November 22, 2010

Acknowledging the Corn


It came from someone’s pack but nobody admitted to it.  Probably because it was immediately heckled.  ‘Just Corn’. It was exactly that:  just corn. The pale yellow kernels were dehydrated- a dried out and disappointing snack. Corn: dumbed down.  Each bite offering small benefit. Plain corn, whose only virtue is butter- its only real reason for consumption- is only a little more nourishing than Just Corn.

From that day when the unopened bag appeared after we pooled together our snacks at our first campsite in Black Canyon Gunnison National Forest, it became the constant offering and constant joke.  Nobody is hungry enough on the first few days of a backpacking trip to try such a snack.  The cheese, fresh fruit, and beef jerky are too much in abundance at that point.  At the end of those first long days on the trail, when the blisters were just beginning and my clothes were still clean, I still had my good snacks and was not willing to waste time with something like Just Corn. And neither, it seemed, was anyone else.

The hardest day, a 3,000’ day of ascent came and went with no takers at camp that night. Summit day also came and went.  Even tired calves and feet, sore backs under heavy packs did not demand that snack. The trip continued down from treeline and high alpine flowers and that plastic bag was doled from pack to pack, carried for days through Colorado’s Ponderosa, Aspen, and Lodgepole, shouldered awhile then shrugged off for another person to carry Just Corn, and it became the joke- whoever was last in to camp that day had to tote it the next day. The days passed and when snacks like peanut butter and crackers and other less delectables were all that were left, the corn remained intact in its wrapping, always out at dinner time, never consumed.

Until one day.

Down low, unlucky with dry flies and wet, one fisherman tried, with hopes unabated, caddis, grasshopper, and wooly bugger. And, finally desperate, tied on one piece and caught a crowning brook trout with Just Corn. Returning to camp, that fisherman forced a certain acknowledgment by fish and fool- failure at having been outwitted by just corn. 

October 25, 2010

A Balance of Color





The display of avocados in the grocery store was centered in the produce section near the front of the store and was tempting.
  This was probably odd given that the avocados were a green reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s light saber- not the dark, greenish brown of this delicious vegetable when ripe. Despite any lack of ripeness, the avocado always is appealing to me; it doesn’t take much to turn my thoughts to guacamole, avocado in a green salad, avocado scooped out of its shell with a spoon or avocado, havarti, tomato and cucumber on a baguette.  But what drew my attention to the avocado display were the items surrounding it.  They included: tortilla chips, spices and a miniature potato masher, which was obviously designed specifically to fit a smaller bowl that you might use to mash avocado.  The display was one of inspiration. ‘Look at this beautiful product! And here’s what you can do with it!’ And thoughtful marketing, of course. ‘Now that you are inspired, why don’t you buy these other things?’

Presentation is so important in the world of food. And presentation in this world can have several purposes, like the dual purposes of the avocado display- part marketing and part inspiration.  My first lesson in presentation was when I was waiting tables the summer out of high school.  The restaurant where I worked was a British pub that was in the process of transforming from what you might think of when you think of traditional British pub food to a more refined cuisine. With the hiring of a new chef, the entrees took on a more celebratory appeal as they were artfully constructed and presented food in such a way that made the recipient of the plate feel grand and fancy in not only ordering such a dinner but also in having the occasion to deconstruct it. I had never seen food prepared this way and looked forward to the nightly pre-dinner tastings for the staff.  This was obviously to educate us in what we were selling but I was never much of a waitress anyway and for me the tastings were more enjoyable than prep for sales. They made me feel like I was part of some opulent restaurant that really shared the essence of their food with their staff- white plates with portions centered in the middle, the food built up instead of out with garnishes and exact placements while the chef lectured on sauces, meats and how the dish was prepared. I loved it.

Part of the classic British fare was an emphasis on a massive selection of spirits- a variety of at least thirty beers on tap, 150 more in the bottle and a vast wine and scotch selection as well as other liquors.  Being fresh out of high school and having a limited experience of drink, I dreaded any questions or complicated liquor orders any diner might pose.  I also regarded the prospect of actually selling a bottle of wine as a double edged sword- it would boost the total bill therefore boosting my tip but I would have to formally present this bottle of wine to the table.

