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Above is a little maple cream tart I made—just flour, butter, eggs, cream, and pure maple syrup. Give me, any day, a tart that calls for five pronounceable ingredients that can fit in my little hippie purse versus a list full of multi-syllabic words containing the letter z.

Authenticity is a very deliberate running theme in my life. People, conversations, theatre props, ingredients, what have you. I like things whittled down to simple and straightforward, for the most part. No fussy or strange stuff added. (Although sometimes I eat peanut M&Ms. But I think if you’re going to fall off the wagon with something, that’s a worthy selection.)

I’m happier doing a lot of tasks by hand, too. My kitchen is overwhelmingly ungadgeted. Never owned a microwave. I make my own vanilla extract of plain vodka and split vanilla beans. Schnapps I make of crab apples I pick down by the lake every October, steeped in sugar and vodka. Herbs are dried and stored in little recycled glass jars. I bake bread and coffee cakes and make puddings for my breakfast. I keep a Hefty bag full of bread crumbs in my freezer, full of all of the middles of rolls that I scoop out. Foraging—now that’s something I’ve talked about quite a lot, too. In a couple of weeks I’ll be picking the first of the season’s dandelion greens, loving it to my very core, and taking fewer trips to Foodtown.

Out of the kitchen, I make laundry detergent with washing powder, Borax, and Ivory soap that I grate with a cheese grater into a big Pyrex bowl and mix with a spoon. I cut up clean old t-shirts and socks that can’t be darned anymore, and use them as rags instead of buying sponges and paper towels. (In other news, I darn socks.) When my shower curtains wear out, I wash them and use them as tarps. Lord knows they’re waterproof. And the purse I mention above is made of patched-together, raw recycled silk in dozens of colors. When it gets a tear, I mend it with any color thread I like and it doesn’t show. I bought the purse for $32 from a little company that started out selling t-shirts out of a van at Grateful Dead concerts.

Why would anyone who calls herself sane live like this? Well…it’s not because I’m some Luddite (note the subtle use of WordPress), and it’s not to make some sort of glib retro statement. I do it because I need to, because the more I strip away the redundancies and the cocktail-party, small-talk pretensions of the world, the saner I feel.

I’ve always been wired up this way, having grown up in a climate that felt largely put on, one that obliged me to smile for the camera whether or not it felt honest. It got old, as well it should. And it made me dislike—distrust is a better word—pretension of any kind. Because baby, if you scratch away at that shell, you usually find cracks.

I’d like to keep the instances of cracks to a minimum now.

My life when alone, I am convinced, is best spent living in the above manner. My life spent with others is best spent with happy people—ones who are as relaxed around me as I am around them, talking from the heart, feeling with passion, laughing like heathens, and putting away a few of those maple tarts. My life gets to be my authentic invention, made by my own hands. I won’t settle for less.

 

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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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Autumn’s the time when the earth shoots and sprouts a bit less and instead does a great deal of dropping, shaking off, and scattering. The fun lies in catching the good stuff before the housekeeping winds of Winter blow it all away.

My usual friendly cautionary note about picking wild edibles goes like this:

1) Be sure that what you’re about to pick and eat is what you think it is. Please don’t wing it. Shoot for old age.

2) Don’t pick anything off your neighbor’s lawn unless a) she owes you one b) she owes you several c) you know she doesn’t use pesticides d) it’s under cover of darkness e) in which case leave my name out of it.

3) Don’t pick anything close to roadsides where they likely have been urologically christened by every domestic pet within five miles, most notably the Alsatian across the street that routinely drinks out of the potholes in the Quik Chek lot.

From left to right:

Crabapples (Malus) I wrote about this little treasure a while back. Wild crabapples are a little grainier in texture than their voluptuous full-sized apple cousins, and for my taste, they need a bit of sugar to be palatable. Making jam from crabapples is a special fall thing for me, even though making it is a bear because they’re so small and their seeds are the size of sesame seeds. Having good music in the background goes a long way. I add a hefty dose of New Jersey honey to the pot, making it 100% local. You can also make crabapple liqueur if you steep them in vodka with granulated sugar.

