Of Eggplant and Cookbookery

Laurie Colwin is one of my all-time favorite authors.  She is a food writer and novelist beloved by almost all who find themselves with her books in their hands.  Among her fans, a common sentiment is that reading her work is like spending time cozied around the kitchen table, sharing a pot of coffee and a plate of gingerbread with a warm, insightful, and funny true friend.

I first discovered Colwin through her novel Happy All The Time (a book rich in keen domestic and social detail — I’ve read it once a year for years now, I love it so much!).  Other folks find her via her two collections of wonderful food essays:  Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (the latter published posthumously, after her early death in the 1990s).  Even in the 1980s, Colwin was a strong advocate of local, organic foods and heirloom farmer’s market finds (like our eggplant, above).  She was ahead of her time!

One of the most well-known pieces in Home Cooking is “Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant,” an account of Colwin’s culinary pursuits in her first Greenwich Village apartment, which was 7 x 20 feet, with only a small counter, mini refrigerator, and two-burner hot plate for a kitchen.  It had no kitchen sink —  all dishes were done in the bathtub.  In this apartment, eggplant became Colwin’s go-to ingredient for whipping up A Dinner for One:

When I was alone, I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally.  I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold.  It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations.  If any was left over, I ate it cold the next day on bread.

Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures.  Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.  People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone.  A salad, they tell you.  But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.

I think of this essay fondly every time I pick up an eggplant.  I imagine that, among her readers, this is not uncommon!

Every food subject Colwin chose — from flank steak to potato pancakes to homemade yogurt to chocolate cake — she wrote of with heart and wit and practicality.   There is, I think, no better description of the feelings Colwin’s cookbooks evoke in her readers than these words of her own, excerpted from More Home Cooking:

Cookbooks hit you where you live.  You want comfort; you want security; you want food; you want to not be hungry, and not only do you want those basic things fixed, you want it done in a really nice, gentle way that makes you feel loved.  That’s a big desire, and cookbooks say to the person who’s reading them, “If you will read me, you will be able to do this for yourself and for others.  You will make everybody feel better.”

All these things, her cookbooks do.  So, go ahead.  Find yourself a copy, and welcome Colwin into your cooking life.  With her excellent company, you will never feel alone in the kitchen (with or without eggplant).  Guaranteed.


The Kookaburras

Over the next two months, I am preparing for a meeting at which my academic committee and I will finalize plans and requirements for my thesis defense next summer.  Whenever I am feeling hesitant or ambivalent about completing the project, I read this poem.

Afterward, I always decide to return to tending my own personal kookaburras, with the ultimate goal of setting them free.

THE KOOKABURRAS

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, kingfishers, pressed against the edge of
their cage, they asked me to open the door.
Years later I wake in the night and remember how I said to them,
no, and walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

- Mary Oliver, from House of Light (1990)


Transformation Through Giving: Why I Blog

Not long ago, I read an article in Whole Living (one of my favorite magazines, which went by the moniker Body + Soul until a recent name change) that provided me with a moment of revelation about how to live a contented life, and another moment of revelation about why I blog.

The article, “The Giving Cure” (November 2009), was written by a woman named Cami Walker.  In it, Walker tells the story of the anxiety and depression she sunk into after her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis (MS), and the surprising strategy she discovered to pull herself out of it.

MS is a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord and manifests differently in every MS patient, depending on which nerves are affected.  MS can ultimately lead to loss of mobility and independence.  There is no known cure.

After her diagnosis, Walker was paralyzed with fear and depression, isolating herself from others and worrying about her future.  One day, she had a conversation with a practitioner of integrative medicine.  This woman provided a supportive shoulder to cry on as Walker vented her fears and frustrations.

Then she said to Walker, “Cami, I think you need to stop thinking about yourself… If you spend all your time and energy focusing on your pain, you’re feeding it.  You’re making it worse by putting all of your attention there…  [Y]ou are falling deeper and deeper into a black hole.  I’m going to give you a tool to help you dig yourself out.”

The tool: to give away 29 gifts in 29 days.  The gifts need not be of the material sort.  Walker’s friend said, “Healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but through our interactions with other people.  By giving, you are focusing on what you have to offer others, inviting more abundance into your life.”