This fear of wine presentation developed late one night when there were two tables left in the restaurant and I was the only server left on duty.  One table was composed of the owner and a fellow restaurateur from town, a man who had a reputation for ogling young girls; the dread of serving the owner was now doubled by this man’s presence.  The other table ordered a bottle of wine that I dutifully brought and offered in the way that I remembered being instructed. I soon found out this was only partly in the way I had been instructed. At the other table, the owner also ordered a bottle of wine and when I came back with it, he quickly began a lesson on how to properly present wine, pointing out what I had done wrong at the previous table- present the bottle with it resting on the white napkin, label out and wait patiently while they approve of the label and taste, do not set the bottle on the table until you are finished opening and serving, set the cork near the person who ordered the wine, he went on as I stood patiently listening while trying to ignore the low gaze of his friend.  I was mortified by the experience. First, I like to be right, also that it is embarrassing to be corrected while ‘on stage’, that it is embarrassing to be corrected while ‘on stage’ and by your boss, that it is embarrassing to be corrected while ‘on stage’, by your boss and in front of a totally inappropriate, lecherous old man. After that I dreaded presenting wine but despite this, I thought more about the experience of food- that food was not simply about eating.  There is an art to food that can make it into an event. I have a hard time thinking of a better way to spend an evening than moving through a meal that from front to back is orchestrated as a beautiful event in which you and your friends or family are the main players. Presentation helps make that happen.

Since then I have paid more attention to the way I present what I am serving or even just eating on my own.  I recall Mrs. Fellows, my home economics teacher from middle school, counseling us that your dinner plate should have a balance of color. This was probably a lesson having to do in part with nutrition but also demanded some attention to detail. When I find myself looking at a dinner plate composed of yellows, whites and beiges, I think of her. One of my favorite breakfasts- shiny maple syrup drizzled over a contrasting angular and chunky cut peaches mixed with circular blueberries laid over plain cream top white yogurt- has something to do with how delicious the food is but also in how beautiful the bowl looks. A little bit of beauty makes the experience so much better. Whether the purpose is marketing, inspiration or celebration of eating, Mrs. Fellows, the designer of the avocado display and the owner of the pub are all right.  Food, as anything in life, is better when you slow down and add a little dash of well-intended beauty and thought.

September 28, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to Market....


Frank, the head of the meat department at Healthy Living, nonchalantly pushed his way through the glass door with half a pig slung over his shoulder.  I don’t mean part of some pig. I mean half of an entire pig.  Deborah, the instructor of the class I’m taking, looked up but continued talking about the upcoming assignment as if this were routine.

My attention was lost to her, however, and I gazed at the kitchen area where Frank had set the pig down on the counter.  The counter was about ten feet long with a stovetop at one end and the pig, stretched out from one front hoof to one hind hoof, took up about six feet of it, dwarfing the three by three red plastic cutting board it rested on.  Its skin, which looked exactly like what it should look like- pale pink pig’s skin- lay cold and tight against the marble countertop.  Frank’s assistant wheeled in a cart behind him and set down a knife and a hack saw next to the pig and then left the room.

When Deborah finished speaking, she encouraged everyone to take a seat at the kitchen counter.  I moved to the last seat in the row, furthest from the pig, and as the other seats filled I noticed one student pull the instructor aside, her hands over her mouth and nose, her eyes filling with tears, she was breathing hard. Deborah quickly ushered her out of the room to the hall where I could see through the glass wall that the student was very upset.  I wondered if she was a vegetarian and had been caught, as I had, off guard at this huge piece of meat that didn’t look like “pork” when I bought meat at the grocery store but looked like what it was- an animal. One that had at one point been alive and moving, maybe had some spunky pig personality, the kind that inspired Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web or the ambitious pigs of Animal Farm.

Looking at meat this way should not have been new to me.   My brother is an avid hunter and quite often I see the animals he has killed before they are butchered.  Even though I have seen the animals as a whole, I’m not afraid to eat the meat later, as some people might be.  Meat tastes good and I know that my brother has respect for the tradition of the hunt. But I have never seen what happens between when the animal goes down and when it appears again on my plate.

