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Posts Tagged ‘earth’

Elderflowers, a mid-June treat.

Today I stopped into my friend Leslie’s new shop downtown. She’s an herbalist who grows much of what she uses in her products, and created a place where she can sell them.

As far back as I can remember, the spot has been a watering hole, or a cocktail lounge, or something along those lines. I’m being generous, actually. The word seedy comes to mind, and with good reason. I was curious to see what she’d done with the place.

I opened the wrought-iron gate and asked Stefanie, the day’s proprietor and maker of the teas, for a tour. The space is breathtaking for people like me who love turn-of-the-last-century details like a lovely, very high, hammered tin ceiling and trim, now painted a deep bronze. The sweeping, curved bar runs almost the length of the room.

Teas, herbed bath salts in enormous glass confection jars, salves, tinctures, supplies for making stuff at home were here and there throughout—all natural, made by hand, and mostly with local ingredients. Two huge posters Leslie made featuring dried herbs and their names and properties made me yearn for warmer days when I can prowl the countryside again for plants.

On another level I spotted a metal pole running from floor to ceiling and asked Stefanie, ‘Is this what I think it is?’ ‘Yep,’ she said.

For centuries, women (it’s usually women) have combed the earth for plants that can feed and heal. And we’re still doing it. Fascinating, isn’t it, to be in a place where women gave up their power, and to have it reborn as a place where we took it back?

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I love talking about food, so consequently I love writing about food. Between tight deadlines and the odd lousy interview, it’s not all ice cream*. But I do think there’s a place for intelligent foodspeak. Granted, there’s plenty of frivolous (‘Fun with Cilantro!’) and half-baked** (‘I Went Vegan For a Week and Whined My Way Through It’) content out there, but dismissing the genre as a whole is just as frivolous and half-baked—the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So. Here’s why I write about food and why I think it’s relevant. In my case, it’s mostly about teaching. I love:

-Introducing or re-introducing people to the seasons. Years ago a co-worker told me she didn’t know watermelons grew in the summer. I can’t blame her; how could the average person know when they’re offered at Shop-Rite all year? But I’m still shaken by it. I write about food because I want to teach people when produce grows. And it’s not just because I’m an avid supporter of local agriculture, and because food will be cheaper, easier to come by, more nutritious, and tastier if purchased close to the source and in season. I want to teach them when it grows because it can help repair the disconnect between ourselves and the earth. Besides breathing, sleeping, and kvetching about politics, eating is at our fundamental core. Knowing where our food comes from can provide a deep sense of peace and balance…not to mention incentive to do right by the earth.

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Still available at farmers’ markets. Pull out the seeds, scoop the flesh into your blender, add lime juice and zest, and blitz. It’s a great thirst quencher—and has no added sugar.

Showing people that cooking isn’t beyond them. Most food shows are less about instruction than they are about entertainment, which means bravado and fancy knife work. They can be intimidating to first-time cooks or to those whose skills are rusty. I want people to know that our world’s most treasured recipes were likely made in a makeshift kitchen with crappy light, over a fire or smoky coal or wood stove, with dodgy equipment, and with leftovers. The common denominator, by a long shot, was a woman determined to feed her family. If she can do it—without All-Clad or track lighting—you can.

-Being able to share what I learn in the kitchen or in the field. I absolutely love trying new (in my case, that usually means vintage) recipes, tweaking, and tasting. And I love taking a walk and spotting something edible. It always feels like a present, and I giggle all the way home. I suppose in another life I’ll be into Christian Louboutin shoes, but this life granted me a thrill in wild discoveries. It’s a cheaper pastime, if nothing else. For what it’s worth, I hope you’re enjoying the ride with me.

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Wild peppermint, which I found down by my lake in Spring 2015.

L’shana tova tikatevu, chaverim. Hope it’s a sweet one.

 

*Ha! I slay me.

