more so than Christmas or Chanukah. I easily enumerate the once-a-year Thanksgiving dishes I make: sweet potatoes, which I do with brown sugar and Grand Marnier. Mashed potatoes, which I do with celeriac, mascarpone, an unconscionable amount of butter. A triple-layer torte renowned in my circle: bottom layer, homemade green tomato mincemeat; middle layer, pumpkin custard; top layer; a shatteringly crisp glaze of bruleed pecans.

I’ve been making this for at least 35 years, and it never fails to please, to be far greater than the sum of its parts. Although originally mincemeat did have meat, mine’s vegetarian. The book pictured: my own  Passionate Vegetarian.

Too, Thanksgiving falls right around my birthday. About once every 18 years it falls on my birthday. 2010, the year I turned 58, was one of those years. The last time my birthday coincided with Thanksgiving, I turned 40. The next time  will be in 2021. Assuming I am still on this mortal coil, spinning on our green globe — assuming the globe is still here, spinning — I will be  69.

I lived in Arkansas back at the time of my 40th birthday. I was not “just” a writer-cook-workshop leader but also an innkeeper-restaurateur. My co-innkeeper, to whom I was married, was also a hyphenated soul: an artist-writer-historic preservationist. We’d been together since I was 24, he 22. I spent my 40th birthday in our inn’s kitchen; he worked the front. Two seatings, 40 guests apiece, then staff Thanksgiving. Gorgeous food. My feet hurt by day’s end.

Ned and I, in the dining room at The Restaurant at Dairy Hollow. We were standing in front of the fireplace, over which hung a quilt titled “Tea with Aunt Rose”, made by Jan Brown. This was back in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This picture was taken in 2000, only a few months before his death.

Was I happy? I think so, but I may have been too busy to notice. I was grateful, though: our inn and dining room were full of delighted guests; my friends George and Starr were playing hammered dulcimer and fiddle; I loved my husband and he me. Hearing the sounds, seeing the people, inhaling the roasting, simmering redolent layers of the familiar foods, the sage in the apricot-studded dressing, the roasting turkey: the incantatory repetitive power of that, again, in that place, was such that I barely noticed turning 40.

In 2000, five days after my birthday that year, my husband went out for his three-times-a-week bicycle ride. His bicycle and a small pick-up collided. He bicycled far, far away, up and into eternity.

When you get over a loss like this fully is never.

And yet.

I’m no longer in Arkansas, no longer an innkeeper. For the past eight years, I’ve lived in partnership with another hyphenated fellow, David Koff, a filmmaker-social justice activist-writer. I live in Vermont now, as I said. I am here three weeks each month. On that fourth week, I get in the Subaru and drive four hours south and east to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, to spend time with my mother, who is 96.

Charlotte, half awake and half asleep in her green chair, bundled up and floating in time. When I sneak up and kiss her, she laughs and smiles and says something like, "Nice," or "Again," or "Oh!", or (teasingly) "What's that?" When I check on her in the night, same thing. Always a moment when I know we are in the right place at the right time, together, and I am grateful, so grateful. And astonished. And filled with joy.

“Will the circle be unbroken?” asks the old hymn, the one I have referenced before on this blog. Grammatically a question, it’s is usually sung as a statement.

I wonder a lot about whether life is or isn’t unbroken, unbreakable, particularly around this time of year. Mostly, I think it is both.

Those who sit at our Thanksgiving or holiday table this year may or may not be here next year. I am grateful for them now.

Thanksgiving, 2011, left to right: Corinne, Hawa, Charlotte, me.

I am grateful that I loved Ned in the past, too, and even in the present, though he is no longer around to receive that love. Time necessarily dims memory, a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. But I once loved him undimmed and was grateful then, in the past that was once a now.

And I know that though I lost Ned, I did not lose love itself. (Can love itself, not love of someone, be lost? How? Where would it go? I know that this is inexplicable, but I know, too, with the deepest gratitude and amazement, that it is true. )

Conundrum: I could not know and love David (and be known and loved by him) had Ned not died. I am grateful that somehow, I’ve been able to accept this unacceptable fact. Which makes possible an undimmed now. Not a now without troubles, challenges, difficulties (and plenty of them, to be honest) but still undimmed.

David. Me. Vermont. 2009.

Conundrum: a relationship — that of me and my mother, the children’s book writer-editor Charlotte Zolotow —that has always been loving but, equally, difficult, at cross purposes, irritating, and largely unsatisfying  has come to peace in her extreme old age.

You don’t have to go live in a cave in India to “be here now.” Just live long enough. My mother has now mostly lost the past, so she can no longer pick over the scabs of all the real and imagined wrongs done to her by me and everyone else in her life. She has lost the future, so she no longer worries about what will happen, if there will be enough money, will everything be alright, will everyone get along. She resides in the present. She is one person now — not one for family, another for friends, another for professional associates. And that person feels what she feels and shows it, transparently. Most of the time, she is happy. She laughs and makes jokes easily. She teases and allows herself to be hugged and kissed and hugs and kisses back and is just… herself, without the wariness or vigilance that used to dog her (and drive me crazy).

