And may all your books come true :: {Pepparkakor}

There are a few books from childhood that linger in the back of one's consciousness as one grows.  They can inform anything and everything; sometimes both, and all at once; sometimes without you knowing it, and sometimes creeping up on you later.

One of my favorites, especially at this time of year, is "The Runaway Sleigh Ride" by Astrid Lindgren (which I'm horrified to discover is now out of print, so if you find a copy, POUNCE!).   It's about a little girl with wild curly hair who goes to town to go Christmas shopping, hops on the rails of a strange sleigh, and gets carried off into the woods on a snowy evening and has to find her way home.

Beautifully illustrated -- a requisite in our library -- by Ilon Wikland.

I owe this book lots of things, but here are three of them:

1. My love of Pepparkakor, the crackly-thin Swedish ginger cookies that perfume the house on the evening of their annual bake.  Almost as much as eating them, I love the way the dough holds smudges of white flour top as you cut them into beautiful Christmastime shapes.  There's an illustration in the book with flour-smudged Pepparkakor, and it's perfectly imperfectly beautiful.

2.  The dark winter night pressing against the windows.  This book evokes all the romance, mystery, and coziness of black evenings, and, in the midst of winter, when we all crave a bit more sunlight, the imagery helps me embrace the 4:00 twilight.

3.  This book is what makes "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost my favorite poem.  I like to think of Frost's poem as the grown-up counterpoint to this story.  Almost as if the girl, now a woman, goes back to the woods where she was once lost and listens to the silence of the snow falling.  This time, she might rather stay in the woods a while longer.  There's always been something sublimely sensual about both the children's book and the Frost poem, and I can't recommend highly enough that you set out to read them back to back.  Preferably with freshly-baked Pepparkakor in hand.


The Thankful Thanksgiving Post :: {Brining your Bird}

I had another blog post in the works.  One about how I was paralyzed, and then I realized that it's actually really hard to write about that, even though I love talking about it.  But really, I'm just happy that I'm not paralyzed anymore and haven't been for twelve (twelve!) years.  I'm thankful for the doctors that made it so.

October was a dark, grim, bad month, and I've catapulted myself out if it, with sheer resolve, and a little help from my friends.  And what happens when you put your mind to something?  Lots.  Lots of ideas and creativity flowing out and about like crazy.  I've got worlds of ideas, as it were.

I want to get all the ideas out on paper, but I only know how to draw with my left hand.  Could I be twice as fast if I used both?  Right now I'm working on a poster called "I live here."  I figure, if I was the kind of kid who counted the steps of the Eiffel Tower as I climbed them, it might be of general interest to some kids to know how far away they live from the Great Barrier Reef, the Matterhorn, or the Chocolate Hills.  One of the things from my childhood for which I'm most grateful is that curiosity of other places and cultures was nurtured.  I want to give that curiosity to other kids -- in a poster!

Then suddenly tonight I thought that felt boards should no longer be relegated to the Sunday School room.  I mean, it's like velcro, but doesn't get hairs stuck in it!  It's like a puppet theatre, but you don't have to hold all the puppets in your hand!  Now I have to figure out how to make one.

Then there's the alphabet poster, which I have an idea for, of course, and toys!  Puzzles, architecture blocks, lacing animals...

I'm thankful that I have all these ideas.  I may never get to them all because my body limits me, but I wouldn't trade all the ideas in my head for a pain-free body.  I wouldn't even trade it for a pain-free body and a trip around the world. 

Most of all, as I write tonight, and as I'm about to draw some more, I'm grateful for a little group of friends that I have here in Staunton.  You might recognize them from their enthusiastic thumbs up to everything I post on the running snail & rainbow facebook page.  Thanks, ladies.  I'm lucky to know you all.


My Top Five Cookbooks

I have so many cookbooks, and I love all of them, despite the fact that I almost never follow recipes.  It's a carefully curated collection, most of which have been gifted to me by my mother.  Five years ago (with no baby and an employee discount at a gourmet grocery), the more complicated the recipe, the better.  The more steps and more dishes dirtied, the better.  The more obscure ingredients, the better.  Mind you, I still love cracking into a really involved dish with rare (read: pricey) ingredients, but these days, cooking has become more of a job and less of a hobby.  Money's tighter, having a kid and all, husband needs to be fed before he rushes out the door, and I have other things I should be doing.  I've even embraced leftovers.  My relationship to food has changed.

I enjoy the job of cooking, as long as I stick to my principles.  They are:
1.  We shall not eat the same thing more than two days in a row.
2.  I shall cook food from at least 3 different countries every week.
3.  We shall defy our mingy food budget by eating dazzlingly tasty food.
4.  We shall eat food that both makes us healthy and happy.  Sometimes these two things are mutually exclusive, and that's okay.  In the end, it all balances out.