**Did it again. 😀

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Years ago Gourmet Magazine* published an article about a Scandinavian woman who, like the rest of her countrymen and women, grew up foraging. She took the lifestyle quite in stride, speaking of it the way the rest of us speak of lacing up New Balances. Hunting for chanterelles for breakfast with her grandparents, nibbling on bits of pasture as she walked home from school, she said with no pretense that her country was edible.

Someday I will forage in Scandinavia with faithful Swedish reader Pelle as my guide, I hope. In the meantime, I am determined to gobble up my own country, starting with the Jersey Shore. For the past couple of weeks I have been extracting local flavors and making simple syrups. Granulated sugar, cold filtered water brought to a boil, immersion—1:1:1.

My pastry chef friend Matthew made macarons with lilacs a couple of weeks ago, and you read about the results last week. I have since been drenching pieces of my olive oil-almond cake in it every day. The rest I poured into a one-gallon freezer bag, labelled, and popped into the freezer.

Matthew wondered aloud if wisteria is edible. I looked it up, discovered the flowers are (a member of the pea family. Look above: Don’t they look like sweet peas?), and grabbed my clippers. It dangles from the trees that surround my lake. I will not say how close I came to falling in, nor what the waterfowl were likely thinking as they watched me test the brush that was the only barrier between me, the brackish water, and them. I snipped a few blossoms (see above) and jumped to safety. Then I took them home, separated the flowers from the stems, and put the flowers in a nice warm bath. The flavor is lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than the deeply perfumed lilac.

Next up: wild peppermint, which I found last spring at a time when I really needed a treat in my life. Soon after I made a big bowl of truly fantastic tabbouleh, with all local vegetables and really bloody local mint. This time around I need a treat again and can’t wait until the tabbouleh vegetables are ready, so instead I clipped about six cups’ worth and made more syrup.

This one was a like a smack upside the head: The whole house smelled like mint for the rest of the day.

I have always hated mint-flavored things, never could understand the immense appeal of chocolate-chip mint ice cream. To me it always seemed like eating a giant, cold heap of toothpaste. But when you start with an actual plant, the whole ballgame changes. The peppermint syrup is grassy, pungent—a knockout. It, too, went into the freezer. And mint being mint, I know I’m good for more, as much as I want, until just after frost.

In cocktails, in marshmallows, in marzipan…there’s no end in sight to what I can do with these syrups. And don’t look now, but honeysuckle season is right on our heels. And elderflower, too. Another newbie!

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Below we have the fruits of my flowers: lilac, wisteria, and peppermint syrups, respectively. Totally digging that the mint at right is faintly green.

I can’t wait to see what else is out there. The earth never fails to be there for me, to teach me about starting over, and to surprise me.

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*Will I ever stop mourning the loss of this publication?**

**Nope.

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I’m writing this five days after the winter solstice, windows open on a 63-degree F night, and waiting for proper winter to arrive. I can’t wait for the aqua-blue evening light, the perfectly still air, the sheets of glassy ice at the curb. And yet…the light brightens just a little more every day. That’s an ancient promise we can count on.

I’ve talked a lot here about communing with the earth. It’s probably my favorite topic. Cooking, foraging, digging around in the ground—all are like butter on a burn to me, and I suspect they always will be.

But the backstory, the one I haven’t yet told, is this: I don’t cook and forage and dig because they’re a pleasant way to spend a Thursday, or because they’re trendy (perish that last thought along with skinny jeans). I do it because the earth is home. She’s blood. She’s safe. Always has been. The earth, the outdoors, consistently gave me what I couldn’t get indoors. And harvesting and eating what comes from her today is natural, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s one of the dozens of ways I can keep reaching out and grabbing her hand.

The earth and I go way back. One of my earliest memories is when I was a toddler, pulling a long weed from the side yard, and being genuinely surprised that there wasn’t a carrot at the other end of it. We kids spent an inordinate amount of time outside. I learned the best ways to traverse hedges between yards, and it didn’t fail. I waited for certain flowers to bloom every year, and they always did. Spring rain water felt differently in my fingers than fall rain water. (It feels thicker. Maybe it is.) I can still remember the scent of the little white flowers that grew on a hedge at the end of our block, as well as in my uncle’s backyard around the corner. I still have the scent of May in my nose. It smells green. Of course.