Walker ignored the advice for awhile.  She was skeptical that it would make any difference.  But one day, at a desperate point, she decided to give it a try.  She called another friend with MS and went for a visit.  She felt wonderful afterward — light and calm.  So she kept giving.  She donated money to charity.  She gave a meal to a homeless man.  She donated unneeded belongings to the Goodwill.  She filled a friend’s parking meter with quarters.  She sent positive thoughts to loved ones and to struggling strangers.  “I gave and gave, and and a funny thing happened: I started receiving gifts myself… All in all, I felt buoyed up by my efforts, and happier than I had previously believed I could be.”

She called the woman who had advised her to begin giving a gift daily.  Walker told her, “It’s weird.  I feel like I’m being supported everywhere I look…  The more I give little things, the easier it’s become for me to accept assistance and love from others.  Instead of being tied up in knots all the time, I’m much closer to a peaceful state.”

Walker finished her first 29 days of giving, and was so transformed, she has kept on giving ever since.  She says, “I wish I could say that sharing gifts cured my MS, but that would be dishonest.  I still live with the effects of the disease, but I cope a lot better and feel significantly less pain.  I still inject myself daily with a drug that has slowed the progression of MS, according to my latest MRI.  Most importantly, the pain no longer controls me.”  She has even started a website where others who choose to try her “29-Day Giving Challenge” can share their stories.

Walker’s article outlines these six secrets to giving — all of them important aspects of the practice:

1. Start with gratitude. Write down what you’re most thankful for and make a point to share at least one item on your list.

2. Keep it simple.  Small gestures often make the biggest impact.  Smile at a stranger, offer a coworker a sincere compliment, or buy someone lunch for no reason.

3.  Give up expectations.  Let go of judgments about how your gift will be put to use.  Once you’ve given it, your gift will take care of itself.

4.  Receive graciously. Giving without receiving will deplete your energy.  Remember to be receptive to what others are eager to share.

5.  Wing it. Resist the urge to plan all 29 gifts in one sitting.  Stay open to the gift-giving opportunities that occur naturally throughout any given day.

6.  Challenge yourself. What are you hesitant to give?  Your time?  Unconditional love?  Ask yourself why and try to let those hang-ups go.

As I read Walker’s article, I realized that, over the last seven months, through the writing of this blog, I had experienced the very transformation of which she spoke.

I did not know at the time I began A Life in Season that I was following the 29 Gifts path, but in retrospect, I was.  I started this blog during a sad time, during which I was very focused on Read the rest of this entry »


Lessons at the Full Moon

Highest ridge of the Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, San Bernardino Co., California, USA.  Night hiking without a light; full moon bright as dawn.
12 April 2006.

We all have lessons to learn.

In some cases, years pass between the time a lesson is given and the time it is taken to heart.

The spring this photo was taken, lessons in the following presented themselves to me:

- How sharing yourself can be wise, and how holding back can sometimes be wiser.
- How self-possession can bring people near to you, and how neediness can drive them away.
- How happiness comes when you embrace life, and how sadness stays when you sit on its sidelines.
- How Nature can make you whole, and how Modern Living can take you apart.

Only in the intervening years did these lessons sink in, reiterated by new teachers.
For each of the lessons, I am grateful.

To the author of that first springtime primer, I say, “Thank you.”

The older I get, the longer the list of people to which I owe such thanks.

Almost all of them: the folks who made me uncomfortable, the folks who questioned me, the folks who – wittingly or unwittingly – challenged me to take a hard look at myself, my actions, and my true motives: the way I really was rather than the way I thought I was.

The folks who took my cherished and carefully protected view of myself and tested it for verity.

Always, these people are our best teachers.  And to them, we become grateful.

In due time, of course.  In due time.

* * *
Enjoy the full moon tonight, everyone.


Vista, Interrupted

New York Peak (7,533 ft), New York Mountains, San Bernardino Co., California, USA.
23 April 2006.

New York Peak: the first summit I ever reached without a trail.

The East Mojave view that spreads out below it is breathtaking.  California to the west, Nevada to the east.  Sun and sky.  Bajadas and mountains.  Dunes and dry lakebeds.  Creosote and cactus.

Nearly unspoiled, except for the black snake of I-15 and the gaudy spectacle that is Stateline Primm.