Rose Hips (Rosa) Another jammy choice, and a vintage one. Folks during World War II ate a lot of rose hip jam because it was full of Vitamin C, which was tough to access then. They’re tart, a little bit astringent like their cousins above (so they need sugar, too) and wildly healthy, full not only of Vitamin C but of antioxidants and lycopene.

Beech Nuts and Leaves (Fagus) As a Laura Ingalls Wilder diehard all my life, I knew beech nuts were edible. She wrote about her husband as a boy, gathering and eating them in upstate New York, describing the spiny little husks and the three-cornered nuts they contained, and saying they were ‘solidly full of nut.’ But the leaves being edible as well? News to me, but cool news. Freshly picked, they can be eaten in salads or even steeped in gin.

Acorns (Quercus) When I took Anthropology in college I learned that American Indians ate acorns. Making them edible takes some doing, and they knew what they were doing; they must be smashed and rinsed with a lot of water to release toxins. I’d love to try them. Has anyone ever prepared acorns for food or eaten them?

Missing from this list: Sassafras. Here I was all ready to dig up one of the 764 and counting plants that grow around my lake and steep the roots to make another American Indian specialty, a primitive form of root beer, when the heavy winds last week blew all of the telltale mitten-shaped leaves off. They’re all out there now, mittenless and mocking, but I’ll hit them up come spring. Stoked to write about it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_hip

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak

http://www.wikihow.com/Forage-for-Food-in-the-Fall

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Last week I asked you all what foods define you, what foods speak to you at your core. A reader asked me about food while traveling, and whether I have any favorite go-tos. As a matter of fact, I do. Don’t laugh—it’s peanut butter and jelly.*

No, I don’t live on it; any of you who have read my past posts on Scotland or Tahiti or the Caribbean know I make a point to stuff my pie hole with whatever foods are celebrated wherever I go. Dinners I eat out. But for the occasional breakfast, when I don’t want to spring for an $11 hotel waffle? Lunches, when I’m so far from the nearest village that the only food option is to climb a muddy hill and tackle a Highland cow?

Highland cows

Faster than I look, punk.

No, it’s PBJ, and here’s why.

1) It’s accessible pretty much anywhere.

2) It’s cheap as old chips.

3) It assembles in seconds.**

4) It lives happily in the backpack for a few hours without refrigeration.

5) The protein gets me down the long, empty roads. Or moors. Or jungles.

6) In the sandwich I make a point to use jam or fruits particular to the locale—currant jam in Scotland, guava jelly*** in the Caribbean, papaya jelly in the Tahitian islands, fresh bananas in Hawaii.

Eating PBJ in general defines me as someone who has no interest in pretension. Eating it as a traveler, it shows how much I love local flavors and trying something new. It also says a lot for efficiency: Packing a sandwich before leaving the hotel for the day means I’m not restricted to how far I can go in a morning. I’ve been to many locales that are remote, to say the least. Who wants to fret over whether I’ll be near an eatery come lunchtime? Packing a pbj opens up the world a bit more, lets me travel by the force of my curiosity rather than by the (admittedly formidable) force of my stomach. No worries; come dinnertime, the stomach takes over again. This is me we’re talking about.

And when I’m home? It still makes a good breakfast, it still gets me through the morning, and I still use local jam or fruits whenever I can, which rocks. Yesterday, though, when I was in mourning for the loss of strawberries that WOULD be in season had there not been a double deluge this past week, I used a whole wheat wrap from Trader’s Joe’s, all-natural chunky Crazy Richard’s peanut butter, and local honey.

Sweet.

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Just shy of two weeks to submit your recipes to me for my project—your regional, homespun recipes, me cooking and gobbling and writing about them. I’m excited—keep them coming!

*You are SO laughing.

**You don’t even really need a knife to spread the goo. Once I used the handle of my toothbrush as a knife when I didn’t have one. Worked fine.