Deborah introduced Frank by offering a little biographical information and then he wasted no time in cutting up the meat.  As he lifted the pig, gesturing to different parts of the animal, he explained that the meat was pasture raised and began a discussion of how important diet is for any animal raised for meat.  Well balanced diet for animal equals well balanced diet for you, he said. Frank took the knife in hand and proceeded to carve out what he says he always carves out first- the pork leaf fat, just inside the hollow stomach cavity. As he wielded the knife expertly and trimmed out this length of fatty lard, I forced myself to gaze straight ahead and not shy away.  If I was going to eat meat then I had to have the respect of watching how it was prepared. I listened to him as he explained that this makes the best piecrust and again it hit me- the connection of farm to store to table that I had been missing. Of course you make piecrusts with lard and of course lard is animal fat, pork fat to be specific. And here it is. Frank explained that the lard is boiled down and that, in fact, they can it and sell it in this store.

Frank made quick work of the rest of the pig first taking out the tenderloin. This, he explained was the easiest to get to and thus the first thing removed. I naively realized as he pulled this length of meat out that there’s only one tenderloin in this half a pig- making just two in the whole pig. What a small cut of this great expanse of pig. Of course they are so expensive.

Next Frank moved to the face bacon, then the shoulder.  Slicing from the shoulder to third rib he explained that the shoulder contained the pork butt or what made for excellent pulled pork.  The mention of pulled pork brought me instantly to Ruby’s Barbeque in Austin, Texas nine years ago, perhaps the first time I remember eating pulled pork. It was served on wax paper and messy as hell but also like nothing I’d ever had. A lover of pulled pork, my husband had recently made his own version and I, not having a firm grasp of meat cuts, remember being taken aback when he returned from the grocery store with something called ‘pork butt’ and intended to make the delicious pulled pork I remembered with this less than appetizing sounding cut of meat.  But now, I was struck by the fact that the pork butt was not butt at all but simply shoulder! When I pressed for it, it didn’t seem Frank had any neat answer for why the pork butt was actually the pork shoulder, although I did learn that there is some attention to changing the names of meat for marketing purposes- to make them more attractive.  Pork butt is also referred to as Boston Butt and spare ribs apparently are more appetizing with the addition of the prefix St Louis. The journey from butcher house to table was seemingly quite transformative, not only in physical recognition but also in character identity. It seemed meat is more appetizing when given a geographical association.

From there, Frank carved through the saddle loin, the actual butt, and finished up with the belly explaining which cuts of meat came from where.  When he was done, he had a pile of meat hunks on his cart that his assistant wheeled back to the meat department.  As he washed his hands and cleaned up his work space, he summarized his main points of the day: know where your meat comes from and make sure it is fed with grass that you would walk on with your bare feet.  And one last time I was hit with a feeling of obvious agreement. And one last time, that feeling was quickly followed with a gentle chiding in my head- but you don’t actually think about that when you are in the meat section. And I was left where I started: thinking about that journey from farm to table, something that should inform more of my grocery shopping and food consumption and maybe, after this experience, it will.  

August 12, 2010

Your Inner Hoover

I’m thirty-four weeks pregnant.  Those thirty-four weeks have spanned Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday, my wedding, my husband’s birthday, my brother’s birthday, my father’s birthday, my nephew’s birthday, Easter dinner, baby shower brunch, wedding shower brunch and countless dinners with family and friends.  These events are important in our family.  We like to eat and we like to cook and for birthdays we like to serve our favorite things- a flourless chocolate mousse cake for my birthday, grandma’s macaroni and cheese for comfort any winter night, shrimp scampi for my father, carrot cake for my husband, venison for my brother and the list goes on.  But there are dietary restrictions that go along with being pregnant.  Some of these restrictions are ones your body imposes. Some women cannot stomach much of anything during pregnancy.  My body wanted nothing to do with fresh vegetables in the first trimester.  Then there are the suggested restrictions made by the pregnancy experts… deli meats, caffeine, soft cheeses and, of course, alcohol.  Smoked foods, blackened foods, tap water, honey, chocolate, the list can get as extensive as you let it.  It could almost leave one wondering, what can I eat while pregnant?  The key word here is ‘suggested’.  Everything is suggested.  Advised, urged, counseled, recommended.