(And today, right now, my bedroom is green: On Christmas Eve I hung juniper and white pine branches on the wall above my bed, and willow branches are literally hanging from my ceiling. It was a trick, considering I’m 5’3″, the ceiling is 9.5′, and I only have a dinky stepladder. [Don’t ask. I made it work.] I’ve always wanted to feel as though I was falling asleep in a magic glade, and with the shadows and tiny white lights on my tree, also in my room…it is. And I can have the windows open, no less.)

My earth experiences growing up weren’t all great; I remember the hurricanes at the end of summer, the ice storms and mud and heat waves. Getting pricked by wild-rose thorns and getting poison ivy blisters. But I never felt afraid when I was outside. I always felt protected. Cradled. I knew where to go when I needed cradling, and I was never left wanting.

And that sense of safety remains to this day. There’s a powerful serenity in knowing when I have a crap day that the ocean will be there for me. Always. There’s a serenity in knowing that the underside of a magnolia leaf will be brown and fuzzy, and that the blackberries beneath the canes will be sweetest. The wild lilies-of-the-valley down by the lake will be palest pink, the wild crocuses will be lavender. When the sun comes back, I get to visit them again. I wrap this knowledge around me, and it is profound comfort.

The earth can be messy and unpredictable, that’s for sure. There’s always been mud, and storms, and heat waves. There always will be. I still get pricked by wild-rose thorns, and I get poison ivy blisters on my hands every year like clockwork.

But here’s the important thing, the biggest reason why I take it all in stride: the heat waves always pass. I can count on that like I can count on the crocuses. There will always be beauty at the end of the block. Old friends will poke their noses up from the ground, and new ones will, too. I will get surprises every day, of every year. I laugh when I see them half the time because I never saw them coming.

The earth never fails me. No matter what befalls, good or mud. She always gives the sun back.

Spring always comes.

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Fruit collected in my secondhand bread-rising bowl.

Today I foraged in a graveyard under a canopy of old, old trees in full autumn fire.

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Marker nearby. Lambs and little angels usually guard children’s graves.

I picked wild persimmons from two little trees that my friend Lauren spotted last year when picnicking with her children.

Harvesting anything has always been a Zen thing for me, and it’s something I like to do alone. I love people—I’m no loner—but I always decline company when I’m picking. It’s a communion with the earth, and I can’t look and listen as well when I’m distracted by chatter.*

In this particular location, I’m utterly surrounded by company, but they’re the quiet sort.

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Persimmon tree in the foreground and graves in the back. American flags are abundant when persimmons are ripe; Veteran’s Day was last week.

I often think of ecology and climate change on excursions like this, on days when I get dirt, bits of twigs, and leaves in my boots. I think of how detached most of us are from the earth. (How can we see the connection between ourselves and the earth when we buy most of our food in fluorescent-lit stores hundreds or thousands of miles from the dirt where it grew? Why would we fight for that dirt when we never see it? We might as well fight for the planet Neptune.)

Years ago I read a quote from a new florist who said the flowers were teaching her what to do. When it’s just me and the trees, it’s very much the same. You get to know a plant when you visit it spring after summer after fall.

When it comes to wild persimmons, I’ve learned they’re smaller than the variety you see this time of year in stores, just about the size of a cherry tomato. They’re not ready to pick until they’re soft and black-burnished and somewhat shriveled. Once the leaves are gone and there’s nothing left on the tree but fruit, they’re usually ripe. But—if I tug on a fruit that’s not quite ripe, if it’s still too smooth and firm, it will resist. Not yet, it tells me. No. Wait.

Any stage actor worth the pantaloons he’s in will tell you there is no power in his performance until there’s an audience, that every breath, gesture, word he puts out there needs a human to tell it to. Acting is not just talking; not even a monologue is just talking. It is always a dialogue between the actor and the audience. It’s another communion. Each needs the other. Each feeds the other.**

This is how it is when I harvest: it’s a dialogue between the plant and me, far more immediate and powerful than if I were to choose that same plant from a store. It teaches me without a word, feeds me, and reinforces the connection between this human and the earth.