Armed with my principles, here are the five cookbooks that I constantly reach for, every week, when I'm doing my menu planning/grocery list (which is the only way to stick to a food budget and also not go out of your mind at dinner time every night).  The trick to meal planning, I've found, is to pick one dish you're really excited about cooking, write down all the ingredients you need, and then base your other meals off of what you'll have left after preparing that meal.  For example, you might have half a head of cabbage left, or part of a box of chicken stock.  You get the idea.

1.  How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman: This is the book that should replace The Joy of Cooking in your cookbook library (unless you have one of the vintage versions with possum recipes inside).  My favorite thing about this book is that it's for all ability levels, it's totally straight forward, and most (if not all) recipes have several variations.  I know several people who have learned to cook from this book.  My brother, in fact, is one of these people, and he and his old house-mates used to refer to it as the gospel according to Mark.  It also comes in a vegetarian version, if that's your thing.

2.  The Italian Country Table: Homecooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper:  This book is totally inspired, though it's not hard to guess why, given the subject matter.  One thing I value most in a cookbook is when there are recipes for things that I can't dream up on my own.  This book has that in spades.  Also, the author really teaches you about ingredients, wine pairings, and all that kind of food nerd stuff which I love so much.  This is the book that taught me about putting veggies in with your pasta water when you make pesto.  It also contains the only cake I have ever successfully made: chocolate polenta cake, laced with orange and insanely delicious (and gluten free!).  You didn't think you could eat like this outside of Italy.  You can, and the best part is that you made it yourself.

3.  The Mediterranean Kitchen by Joyce Goldstein:  This is not a completely authentic Mediterranean cookbook, but the author skips around the rim of this flavorful region, touching on all the great dishes, putting her spin (and a healthy glug of olive oil) on them, and offering thoughtful cooking methods and years of expertise as a chef along with them.  This book will really teach you how, say, Turkish flavors differ from Spanish ones, and I've learned, as a result, how to improvise on these different cuisines.  For example, the chicken tagine dish I shared with you is a riff on her lamb tagine with lemon and olives.  Everyone loves Mediterranean food, and this is a great place to start.

4.  World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey:  Just because you love bacon doesn't mean you shouldn't own this cookbook.  We all need to be less meat-centric in our meals, and with the huge, satisfying flavors that Jaffrey offers, you won't miss the meat.  I credit this woman with teaching me how spices really work, how they work together, how much to use, how to grind, store, shop for, etc.  And once you know how spices work, literally worlds unfold in your cooking.  It might seem a little daunting and expensive to collect all those different bottles of powders and seeds, but if you do it slowly over time, and maintain a good stock, you can make most of these dishes with very inexpensive ingredients.  The chapter on beans, for example, is brilliant because each and every recipe tastes so different.  A lot of the recipes are quick to make, too, and they're all healthy, colorful, and delicious.  This cookbook helps me stick to principle number two (see above).

5.  The Food Matters Cookbook by Mark Bittman:  I really didn't want to have two books by the same author on this list, but after waffling around for ages, I've finally admitted to myself (and you) that this is a really important book to have.  As soon as I cracked it open, I was thrilled to see that basically what this book is, is the way I try to cook all the time: economically and healthily.  Instead of having to flip quickly past the giant steak recipe, wiping the drool from the pages, I get chapter after chapter of recipes I can a) afford to make, b) want to make, and c) should be making.  My refried bean recipe offers a suggestion of putting kale in your burrito.  That's from this book.  I think he actually might be able to impact how America is eating, and that would be a wonderful thing.

Honorable Mention: Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child:  I own this book, and there are some things that only Julia should teach you how to do.  But let's face it, we shouldn't be eating this way all week, as much as we might want to.  Kudos, Mrs. Child, for all you've done for cooks across America, and here's to many artery-clogging generations to come!