I can handle most of these restrictions, save for cheese.  I have eaten cheese at almost every meal of my life.  I’m not kidding. My promiscuity regarding cheese was well known among my friends since I would eat almost any cheese with equal voracity. My close friends preferred to call me ‘Cheese Hoover’ as my inability to even attempt portion control is something to behold. I’m okay with this, of course. But you might imagine my infinite dismay to read at the outset of this pregnancy that soft cheeses were off the table.  It was as I read more about it that I saw there was wiggle room. Cheeses made with pasteurized milk were acceptable.  Raw or unpasteurized milk were unacceptable and had the potential to carry bacteria that can be harmful to both mother and baby and were thus considered a risk.  This past week, at thirty-four weeks pregnant, I was presented with an opportunity to taste a new cheese made with ingredients of which I was unsure.

The cheese was from Lazy Lady Farm, a local Vermont farm. I had heard about this cheese maker from friends who were excited to find it on a cheese plate while out to dinner in New York and constantly looked for it when in Vermont but reported it was sometimes difficult to find.   While at a farm stand this past week I saw the label in a cooler and knew I had to buy it.  But I hesitated.  I picked the cheese out of the cooler and inspected the information on the label.  It did not say specifically whether it was made with pasteurized or unpasteurized goat’s milk.  As I stood in indecision, the cheese hoover within got the best of me and I decided to feign innocence… it didn’t actually specify whether it was raw or not so surely I was fine, right? I mean, if unpasteurized milk is a danger than surely they would have noted it?

That night my husband and I devoured the cheese with a fresh locally made baguette.   The cheese was called “La Petite Tomme”, a mild brie made from goat’s milk.  I tried very hard to temper myself so that my husband got just as much chance to enjoy it but every bite seemed to dissolve on my tongue before I had a chance to fully experience it, forcing me to prepare another mouthful.  My husband just laughed.  Its creamy goodness spilled from the wrinkled white rind in such a way that compelled me to wipe the cutting board with the baguette just to get the last remnants. What is it about the flavor of soft cheeses? The smell is unappealing, the rind is unappealing but it still makes my mouth water and I wonder who is consuming whom, as I am beholden to it and not satisfied until it is all gone. And sometimes not even then. 

Such is the life of a cheese hoover.  Even a pregnant cheese hoover. But this cheese hoover was not without a conscience and that evening, bothered by the question of raw versus pasteurized milk and on the verge of anxiously manufacturing symptoms of an infection that I imagined unpasteurized bacteria might cause, I looked up the cheese on the farm’s website only to find that it was made from pasteurized milk and everything would be fine.  But the nagging question was there, later that night, as I lay in my bed, ever wakeful to my constant bladder, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was going to be a selfish mother who would choose her own interests over those of her children.  Certainly, my friends who were pregnant were more careful about these things, some changing their diet almost completely while pregnant.  Would there be mothers like this whom I would meet later at kindergarten registration and find myself woefully inadequate to their mothering abilities? Their children would be perfect in every way, already know how to read chapter books, spend afternoons writing thoughtful letters in cursive to their mothers thanking them for their recent excursions to sophisticated museums where they had begun to understand the histories of obscure civilizations that I had never heard of and the like? They would be able to accurately distinguish the difference between Bach, Mozart and Chopin by ear, recognize elements from the Periodic table.  These mothers would look at me and mine, note our insufficiencies, their eyes narrowing, understanding intuitively that I was given to my own vices before the vices of my children, that I was ‘that’ kind of mother, that I would give in to raw milk cheeses, if tempted.

But me, I would be safe in the knowledge that my children knew who I was, that I had interests and likes and things I could not and would not live without and that I was passionate about cheese and that everything is okay and that it is especially okay to give in a little, every now and then, to your inner hoover.  

August 11, 2010

Smoke and Mirrors

The first one sat on my desk before I got to school. It was in a simple brown bag, folded over at the top and stapled.  There was a note on it that said, Do not open at school.  I must have unlocked my own door that Friday morning instead of sneaking in Dave’s room and through the door connecting our classrooms to where my desk was.  Dave always got to school before me, even though I woke every morning with the anxiety only a first year teacher knows- the kind that drove me to school early even when I was entirely prepped for the day. 

I stuck my head through the purple door behind my desk to Dave’s room where he was sitting at his desk, catching up on the reading he had assigned for the day. I raised my eyebrow.

“Hey, Darcie,” he put the book down. “Did you get my package?” I smiled.  “Good. Your Christmas present.  But don’t open it until you get home. Lock it in your desk, don’t tell anyone, okay?”