***And I tried to take the rest of the jelly and peanut butter home with me in my carry-on (I don’t check bags), only to find out the TSA considers them both liquids. I had to chuck them. Jelly I can sort of see. But peanut butter is a liquid?

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I learned a lot as I researched this post; mainly, that I need to make the radical decision to do all of my research early—like, say, before shooting. If I had, I would have made sure the lilac blossoms below were shot with the ones above. The way it is now, they look like they threw a Lego in the classroom and I put them in timeout.

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Totally hanging their heads.

Anyway. Part 2 of the edible wild series! The sun’s getting closer, it’s greening everything up, and lots of flowers that are blooming now are edible.

Some cheerful reminders:

1) Be sure that what you think you’re picking is what you are in fact picking.

2) Don’t pick from roadsides because dogs have a singular way of worshiping beauty in nature.

3) Don’t pick off other people’s lawns unless they’re pals who definitely don’t use pesticides, and besides you made them devil’s food cake pops last New Year’s Eve and they never said thank you.

Clockwise from top top:

Cherry (Prunus ‘Kwanzan’ Kanzan)

Cherry trees are in the Rose family. Look closely at a wild cherry blossom and a wild rose blossom; you’ll see the former looks like the latter’s kid sister. Pickled cherry blossoms and leaves are a treat in Japan, where an affinity with cherry trees is a sweet part of their nationalism. Note: Eat cherry leaves sparingly; they’re toxic in high amounts.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry_blossom

*

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

I caved and included dandelion blossoms in this post despite the aggravation they gave me a few weeks ago while shooting my first ‘edible wild’ post. Today’s post needed a good blast of yellow, for which they should thank their lucky stars.

Blossoms can be eaten raw (fun in salads), or battered and fried. To me they taste grassy and slightly sweet.

umm.edu/altmed/articles/dandelion-000236.htm
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Violet (Viola reichenbachiana)

Violets are the cutie patooties of the baking world these days, especially when sugared and arranged on top of cakes. This practice admittedly smacks of Martha, which isn’t always appealing, but in this case it works. A couple of purple or white violets, which have a teeny splash of purple in the middle, look really cool on a cupcake.

I’d heard that violets have a peppery flavor, so I tried one this afternoon to check. It didn’t. Just tasted grassy. Then I thought I tasted a slight, late-in-the-game pepperiness, but it’s just as likely that the garlic I had at lunch was messing with my head. Don’t have garlic for lunch one day, taste a violet and tell me the deal. Their cousins are edible as well—the pansy tastes grassy and the Johnny-Jump-Up tastes like wintergreen. Blossoms and leaves are both edible.

americanvioletsociety.org/Cooking_N_Decorating/ViolaChef_01.htm

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Crab apple (Malus)

The apple is another member of the Rose family, and their blossoms are similar as well. These blossoms have a light, delicate flavor.

The twig shown was clipped from one of the wild trees that grow around the lake and provide the crab apples for my yummy jam every fall.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malus

*

And in timeout we have:

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

I’ll admit I wouldn’t have known the lilac’s blossoms were edible if I hadn’t browsed around Anthropologie last Thursday and seen a book on recipes for edible flowers. Okay.

Intensely fragrant lilac blossoms can serve as a base for homemade syrups, jellies and infusions. But remember they’re like your great aunt who lives in Boca—she never, ever forgets your birthday, but smells as though she takes morning laps in Givenchy Dahlia Noir. A little goes a very long way.

whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers/EdibleFlowersMain.htm

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I once read a succinct account of what jam-making comes down to: ‘Take a bunch of fruit and sugar and boil the hell of it.’  Which is about as accurate as it gets. Although I haven’t yet gotten up the stones to make jam and then to can it because I’m chicken of getting whatever it is you can get if you do it wrong, I have figured out a way around this.

1) Make the jam, put it in a big Tupperware container, and put it in the freezer with a piece of parchment right on top of the fruit so it doesn’t get freezer-burny.