The Frog Prince :: {Red Pasta Sauce}

I was the girl in high school who painstakingly crafted mix tapes, who got to school at 7am for string ensemble practice, and who never didn't have music playing in the background.  Favorites of mine in high school included pretty much anything from the 70's, thanks to the influence of the ganja-smoking art room crowd with whom I shared all of my time (unless I was in the music room).  We all ate lunch in the art room, too, using the batik wax-melting device to cook grilled cheese sandwiches.  Our art teacher knew we needed somewhere to be, and she didn't mind, as long as we cleaned the burnt on cheese off of the art supplies.  She let us play music, too.  We all took turns bringing our favorite albums.  As my parents' luck would have it, I was friends with the non-ganja-smoking minority group of the art room crew.  The most trouble we really got up to was rearranging people's lawn ornaments or planting cans of Campbell's Chunky Beef Soup around the town when it was below freezing, so the soup would expand and explode out of the can.  Chunky Beef was chosen because it looked the grossest, of course.  So we clean cut art-room folks listened the hazy 70's music and totally thought we had all been born in the wrong decade, man.  But we also listened to swing music and crooner stuff.  The nineties were actually a great time for that, and we wore wingtip shoes, took swing dancing lessons, and sang Frank Sinatra songs in the car as we cruised around with our cans of soup.

These great standard songs still have their appeal for me.  When I'm not sure what I'm in the mood to listen to, usually a little Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin does the trick.  So as it happened, as I was finishing "Fill My Heart with Song", I was listening some crooner playlist or other, and "You're Nobody til Somebody Loves You" came on.  The rest is history:

"You're Nobody 'til Somebody Love You" -- especially if you're the frog prince.


Do-over :: {chili oil and cure-all carrot salad}

The best thing I did in the entire month of October was stuff a bottle full of habanero peppers and smashed garlic cloves, cover it all with olive oil, and let it sit on the window sill.

The rest of the month was a mixture of saddening, angering, demoralizing, painful occurrences.  We had (in no particular order) a death in the family, a job loss, an ambiguous medical diagnosis...and then at the very end of the month it snowed.  In Virginia.  Maybe it was just a weird month.  I suppose there were bright spots, too.  I mean, I know there were, but I also had four colds over the course of the month, so the chances of something lovely happening at the same time as I had a cold was high, if not guaranteed.  I want a do-over.

I think it was the aforementioned chili oil that finally cured me of my colds, though.  After a month of wallowing and getting nothing done and feeling stuffy and achy and out of control, I picked myself up, went in the kitchen, grated myself two gigantic carrots, doused them with the chili oil, a clove of crushed garlic, the juice of a lemon, and some chopped fresh ginger and plenty of salt.  I ate my carrots, cleaned all the dishes, swept the kitchen floor, and looked forward to a new month.


More introductions

After a bit of silence on my end, I've got another creation for my Etsy store

I had the idea for this piece ages -- well, months -- ago, around the time I decided to open an online store and take matters into my own hands.  For a brief time (though the brevity of time paled to the intensity of it), I couldn't fall asleep at night because of all the ideas that would flash through my brain.  I couldn't start working on the ideas, though, because my head would be clouded with the next idea, and the next, and the next.  I wrote them all down; some in a book by my bed, some on my computer, some on scrap sheets that litter the refrigerator.  Eventually I had to stop myself from dreaming and start whittling away at the list.  That's always the hard part for me.  The ideas rush in like a geyser, but sitting down and making them exist on paper is like milking a rock.  I guess part of that is because I'm afraid I can't translate what's in my head onto the paper.  Sometimes it's because parts of the project still haven't been imagined.  Either way, when I told my husband that I had a pretty good idea about what I wanted "Fill my heart with song" to look like, he stared at me in that maddening way he does when I know he's about to say something I a) already know but have been trying to forget, or b) don't know, but should, and said, "Well then why haven't you drawn it yet?"  (This instance, I'm ashamed to say, falls under option b).  I scuffled off, muttering wordless sounds of bruised pride and humiliation, and set to work.  

This is, in fact, what a song-filled heart looks like (it also comes in black & white).  Get it here.

As luck would have it, this project flew out of my fingers with little to no sweat or tears.  And for once I was able to shut off the graphic design side of my brain that wants me to trouble shoot how this creature gets in and out of his suit.  I'm actually delighted that I have no idea what kind of creature this is, let alone how it gets its suit on and off.  Is it a flightless fairy?  Who knows -- these things I cannot put words to, and that's what makes them have a life of their own. 


Adventures in an ill-equipped kitchen :: {mashed cauliflower}

Just because we're artists doesn't mean we're starving, though the way several of our kitchens have been outfitted, you'd think that were meant to be the case.  When my husband and I were dating, he lived in actor housing.  This meant he got a room with a bed (which sometimes included another person and a bed for them, and whatever strange habits they might have had), and all the actors shared a bathroom and kitchen.  Living in actor housing meant not having a lease, so that when the acting contract ended he could pack up and move at a day's notice.  One time that even happened;  one day he was here, and the next day he was in Washington DC.  Anyway, everything fit into his tiny car: clothes, big Shakespeare books, and a computer.  I'm sure had I been living the nomadic actor lifestyle (which I promptly swore to never do as soon as I met my husband) there would have been about five kitchen appliances that I would take with me, too, even if it meant I could only take one pair of pants.  But alas and alack, his affections did not that way turn, so I had to make do with the "pots," "knives," and "cutting boards" that the various theatres provided.  I'm telling you, these things must have either come from a giant doll house or from the props department, because they were definitely not designed for cooking use.  When he lived in DC, his kitchen was even worse -- a galley wide enough for a small French woman -- maybe.  I really didn't step foot in there.  I couldn't handle it.  So I would travel the three hours on the Greyhound bus to see him every weekend with trays of lasagna on my lap.