Nearly unspoiled, that is, until later this year, when one of the largest solar installations in the world is erected near Ivanpah Dry Lake.

I am in complete support of solar development in wise places: already-degraded lands near the communities that will use the power.

But I am NOT in support of solar development on remote, vital BLM land — habitat of an endangered species, the desert tortoise — chosen for its relative lack of red tape rather than for the long-term sensibility and sustainability of its location.

Deserts are old places.  But that does not make them dead places.  Deserts are not wastelands.  In the desert, the ground is alive.  Life — plants, animals, insects — is everywhere, if you only look for it.  Deserts persist on a time scale different from the rest of the world.  They grow slowly.  They recover slowly, if given a chance.

But from this development, that land will not recover.

The next time I climb that peak, oh, how different the view will be.

It breaks my heart.

America, let’s remember: these lands are our lands.

Why are we letting corporations plunder them for profit, when viable alternatives lie elsewhere?


Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Clay Jenkinson, as Thomas Jefferson, in (maybe just maybe) the New Enlightenment Radio Network Barn.  Photo from http://www.jeffersonhour.org.

Today is the 267th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth.   And I am celebrating with bells on!

As many of you know, I have quite the crush on Thomas Jefferson.  I first ‘fessed up to it here.  Today, I’ll proudly let my geek flag fly, and tell you how the crush came to be.

I listen to a lot of NPR.  A LOT.  Especially when doing things like cooking, traveling, or doing the repetitive work that is the domain of lab and field biologists (data entry, processing samples, counting seeds, etc.).

After we moved to Williamsburg, every once in a while as I made lunch, I would hear snippets of a show, new to me, called The Thomas Jefferson Hour, distributed by Prairie Public Radio out of North Dakota.  I always liked what I heard, but for one reason or another rarely caught the whole program.

Last spring, deep into a data entry project, I was hunting for new podcasts to alleviate my boredom and remembered The Thomas Jefferson Hour.  Turns out, all the podcasts are available for free (from the show’s website and iTunes).  I began downloading and listening, and once I started, I COULD NOT STOP!  It was so fascinating and good!

The more I learned about Jefferson — a man of great brilliance, confounding inconsistencies, deep hurts, high ideals, strange hypocrisies, and wonderful mysteries — the more and more enamored I became.

I have never been a history buff.  But Clay Jenkinson, a Thomas Jefferson scholar and the creator of the show, brings history to life in a way that will intrigue even the most history-averse folks.  If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentaries on Thomas Jefferson or the National Parks, Jenkinson’s warm and eloquent voice may already be familiar to you — he was interviewed for both.

Each show is dedicated to a theme, and a typical show is divided Read the rest of this entry »


In Memoriam: GK on the Dunes

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, San Bernardino Co., California, USA
12 April 2006

My family had four parental cornerstones.

This man, my stepfather, was one of them.

He was not a perfect man, but he sure came close.  He was the kind of person who made the world a good place to be.  He grew up a farm kid and possessed the work ethic, sensibility, and useful practical skills that type of upbringing often confers.  He was patient.  He was kind.  He was forgiving of mistakes.  He gave others the benefit of the doubt.  He trusted.  He was curious.  He was smart.  He was generous with his time and talent, volunteering them wherever they were needed.  He was modest.  He listened.  He was more interested in hearing about your thoughts than he was in telling you all about his own.  He made people feel good about themselves and the work that they were doing.  He loved his family, home life, woodworking, blacksmithing, the sound of old country tunes, the making of bluegrass music, Lewis and Clark, red wine, and good cigars.

He also loved motorcycles (a common devotion in my family).  He was the most careful rider I’ve ever known — no traffic law was too small to follow to the letter.

Seven months after this photo was taken, riding home on a bright autumn afternoon, he was killed on the highway on his Harley by a teenage driver who, distracted by friends in the cabin, did not look for traffic before pulling his truck out onto the road.

This photo of my stepdad on the dunes, pointing into the light — taken four years ago today, on the one trip he and my mom could make to visit me in the Mojave — appeared on the cover of the program for his memorial service.

When you are driving, please, don’t text.  It is more dangerous, even, than driving drunk.
Please, don’t talk on the phone.
Please, don’t watch movies or television.
Please, don’t goof with your passengers.