I am amazed that we have lived long enough for this to happen: for us to simply love each other and hang out without any emotional impediment.

I am so grateful for that.

I am grateful, too, for friends, whom, I have heard it said, are life’s reward for family. Longtime friends like Starr and George, newer ones here in Vermont, like Gaelen and Rich, with whom David and I often share Thanksgiving (and for that matter Halloween and sometimes Christmas), at a table full of beautiful food.

Those tables full of food, often much of it I have made and fussed over, some of which I have probably grown (this year I did a turnip gratin, with my own garden’s Vermont gilfeather turnips, that was beyond over the top; everyone, and I mean everyone, went back for seconds and thirds). I am grateful for my gillies. I am grateful for all that sustenance and nourishment, for the sensual pleasure it gives the celebrants, that it can serve, for them, as the medium of benign connection… with each other, with me, with the earth and life itself.

Grateful, but always, simultaneously, with an inward kink: Who can forget that so many on this same earth have no food at all? Who can forget how many threats hang over this same earth, and not wonder how long life can be sustained?

We live with unanswerable questions like these because there is no other way to live. This being so, can we live in gratitude, anyway, no matter what?

I am grateful to my friend Shelley Olson, a composer-artist with whom II have been friends since we were in ninth and tenth grade respectively.

Shelley and I, a couple of years back, on the grounds at Tanglewood, which is just a few miles down the road from the now-defunct Stockbridge School, where the two of us met in 1966.

I am grateful for last Christmas. Which found me with my mother, and my mother without any of her regular and trained caregivers, when I had to take over with only the slightest idea of what I was doing physically. I am grateful that I could and did call Shelley. She and her husband Dilip, at fairly last-minute notice, hopped on the Metro North train from their home in the Bronx, and spent three days with the two of us. Together, we took care of Charlotte, and we did it well, though Shelley had even less knowledge than I did about how to do this (we watched You-Tube videos on how to safely do transfers, from bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to toilet, and so on).

Together, against all odds,  the four of us had a ball. It was one of the more improbable holidays I have experienced. But when my mother, who pretty much has to be feed, spoonful by spoonful, and who drinks only when cups or glasses are held to her lips, sat at the table, she engaged. All four of us had a real conversation. She teased and laughed and conversed — from an altered reality, true, but one anyone with a poetic bent could grasp.

And when it was time for a toast, her crumpled, arthritic hand, her arm, its flesh spotted and its thin tendons visible, rose slowly from her lap, a ghost of celebrations past. Somehow she reached for her wine glass. On her own. Unprompted by us, in any way. Somehow she gripped the stem of the glass. Somehow, tremblingly, she brought it to her own lips, and sipped.

I am grateful for that sight, which will stay with me, I believe, forever.

I am grateful that my mother now has caregivers I adore and trust. I am grateful for the memory of Shelley and Dilip’s extraordinary loyalty, work, and sense of adventure last year, and that, when they come out again this year, we will be able to eat together, giving and caring, certainly, but not caregiving (which, for my mother, who is non-weight-bearing and has a daunting number of medications, eye drops, and inhalers, is complex, and really does require people who not only love her but know what they’re doing).

So. Here I am, by luck, grace, karma, or chance. Here is my mother. Here are her caregivers. Here are my friends. At the feast.

We break. Yet the circle itself will forever be unbroken. That is a mystery which we can resist or accept, but with which we must live. Inherent in love is loss. Inherent in summer is winter. Inherent in endings are beginnings. Life’s terms are impossibly poignant.

And yet.

Tall, pale green spikes will poke up in next spring’s messy, sodden garden. The first thing! There will probably still be snow on parts of the garden, and the mulch out of which those green stalks arise will be soggy and much worse for the wear of the winter it’s come through, blanketing the soil, and what lays hidden beneath it.

But will be, this spring, hidden no more.

I am grateful for garlic.

Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life

Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.

Date: December 12, 2011 (after 2nd Saturday writing group, before 2nd Saturday evening improv)
Place: Our Dining Room Table, Bemis Hill, Westminster West, Vermont
At the table with:

David Koff, Judith Reichsman, Meredith Ruland, Norma Skorstad. Joanna Weiderhorn had to leave early (but with a full basket of supper, and having made a contribution)

Menu

2nd Saturday Lentil-Split Pea Soup,
with Caramelized Onions, Sliced Potatoes, Carrots, Roasted Parsnips, & Just a Bit of Caraway Seed

Green Olives Marinated with Lemon, Olive Oil, & Garlic

Spinach Salad with Slivered Red Cabbage, Lemon-Tahini Dressing

Meredith's Sweet-Hot Winter Squash, Mashed with Apricots & Chile

Joanna's Potato-Sausage Fritatta

Norm's Wife's Mary's Banana-Nut Bread

Part 2: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Maybe. But are there times when it *should* be broken?

We all reside in food’s largest circle, life and death.

But what we eat (and why, and how) also contains countless smaller circles of identity.

What we eat is one way we tell ourselves and others, the story of who we are: our nationality (or that of our grandparents); our race, class, belief systems, religion.