Another horrible kitchen was in our house-share in England.  We had been married a year and moved over there with clothes, big Shakespeare books, and computers.  I would have brought my Top Five kitchen things, but we were promised that the kitchen was "well-equipped."  The only thing this kitchen was, in fact, equipped for, was burning your dinner on the thinner-than-aluminum-foil pans, opening wine bottles (which helped to wash down your burnt dinner), and making tea (those supplies did, in fairness, get put to a lot of use).  One time I was making Thanksgiving dinner for all of our non-American housemates and some American friends, and I was cutting the bread to make stuffing with an awful little bendy serrated knife, and the knife slipped (since it wasn't sharp enough to grip even soggy-crusted British bread) and almost hacked a good quarter inch off of my finger.  I bled all over the place, including the bread, jumped around the kitchen in a fit, and called my husband and made him leave class early.  He arrived at home minutes later, to find me sitting in the bloody bread cube-scattered kitchen with my arm above my head and my hand wrapped in some kind of inappropriate bandage -- like a pot holder or something -- with a very injured expression on my face.  We went out the next day and bought better knives.

So here is my list of the top five kitchen things you should have at your disposal in any kitchen, whether you're going off to grad school in a foreign land or renting a house by the sea for a week's vacation.  These are most definitely listed in order of most crucial to least:

1.  A heavy flat-bottomed, straight-sided stainless steel skillet with two metal handles (so you can put it in the oven) and a lid.  You might be surprised that a sharp knife is not at the top of this list.  I thought long and hard about this, and I really think the pan wins out.  Thin, wobbly, bad pans have the power to ruin whatever you put in them, making it burn, stick, and cook unevenly.  A bad knife, wielded with great care, will still get the job done, just not as quickly, and with not nearly the amount of pleasure.

2.  A really sharp 8-inch chef's knife.  Second only to a good pan is a good knife.  I think the 8-inch chef's knife is the most versatile.  You can hack through a chicken, chop herbs, make quick work of dicing up onions and garlic, you can use the side of it like a mallet to pound meat cutlets..  Some people are really partial to Santoku knives, which are really the Asian incarnation of the chef's knife.  I like to use my Santoku knife when I make fake Asian food, because it makes me feel ironically authentic.

3.  A good, thick, heavy cutting board made from wood or bamboo.  I don't believe in plastic cutting boards.  Things slide around on them, they slide around on the counter, and after a while little bits of plastic start getting hacked up by the chopping and they get in your food.  "But what about all the Scary Bacteria?" you ask.  It's actually been proven that wood is a cleaner cutting surface; somehow wood ejects bacteria from its surface.  Obviously I do a nice hot soapy wash after raw meats, but I've never had a problem with The Germs.

4.  An immersion blender.  It's portable, and you can make food different consistencies with it!!  Of course, the ideal is to have a food processor, blender, and Kitchen Aid mixer, but I've been making do with an immersion blender for years.  Use it to make aioli, pesto, pureed soups, smoothies, milkshakes, baby food, etc.

5.  A wooden spoon.  It's the first utensil humans ever made, and for good reason.  Also, they feel nice to hold in your hand, and they're safe for your baby to chew on.


Hello, world

I don't have a story tonight, or a recipe, or any of the usual things.  What I do have, for the first time ever, is an Etsy store.  I could go on for pages acknowledging people, thanking them for their patience and inspiration, but I'd rather just show you what I've got to offer so far.  The photos were taken by my amazing friend and cohort Lindsey Walters of Miscellaneous Media Photography.  Thanks to everyone past, present, and future who supports me doing this.  You know who you are.

And now.....Weather Mouse!


Firsts :: {lemony spinach salad}

Tonight my daughter Heidi figured out that she could chew raw leafy greens.  She's been reaching for my salad for months now, but before she would just suck the dressing off, or sometimes almost choke on a leaf that she tried to swallow whole.  Tonight she tried again.  She sucked off a few leaves (thoughtfully draping the spent leaves back in my bowl), and then she realized that it tasted even better if she chewed the leaf up.  She sat in my lap, feeding me a leaf and then herself a leaf, wiping lemon juice and olive oil all over everything and both of us, and laughing at the sourness of my hastily made, poorly balanced salad dressing.  Perhaps "first salad" is not an achievement many parents consider a milestone, but we all have different values.