Please, pay attention.
Please, be mindful.
Please, be alert to your surroundings.
Please, watch for motorcycles.

If you feel so inclined, check out the website of It Involves You, the foundation whose motorcycle awareness campaign we extended to our hometown with my stepfather’s memorial fund.

And, if it appeals, consider becoming a fan of one of the motorcycle awareness groups on Facebook.  I am partial to this one, Share the Road with Motorcycles, founded by my stepbrother.

Springtime is prime motorcycle weather.  Keep your eyes open, and be safe out there, everybody!


Chairs Reborn

These chairs have been reborn many times over.

Their origins we do not know.  But we DO know that in the 1940s, as my grandparents moved into their first home, they bought the six chairs and matching table — stained a dark mahogany then — at a used furniture shop in Illinois.

For my mother and her siblings, the table and chairs were the setting of many a family meal, from childhood through adolescence.  At some point in the 1950s, when faux antiquing experienced a surge in popularity (as it does now and then), my grandfather decided to treat the set to a coat of white paint overlain with green streaking.  Though this particular look was not universally loved by all family members, the dining set nonetheless sported it until the 1970s, when my grandparents passed the table and chairs on to my mother (their eldest) and my father as they moved into their first rental house.

After a number of years, when my mother could no longer stand the white-and-green paint, she stripped it all away and refinished the chairs, allowing the beauty of the wood beneath to again shine through.  My father collaborated with her on new seat boards and upholstery.  For me and my siblings — as had been the case for my mother and hers — the table and chairs became the setting of many a family meal, as well as art projects and homework sessions.

When my parents divorced, Read the rest of this entry »


With Such Abandon

Rain stipples the surface of the lake.

The great blue heron stands belly-deep at the edge, gulping a fish breakfast.

I have tried to make his portrait, but he is camera-shy and retreats to the trees.
(Oh, for a telephoto.)

When he takes flight, the scene is of an airborne pterodactyl in a clunky sci-fi movie — except he’s a heron, and the scene is real life.

When he’s around, the swans disappear.  Maybe it’s for the best.

Last weekend, the flowering trees dropped all pretense of modesty, their first tentative blooms proliferating in a show of fertile exuberance.

This wild blossoming -- the best part of spring in Virginia.

Never have I lived with woody plants that bloom with such abandon.

This week: white dogwoods, rosy magnolias, yellow forsythia.

Patiently, I am waiting for the laurels and rhododendrons.  Those white and pink fireworks!

For days, I had been looking for the first green leaves to sprout from the woody branches along our walk.  And yesterday, we saw them!

Is there any truer spring green than new willow leaves?

Walking in Season will be VERDANT next time around!

(If the sun and warmth return.  But they will.)


Break Fast

The results are in: the vegetable-and-grain fast was a success!  Not without imperfections, of course.  But that, my dears, is life.

When we last left off, it was almost dinnertime on fast day.

For that meal, Matt and I made a very tasty farro-and-bean soup (which likely was more complicated than a typical fast might allow, but it was vegan, so I rolled with it).  By the time the soup was ready, we were so engrossed in an episode of LOST that I did eat in front of the T.V.  But at least I ate slooowly in front of the T.V.!

By the end of the day, I was a little calmer, a little happier, and felt better than when I began.

This morning, I broke the fast with scrambled eggs and potatoes.  As I ate, I happily noticed myself chewing more slowly and paying more attention than usual to the task at hand: eating breakfast.

Folks, I must say: I think these one-day fasts on the new and full moons are pretty neat.

They are healthful and doable.  But perhaps the most wonderful thing about them may be the opportunity they provide, twice a month, to reset one’s focus and recalibrate one’s attention and appetite.

After this fast, slowly, over the next few days, I’ll fall back into my old patterns.  Without a doubt.  I’ll begin to eat more and more quickly.  I’ll read a book while eating.  I’ll take in cups of coffee and forkfuls of ham and mouthfuls of cupcake.

But that’s all okay.  Because in two weeks, I’ll get another opportunity set an intention to eat differently for a day.  Because fasting, like meditation, is a practice in mindfulness.  You set a goal; your mind wanders; you gently guide yourself back — without judgment, without reprimand.  And you do it again.  And you do it again.  And slowly, wonderfully, you grow.

Remember: small changes, repeated, set the course for big ones.


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