Harvesting in a graveyard might be the truest communion with the earth there is; it’s the full life cycle in 360-vision. We pick the food from the earth, one day we will be put in the earth, more food grows and is picked, and the cycle continues.

This is my second and last year harvesting at this beautiful spot, though; the church chaplain gave me permission to pick, but gives me the stink-eye when I do. I will miss these trees, but picking that way mars the experience. She doesn’t know that I thank the trees (I’m a goof, but I really do), nor that I always say hello to the folks that surround them (which I’d do anyway, even if I hadn’t just reread Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I had). She doesn’t know that this is sacred to me. I conveyed my enthusiasm, but it didn’t help.

I’ll keep looking until I find more persimmon trees. And in the meantime, I’m making a pie.

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*I’ll give you one exception: my elderly neighbor brought me along on maybe his 70th year foraging for beach plums, and my first year. He was the pensive type, a hunter, and he went off to one thicket and I went off to another. He got it. The communion thing.

Oh…and this is probably why I never went in for religion. Nothing against it for others, but for me, communion with a great Something is too important to be cluttered up with rules, doctrine, pageantry, and a heap of other people reciting in unison. I need quiet.

**When you see a performance that moves you, please applaud, gasp, laugh, sigh, whatever. For 20 years I’ve stood backstage with anxious actors, and you have no idea how much that feeds them. They thrive on your reactions—honest.

 

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Votive during Hurricane Sandy, on the first night with no power.

Contrasts that work together seamlessly—this is one of the love affairs I have with the world.

The darkness makes the light beautiful.

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Incandescent bulbs glow at Days in Ocean Grove, NJ. They have been serving ice cream in a dreamy and romantic setting since 1876.

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Tide pool reflecting sunset, Loch Arbour, NJ.

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Eggs in light and shadow.

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Clipped maple branches in a winter shaft of light. Emily Dickinson would approve.

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Maple leaf and grass, just after sunrise.

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Sourdough toast and melting butter, late afternoon.

It’s when the sun heads to the other side of the globe and darkness takes the wheel—that’s when the light really pops. We don’t get to see this when the summer sun floods our vision. Compare summer’s ubiquitous light to the drama of a late-fall afternoon—thick, gunpowder-grey clouds balancing on the tops of the trees, when POW a slant of sunlight gleams through…I kind of live for that beauty.

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When I was a kid in art class, I loved when the teacher had us draw a picture in crayon, using only the brightest colors, and then paint right on top of it in solid black tempera paint, all the way to the edges of the paper. Once the paint was dry, we were given toothpicks to use to scratch away the paint in any design we liked. And we watched the colors beneath our swirls and scribbles emerge, psychedelic. (It was the ’70s; we had a standard to uphold.)

*

Being backstage during a performance means being in very little light. There’s some ambient light from the stage, but the only steady light is the blue glow from one or two clip lights and from the monitor with a live feed of the conductor (for the actors to watch for tempo). I cast the light from my Mag down at an actor’s shoe as he’s trying to tie it and dash on within two measures, and cast it up again to affix mic tape to the side of another actor’s face, and see the relief on her face when we attach it in time. Backstage is dangerous with moving people and parts, we techs navigating 300-lb. units through narrow spaces and with split-second accuracy, but that little bit of light against all of that darkness and danger is especially beautiful. Strange, right? Or maybe I just love the work.

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In the house where I grew up there were windows on either side of the balcony. I never paid attention to them until Christmastime. We had small floodlights positioned on the side lawn, focused on the Christmas tree, and some of that chilly yellow-white light was cast sideways through the windows. I remember how otherworldly it looked in the black night, in a snowfall.