I also couldn't wait to get a crayon in her little hands.  I offered them to her months prematurely, just because I didn't want her to miss a moment of drawing pleasure just because we didn't have the right materials at hand (and by "at hand," I mean quite literally placed on the play table next to whatever else she was doing).  We spent a few months practicing not eating the crayons, then we practiced gripping them and applying pressure to the paper.  (We're still practicing staying on the paper and off the furniture, books, and clothes.).  Once she knew what the crayons were for, she caught on pretty quickly.  Then on July 21, 2011, she did something amazing.  She drew a dog.

 "Do[g]" | Crayon on Mama's leftover newsprint from figure drawing class. |  7.21.11

My first titled drawing, as you might already be aware, was "running snail and rainbow" (I was a tad linguistically precocious).  When I couldn't decide what to name my Etsy store, and I was over-thinking it horribly, and trying in vain to be clever and catchy, I remembered with what authority Heidi had told me that what she had just drawn was a dog.  "Do[g]."  Period.  My mother reports that I said "running snail and rainbow" with the same sort of authority, and since I can't imagine that I've ever had that much confidence about anything since then, I thought the name was perfect.

Heidi's first "Dog" hangs framed on the wall, and several other dogs, cats, horses, balls, and "softs" are filling up the rest of my abandoned newsprint pad left over from college.  This weekend I'm opening running snail & rainbow, and it'll be another big first for me.


Blaming your tools :: {bearnaise sauce}

Whoever said that thing about a good craftsman never blaming their tools can't have been a craftsman.  Or if he was, he had good tools.  Anyway, I've found that sometimes one does blame one's tools, and that's perfectly respectable.

My culinary Everest for years was Bearnaise sauce, that sublime invention only the French could have conceived as a vehicle to increase your butter consumption -- something designed to make steak, which really needs nothing but salt, seem incomplete without it.  Made properly it's velvety, tangy, delicately scented, at once subtle and commanding.  A failed attempt is grainy, sharp, and nothing short of disgusting.

Perfect Bearnaise, every time, at Harry's Grill Bar.  I took this picture, and then I got to lick out the bowl.
Armed with my Christmas gift that year, a sauce cookbook book of epic proportions and heft, I felt confident that I could whip out a perfect Bearnaise, worthy of the most charming bistro in the world.  I was making this Bearnaise sauce to accompany our New Year's Eve dinner of Fondue Bourguignonne.  My brother was bringing his new girlfriend (future wife, but none of us knew that)...stakes were high, but I wasn't phased.  I imagined us all gaily laughing as we swept our perfectly sizzled bits of fillet through a perfect mound of sauce, smacking our lips, and exclaiming how perfect it all was.

You can see where this is going.  The tool I'm going to blame this time was the stove.  It was a gas stove, but the low setting was really only low if you compared it to the high setting.  It was a relative low.  The sauce broke because the heat was too high and the eggs essentially scrambled.  All this happened moments after my brother's girlfriend arrived.  I was whisking the sauce like a maniac, peering into the pot expectantly, and then suddenly I saw it beginning to seize up.  I let out a sustained, high pitched yelp, whisked even more frantically, turned from pink-faced to red, and, still yelping, flung the whisk into the ruined sauce and fled from the kitchen, through the length of the house, to the front door where I collapsed in a pile (still yelping), wrapped myself in the curtain, and summoned forth a howl with the small amount of air remaining in my lungs, "It broooooooooooooke."

My mother, who had been engaging in beautifying rituals upstairs, heard my heartbroken cries and scrambled to my rescue.  "It's all ruined.  I'm not eating.  The whole dinner is ruined," I blazoned from inside the curtain.  Somehow, like only a mother can, she managed to fix the situation, the sauce, and apparently even the poor girlfriend's opinion of our crazy family.

Fast forward a decade and several dozen more failed attempts at Bearnaise sauce and I found myself waitressing at an upscale steakhouse restaurant in England.  It was there that I learned the many secrets of a perfect, unbreakable Bearnaise, even when your tools are to blame.


Listening to other people, and listening to yourself :: {Moroccan chicken}

Sometimes it takes forever before you hear what people have been saying to you all along.