We are this; we are not that. We put this into our mouths; we would never put that into our mouths.

Like anything we know absolutely, our circle, revealed intimately in what we eat, can be cozy, comfortable, loving, secure… and xenophobic. The idea of living outside its borders may be repugnant or incomprehensible.

The ribs, or loins, of pigs, yes;  but never their intestines, feet, or tails. The shoulders and flanks of cows, maybe if slaughtered in a certain ritual manner; maybe the cows’  livers, or tongues, but never their hearts or lungs, and as for pigs — never any part of  a pig. A pig, cow, or sheep, yes; but never a dog, or a grasshopper. The milk of a female cow, the egg of a hen, but never the flesh of either.  Cakes of soybeans that have been deliberately made moldy (tempeh), but never any part of any animal. Pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, yes… but never a moldy soybean.

Thus we define ourselves. Texan. Muslim, Jew. Poor, rich. Asian,  Western. Vegetarian, vegan. On and on, bite by bite.

Like anything we know absolutely, our circle, revealed intimately in what we eat, can be a prison, from which we long to escape. Circles can shame or confine those within them, or inflate their residents with o’er-weening pride and smugness.

Or — if strong and porous — circles can be part of that greatest of human goods, a secure home, from which we can move out from and return to,  engaging thoughtfully and lovingly with the world.

For, as the poet Pablo Neruda wrote, “Everything alive has its two sides.”

But wait. What about those outside a particular circle?

Perhaps they are outsiders by choice and self-definition (we are Muslim, not Jewish or Christian); perhaps outsiders by circumstance (we are impoverished, or forced by war from our farms and way of life; we can no longer afford to eat as you, thoughtless as we once were, do now, inside your circle).

How do outsiders view our circle? Do they watch us, feasting at our enclosed tables, with hunger, longing, curiosity, mystification, disgust, scorn or hatred?

In a globalized world where all airports and malls look more or less alike, and places, cuisines, and people are in danger of losing their distinct individuality, isn’t a strong sense of identity good?

In a human world in which war — essentially over differences, over the rightness of our circle as opposed to the despicablity of theirs — has always played a part, at a time when our shared globe itself, the largest possible circle,  could be annihilated with a keystroke, isn’t a strong sense of identity dangerous?

Is there a way in which such circles could be both unbroken and wholly permeable? Is there a table large enough to accommodate us all?

As always, food, looked at closely, leads us to the largest questions of human life.

In Part 3 of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, we’ll look more at how we might  create permeable circles.

Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life

Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.

Date: June 1, 2011
Place: Crescent and David's home, Westminster West, Vermont
At the table with:

David Koff, 71 (filmmaker, writer, Crescent's partner & fellow gardener)

Crescent Dragonwagon, 58 (writer, teacher, David's partner & fellow-gardener)

Menu

An At-Home, Just Starting to Eat from the Garden, Dinner


Sorrel
& Potato Soup (loosey-goosey recipe follows)

In the Bread Basket:
Popovers

Salad of the First Baby Lettuces, with Chilled Steamed Asparagus & Chive Blossoms,
Lemon-Parsley Vinaigrette


the first spear of asparagus in our garden, photograph by David Koff

 

Rhubarb-Apple Crisp
(rhubarb from the spring garden, & the last of fall's farm-stand Vermont mutsu apples)

__________________________

If  you are unfamiliar with sorrel andf you do have garden space, run, don't walk, to your nearest vegetable garden-oriented nursery and buy some plants. You have a huge treat in store. First of all, sorrel is that rarity --- a perennial vegetable! It's a green that comes up every year, early every spring. If you keep cutting it back (that is, using it!) it'll come back again and again and again, it's determined, arrow-shaped leaves returning until frost.

Sorrel's flavor is distinctive among greens: bright and lemony-tart, it sparkles on the tongue. I nearly always make soup out of it, like this:  run out and pick a colander full, cutting the sorrel with a kitchen shears. Back in the kitchen, put some vegetable stock on to boil, and get a few diced potatoes cooking in the stock. As the potatoes cook, rinse the sorrel, trim off the stems, and chop the leaves. When the potatoes are tender, add the chopped leaves and pop a cover on it. Let cook 2 or 3 minutes, or until the sorrel has wilted and (unfortunately) turned from a nice vibrant exuberant green to a deep army green. Turn off the heat, stick an immersion blender in the pot, and whir until chunky-smooth; a soupy puree with the occasional piece of potato. Salt, freshly cracked pepper, and a lick of heavy cream (just a bit) if you have it. You could just milk or unflavored soy milk if you like, just not too much and don't cook it further after you've add the milk; the tartness of the leaves could curdle it. And there you are.

As to that gorgeous asparagus... here is what Marcel Proust, in Swanns Way, had to say about this sensual vegetable:

My greatest pleasure was asparagus, bathed in ultramarine and pink and whose spears, delicately brushed in mauve and azure, fade imperceptibly to the base of the stalk --- still soiled with the earth of their bed --- through iridescences not on this world. It seemed to me these celestial nuances betrayed the delicious creatures that had amused themselves by becoming vegetables...