At my parents home that night, finally home for an extended Christmas break after a tortuous first few months at a new career, in a new town and state with very few friends and few students who cared and only a few ideas on how to reach them, I opened that brown paper bag and pulled out a small jelly jar filled with a lime-ish brown colored liquid.  I have to admit, I was surprised when I saw the small size of the jar, given the conversations about our mutual love for margaritas.  After that first one though, I understood why the small size.  The first sip was the kind of sip that you can feel all the way down to your stomach, reaching out, warming all your insides. The second made me forget my job and all the anxiety that went with it. 

And the second margarita delivery, I shared. 

Dave was like that- a strong margarita inside a brown non descript paper bag, stapled and delivered as secret contraband and waiting in the faculty refrigerator.  ‘Smoke and mirrors’ was what he called his teaching style but I knew that wasn’t true.  He may have felt he was hiding behind smoke and mirrors but after working with him for five years, I know what was behind the smoke: a teacher and friend with a passion for literature and art that can’t fool kids.  I have seen the loyalty of students that comes only as a reaction to an authentic teacher- one who is committed to kids. I have seen him spontaneously jump on a desk for his own dramatic reading of Jonathon Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, something he may have gotten more of a kick out of than the students and I have seen kids roll their eyes at him in that way that really means they’re into it.

My first year at Mascoma was his first year back from taking time off to fight prostate cancer.  He didn’t talk too much about it to me until I revealed that I too had battled cancer. That was probably when our real friendship began. Since then, I have laughed off frustrations with the education system with him, enjoyed the successes of teaching, wallowed in the defeats.  I have turned to him for advice in writing, in teaching, in love. I have read his hitchhiking stories- unsuspecting autobiographical stories that would have shocked and delighted his students. I was constantly reminded by him that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.  I have heard him talk endlessly and lovingly about his wife Julie, a woman he married seventeen years ago, his second marriage and one that showed his happiness every moment he talked about it and was evident in the way he gazed at her, spoke to her, spoke about her. The kind of happy love every young romantic hopes to have someday.

The margarita deliveries came intermittently through my five years at Mascoma and I appreciated every single one.  Sometimes I shared them, sometimes not. Sometimes they were a strict margarita, sometimes they were a Dave original, maybe with a touch of pomegranate juice or splash of orange.  My last one was the first one I actually shared with Dave. It was on a visit with friends to Dave and Julie’s new house.  It was summer and after Dave had taken off more time to fight a recurrence of the cancer. The afternoon was a beautiful, cool blue in August and Julie had made delicious barbeque chicken, pitas and humus, a feast in the backyard. And Dave made us margaritas. Patron, cointreau and a splash of lime. We talked of sunken canoes and loons and disappearing and reappearing cats and summers past and plans ahead and the new house and never mentioned cancer. 

Two years later, Dave passed away from a long and dignified battle with prostate cancer. He was courageous in his counterattack of this awful disease, searching out the newest drugs and latest clinical trials, no matter the distance from home.  He continued teaching as long as he could, created a writing group and spent as much time with Julie as possible, building a new house on a beautiful lake in the face of his terminal illness.

I will never taste another one of Dave’s margaritas and maybe that’s okay because without Dave around to deliver them, what are they anyway but just a margarita? Food is just food when it’s not connected to anything. Or maybe anyone.


August 10, 2010

Beginnings

It started at an adventure camp we all worked at in Colorado. My friend Katherine, who likes to eat, and my friend Shelly, who likes to cook, and a few other friends were sitting around the lodge one night eating dessert.  After her third helping of Shelly’s peach pie, someone called Katherine "Hoover" and the name stuck. They ribbed her awhile on it until they noticed how much cheese I consumed on a daily basis.  Before dinner, with dinner, at lunch, a morning snack.  While they chose to bring peanut butter and jelly on mountain bike rides, I chose dry bread with cheese because in the hot Rocky Mountain mid day sunshine, sometimes the cheese melted a little making something like a backcountry grilled cheese.  And so I became “Cheese Hoover”. I guess it’s the first time I noticed that food was important to me.

And that’s why I’m here.

Because I like to write and think and eat and be with my friends and family and I’m curious about the way food connects people and place and feelings and ideas. I have created this space as a place to explore those connections.