Every year at college, we had a visiting artist.  Their classes were always a bit different from the normal studio art classes.  While the other professors really pushed and prodded you, the visiting artists took a bit more of a nurturing, supportive approach.  One of these visiting artist seminars really went back to the basics.  We didn't draw nude figures, we drew cones and spheres and cubes -- hardly poetic subject matters.  At the end of the semester, we met one on one with the artist-teacher and she evaluated our work with us.  I laid out my portfolio of cones, spheres, and cubes on the cement floor and we stood over them.  After a long time, my teacher sat down in a chair and said, "Phoebe, there's a word.  Vocare.  It's Latin, and it means calling.  I think this is your calling.  I haven't said this to anyone for a very long time."  I stared blankly at my shapes, and didn't listen.

I didn't listen lots of other times, too, when my painting professor would beg me not to audition for the theatre productions because he said it split my creative focus and that my work suffered greatly for it.  I didn't listen when my drawing professor told us to do gestural drawings of the whole space, and I zeroed in on the model's face and started drawing her features.  "Phoebe," she said, "we all know you can do the fancy stuff.  Don't flatter yourself."

I didn't listen when my husband told me I should sketch something everyday.  "I don't sketch.  I'm not a sketcher.  That's what makes me not an artist," I said.  I've done lots of not listening.

Then it all caught up with me, and I heard everything at once.  Sketch, do this, don't split your focus...  Because, in fact, people have been trying to buy stuff that I've drawn for a very long time.  So now I'm going to make that possible.  Am I scared that everyone has changed their mind and doesn't want any of this after all?  Of course I am.  But that's not for me to decide.  I'm a matter of days away from opening my Etsy shop, and of putting my work out into the world.  It's going to be a small offering at first, but I'm actually proud of every single piece there.  That's a first for me, and I guess it happened because I finally listened to what everyone said, and that meant listening to myself, too.

One such thing that people have tried to buy.  Soon to be available for purchase at Feast!


The Leaves that are Yellow :: {Frontier Pie}

The Very Strange Tree
We have a very strange tree in our back yard.  I think it's a baby tree because it has a slender trunk, but the leaves are the size of umbrellas.  I've tried to find out what kind of tree it is, but the closest picture I can find is in a Dr. Seuss book.  The leaves are already starting to turn yellowish brown and wrinkle up a bit -- a sure reminder that it is, indeed, September, if only the beginning. 

We had a mulberry tree in our backyard when I was growing up.  It was a good for nothing tree, which killed the grass with its stinking, fermenting berries in the summer.  The most dreaded summer chore (second only to deadheading my mother's sticky petunias) was sweeping, nay, smearing, the fallen berries from the center garden path.  You had to hold your breath while you did it, to save yourself from the smell of rotten fruit.  To further recommend this tree, it lost its leaves all at once.  They didn't even change color first.  One day they were on the tree, green and waxy looking, and then next morning they'd all be yellow and on the grass.  My brother and I would be sent out that very day to rake them.  They weren't lovely and crisp like autumn leaves should be, nor did they rake into a big puffy pile of wonderful colors.  They stuck to the rake because they were still moist, they smelled like old socks, and they sat in a great heavy heap on the grass.

My autumn fun not to be stymied by this tree, however, I always jumped into the soggy pile and happily flopped about.  Every year, my brother went lumbering off to tinker with something more interesting, leaving me to imagine the leaves into confetti, a cloud, a dune.

The last fall I ever jumped in the leaves was the year my brother came lumbering back, apparently having found nothing more important to do other than shatter my illusions.  "Phe," he reported with a convincing amount of conjured wisdom and self importance, "There are probably slugs stuck to the bottom of those leaves.  They'll go down your shirt, and then you'll have slugs down your shirt."  And he went lumbering off, smiling, I'm sure, as I catapulted myself out of the leaves and started shimmying and squealing.

This fall both of us are doing, more or less, the things we did then.  My brother is starting a weekly radio talk show on NPR where he'll relay facts to the listeners about where they live and what they might want to do about it.  It probably won't have much to do with slugs, but knowing my brother and his limitless capacity to find interesting nuggets of life everywhere you least expect it, slugs could very well be featured.  As for me, I'm still imagining things, but this time I'm going to do something about it.  See?  Not much has changed.


The rosy mist of memory :: {chick pea curry}

Yesterday the weather was Roman.  The sunlight seemed more golden, the air had a whisper of dust in it, and the the crushed basil leaves in my hand didn't hurt either.  I love it when the conditions are just right so that if I shut my eyes, I can go somewhere else.  Not that I didn't want to be in my garden with the basil leaves, but that I might rather be in Rome.  The layers of history, the vivid people, the fabulous food.  In Rome, poppies grow out of rocks.  It's an impossibly magnificent place.