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How many new stories are, and were, told now? How many ideas are brewed, theories proven, recipes tested and tasted, moments of enlightenment reached, during the dark months? Up against firelight, stove light, lamplight, candlelight? I’m thinking quite a few, and I’m thinking it’s because now we have the right stark physical backdrop to throw the ideas up against, and to test their merit. Bright light diffuses the edges of things. It’s against darkness that we can see dimension and shape.

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There might be a point to the turn of the year beyond the science of the seasons; it might be the universe giving us the opportunity to see things with a new perspective, and gain a new understanding of them. Maybe this time is not about darkness and cold and loss. Maybe it’s a shot at a different brand of wisdom.

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Dusty dirt at a nearby orchard and half-eaten buffet selection.

Last week I learned there are kids in the world who have never touched soil. I actually stopped typing to reread the sentence when I saw it. It was within notes for an article I was writing on a school garden in Chicago.

Of course it makes sense; city kids know from sidewalks, not soil. But I had never thought about it. The teachers at the school reported that they loved seeing the wonder and amazement in their little students’ faces when the kids first put their hands into fresh, fragrant soil.

I was struck by this. For all of us in our very small town in the ’70s and ’80s, dirt was our silent partner. Digging in it with my sister to uncover the first tulip shoots in the spring. Landing in it when I fell off my bike. I don’t even remember us brushing it off. And Lord knows we didn’t wash off honeysuckle flowers before slurping up the nectar inside. We lived by the old expression, ‘You eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ There weren’t really any boundaries between we kids and dirt; it was a part of us.

People who love to cook have a personal relationship with dirt, too. In the western part of New Jersey the earth is clay soil, which retains almost as much water as my ankles do every month, and needs additional work and ingredients to make it arable.* On the opposite side of the state, close to the ocean, we can’t dig more than a foot down without hitting a mysterious granular substance that looks like this:

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Three guesses.

Which is fine; lots of great stuff grows in it, and allows water to drain away, easily. And which also leads me to wonder, in the Doctor Who-tainted kind of way that I do, how much what’s below us influences us. Does the kind of soil we walk on have any bearing on who we turn out to be?

Coastal types are generally known to be a relaxed lot—maybe because food there has always grown fairly easily in the receptive soil. They also sometimes earn a rep for flakiness.**

Inland, where it takes more work to grow food because the soil is sticky and challenging, the rep is about stubbornness. And also generosity.***

Yes, there are exceptions to the above. I’m generalizing. But still: I can’t help but think an enormous part of what we’re made of is due to the nature of what’s under our feet.

Maybe if life is simpler due to soil that’s receptive to raising crops, it helps to foster relaxed, if sometimes complacent, people. And if life is tougher due to soil that requires more effort to raise crops, maybe it fosters stubborn but giving people, those who go by an implicit ‘we’re all in the sticky together, and we have to work together’ policy.

Then there’s the sidewalk crew, the kids who have limited or no access to soil. What are the losses and gains, how much does a concrete barrier factor into what they’re made of? Into what they become?

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Potato trying to look like a rock. Didn’t work. It was delicious.

Back down to earth.

I would bet the teachers at the inner-city school above would argue that soil affords kids the chance to learn that the world is bigger than they thought. And deeper. And messier.

I’d agree and add that we should get to know soil for the most basic of reasons: because it is always there, whether we can see it or whether it’s beneath the sidewalk, and therefore unifies us. Because it’s where all life starts, and grows, and ultimately ends. Soft, sticky, or hidden, it belongs to everyone. Kids should get the chance to wear it, like we did growing up. We should know where our food comes from. We should know where we come from.

What I wouldn’t give to have been there the day those kids stuck their hands into it, and got good and messy. I need to find an inner-city school and bring the kids some dirt.

*It’s also Fern’s last name from Charlotte’s Web and she, appropriately, was a farm girl. That E.B. White was a sly dude.

**Where are my keys?!

Kidding. But I couldn’t tell you my license plate number at gunpoint.

***All of the mid-westerners I have ever met have been unfailingly warm, giving, and unguarded. If I met a jerk who said he was from Ohio, I’d keep eating and request his birth certificate.

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