We took Ducky with us on our trip and he posed in front of all the big attractions.  We hope that someday Heidi will be amused by these pictures we took on her behalf.

It's nice to know that I've now reached an age where I can be in a Less Than Ideal Situation and be absolutely certain that this is something I'm going to laugh about later.  To be certain about this almost allows me to laugh about the Situation in the moment.  Almost.  The particular situation I'm thinking of now is the unfortunate hotel I booked for our stay in Rome during our we-lived-in-England-for-two-years-and-haven't-yet-been-to-the-main-continent-and-will-go-even-though-we-are-expecting-a-baby-and-it's-financially-foolish trip.  All I saw, after hours of scouring the internet for hotels, was "Vittorio Emanuele," and thinking it was that big monument with the horses on top (that you seem to always end up at no matter where you go), and thinking that this was just where we wanted to be, I booked it.  Well.  It turns out that there's also a very dodgy street, several miles away from the monument, that shares the same name.  This Vittorio fellow must have been pretty influential.

We walked for those several miles until we got there.  I was pregnant and my husband was carrying all the bags (and would have been carrying me, too, if I'd had my way).  All we'd eaten was some salami and bread on the train from Switzerland.  Tired, achy, famished, hot, and (not least of all) confused, we arrived at our hotel.  To call it a hotel is an overstatement, but they were calling it a hotel, so for the sake of consistency, I'll call it one, too.  The graffiti smeared doors had been broken into several times, it seemed, as evidenced by the big chunks that were missing and the business end of several locks that were dangling down.  Somehow the door was, in fact, locked, so we selected what we thought might be our hotel from the very large list of indiscernible door bell buttons.  The door unlatched and we entered a large entry way that smelled of minerals and worse.  Ahead of us was the kind of elevator that should have someone there to help you operate it, with cages and unmarked buttons.

Somehow we ended up where we were supposed to be, even though the alarmed look on the concierge's face, followed by a lot of bellowing in a foreign language (not of a remotely Italian persuasion), might have made one think otherwise.  We waited in the "lobby" for what seemed like ages, and what was in fact almost an hour, until the flushed concierge re-emerged and showed us to our room.

Now, in Europe, you book rooms by the number of people, so, naturally, I had booked a double room.  What we ended up in was a room with a double bed in it.  I'm not sure how they managed to fit a double bed in a room which had clearly not been intended for one, because as we opened the door, we nearly fell on top of it.  On the other side of the bed was a wall with a window (through which we could see laundry that had no business hanging on a clothesline) and under the window was a Hole.  This place wasn't a hole-in-the-wall.  It had a hole in the wall.  This was a Less Than Ideal Situation.

Nonetheless, we stayed there.  There were nightly gripes concerning the quality of the place, or lack thereof, and we felt totally robbed.  We both knew that we would look back on this, one day, and have a great laugh about it, but we certainly weren't laughing then, as we gripped our passports in our sleep.


Sometimes we over-think things :: {lentil salad}

A one-minute sketch of a fleeting moment.

Some people go to spas to have their bodies wrapped in seaweed.  I went into the backyard, put my toddler in a tub of water and propped my feet up on the side of it.  Now, the Sometimes Goal of mothering is to relax with a cup of tea and know that you won't have to spring into action, leaving your tea to get cold.  Usually, a tub of water does the trick, but to be doubly sure that Heidi was as enraptured with this activity as always, I needed to show her that there were as yet undiscovered properties of water.  What we needed to learn about water today (aside from the well-known fact that water makes an excellent cup of hot tea) was that things can float on it.  I scattered a handful of sage leaves from the nearby bush into the water.  The silver-green boats bobbed across the surface.  She plucked one from the surface with careful pudgy fingers and draped it across my foot.  One by one, the leaves made their way from the water to my legs and then back again.  I watched her play with sage in water until the slice of light that was bathing us began to shrink and it was time to fix dinner.

Sometimes we over-think things.  Watching our childrens' rapidly expanding minds make sense of the world around them is dizzying and wondrous and gives us the daunting task of guiding, nurturing, and stimulating.  We spend too much time worrying that we're stunting the growing brains in our charge, and forget that everything we need is right around us.  All we need to do remember to look at everything with fresh eyes like they do; float a leaf in water, put a dried bean in an empty salt shaker, put a tea cozy on your head, have your legs wrapped in sage leaves.


Things left undone :: {refried beans}

One of my sincerest regrets is not finishing my creative non-fiction class in college.  Regret is probably the wrong word, since withdrawing from that semester was not a bad decision, but a necessary one, as I was unfocused and, to boot, had tonsils which had become veritable anthills in my throat, complete with a civilization of hardy bacteria.  I had to get those cut out, and also had to find focus (which I eventually did, through a year away from school spent interning at a great graphic design firm and learning to tango dance).  Life went on, I went back to school, studied art, got married, lived in England, had a baby.  I never got to finish my story about Clarence, though, and I think about it all the time.  Really, quite often.

The assignment was to interview a more-or-less stranger, and then write about whatever we talked about.  As a Very Shy Person, this was a horrifying task.  I finally settled on Clarence, our neighbor across the street, who was an easy target because I had seen him around, and, more importantly, he was even shyer than I was.  I had my mother set up the interview.  Clarence was a real life Carson McCuller's character: a bit trampled by life (and wife, I daresay), with hobbies that existed out of his generation and vocation, and with a smile like a pleased little boy.  We especially saw the smile when he would offer us whole Shoo-fly pies, convinced that somewhere along the line we had told him that it was our favorite.  (It wasn't.).

Clarence and I lived on the street between Apple Tree Alley and Pear Tree Alley. (image from google maps).

We sat at his tidy kitchen table, me with a notepad, and both of us with a sugary drink.  The conversation was halting at first, me unsure of what I should ask, and he baffled at the idea that he would have anything interesting to say.  I don't remember asking him for his life story, but he gave it to me, because it was probably the first time in his life that he guessed someone might be asking.  He told tales of cooking on the back of a truck during World War II, how he started knitting, his special technique for apple pies.  He went on and on, occasionally getting up to tend to the canary in the window or to bring his wife a plate of food.  Clarence never knew that he was a great character, really his own person.  He just gently went through life, taking care of his rotund and infirm wife, and one day quietly passed away.  I wish my notes from his narrative hadn't been lost and that I could share his apple pie recipe with you.  It wasn't the best apple pie, but Clarence had spent years perfecting it, and that was Something.


Yearning :: {green pesto}

A typical summer evening in 1984.
When you've lived in more than one place, you always miss the other place when you're not there.  And when you're there, you miss the first place.  I can't think of a time where I've felt such a distinct emptiness, a hole that I know can be filled by being in that first place. That picture up there is where I spent my first six years, playing amongst the lines of drying laundry in the sheep pasture, cooling off in cow fountains, eating purple clover in the meadow, going with my brother to collect the evening milk in our pale green bucket with the red wooden handle, our mother skimming the cream off the top.  The cream tasted like the wildflowers I would gather by the armful everyday. 

One summer evening, when the hills made undulating shadows fall across the meadow, I followed our cat into the apple orchard.  My back toward the house and my face toward the darkening forest, I imagined myself an orphan, miles from home, following this cat as my guide.  I trudged up the hill behind him, the breeze quickening, and a tingle of danger swirling around my insides. The cat leapt up a tree and I huddled at its base, ready to sleep there. I started wondering how cold it would get in the night, if the cat would leave without me, if....and just when my imagination started to get the best of me, I turned around to the winking lights of the farmhouse, and saw the outline of my brother against the lights, swinging the milk bucket in his hands.  "Phe," he shouted, breaking my reverie, "Mama says it's time for dinner."

I know the yearning has gotten especially poignant because I want to share this with my daughter.  I want her to see cows and sheep and wide open spaces everyday.  I want her swimming pool to be a fountain in a pasture, and I want to feed her cream that tastes like flowers.


Page Two

I've always had a problem starting, let alone filling, a beautiful sketchbook, so I bought an ugly one and had a lot more success with it.  I even managed to not tear out a single page.  Since the book was homely and really not that special, I started writing inane things down, things I had to do, to not forget.  Bad ideas, and some good ones, too.  The Homely Book went everywhere with me.  It took me a year to fill it, and now when I page through it, between the garlic sketch and the pretty coffee stain, lovely remembrances of everyday life crop up.  But the book itself was ugly.  I took issue with this.

The next sketchbook I bought was beautiful.  I spent about 45 minutes choosing it, waffling between the utilitarian ones with scratchy paper that I knew I could fill and the exquisite one that I wanted to fill.  I brought the New Book home and felt its quiet pages.  I fiddled with the ribbon that tied it shut and wondered if I had made a mistake.

What I wanted to see when I opened up the New Book was this:

Three Studies of a Dancer by Edgar Degas

so I left that first page blank.  A blank page doesn't aspire to be a Degas sketch, afterall.  Before I knew it, I was pages deep in food label musings, lists of imaginary places, sketches of my dream chair, you name it.

Sometimes a grocery list even sneaks in, because, you know, you should never work on an empty stomach.

The First Post

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