2) Make the jam, put it in a big Tupperware container, put it in the fridge, and eat it unabashedly every day for a week until it’s gone.*

I’ve done jam both ways, but for the following recipe, I typically do the latter.

Rhubarb, once called pieplant, is actually a vegetable, but it pairs so well with fruit that we give it a pass and treat it as such. It’s usually baked with strawberries—an admirable combination, if somewhat trite. Making marmalade out of rhubarb and citrus is a fresh way to enjoy it. And yet…this is a recipe from the turn of the last century. Everything old is new again, the early bird gets the worm, haste makes waste, etc.

I think you’ll dig it.

2 lbs. roughly chopped rhubarb (without the green leafy tops, which would give you a stomachache)

Juice of 1 orange

Juice of 1 lemon

2 cups granulated sugar**

2 oranges peeled, seeded and sectioned

Zest of 1 orange

1 lemon peeled, seeded and sectioned

Zest of 1 lemon

Put your rhubarb and juices into a deep pot.*** Bring to a boil, cover, and go check your email for about 15 minutes or until the rhubarb softens. Stir in your sugar, bring the heat back up, and boil, stirring for 5 minutes. Take the pot off the heat, stir in your citrus, and give it an occasional stir until it cools. That’s it.

This marmalade would work well on toast, or stirred into steel-cut Irish oatmeal, or drizzled warm over vanilla ice cream, or layered with yogurt. It would be killer layered between lemon cake or pound cake. It would glimmer with the collective light of the Milky Way galaxy in a Pavlova, that Australian favorite made of meringue and whipped cream. Or you could be boring like me and eat it right out of the Tupperware with whatever spoon’s clean.

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*Oh, also? Stock up on Imodium first.

**For a marmalade that’s more like, well, marmalade—that is to say, stiffer—add more sugar. The sweetness you get from 2 cups of sugar works for me, so my goo ends up with more of an applesaucy consistency.

***My pot above is enamelware and was bought at a horse farm near me, out of a barn that smelled of wood stove smoke. The splatters are from a chicken I roasted once and which insisted on leaving a bit of a grim legacy.

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Chino and me. Spring 2012, Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ.

Last year around this time I worked with an actor who was better motivated than anyone I have ever worked with. And it wasn’t by the director’s powerful encouragement, or by his own ego, or by audience accolades. He was motivated by his very favorite thing to eat.

His name was Pacino, but I called him Chino (or ‘meshuganah’, as apt a nickname for this actor as any), and there he is above. The show was The Wizard of Oz, and I had precisely one job: Him. Specifically, getting him on stage for all of his cues, receiving him when he came off stage, and keeping him safe and happy in the meantime. To do this I armed myself with fattening little dog treats which I sometimes called Scooby snacks*, and which he loved to absolute distraction. Sometimes before a show I’d entertain the humans by holding a treat a foot above his head, moving it in a circle and saying, “Pirouette!’ He would twirl on his furry little back legs and then I’d give him the treat. He could smell them in my jeans pocket and shamelessly scratched at my jeans with both paws to try to unearth more.

Right before a cue I’d have him sniff and lick at the treat I had tightly in my fingers. He’d become 100% focused on it. When I heard the cue, I’d throw the treat across the deck and let him go. He would chase the treat and catch it, Dorothy would pick him up, and we were golden. When he came off to me, I’d give him another one. My goal was to get him used to a routine so he would trust me and so he’d keep doing what I needed him to do. He was always good for it. Always.

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, treats obviously have the potential to be our undoing. Given Chino’s undying devotion to his Scooby snacks, it was no different for him. His owner told me I needed to be judicious in giving him snacks because he needed to lose a pound. (When you only weigh nine pounds, every ounce counts.)**

But the other side of Kryptonite is power.*** Wisely harnessed, really incredible treats—including food—can get us from point A to point B. And since by saying that I’ve already dragged political correctness to the curb with the recycling bins, I’m going to emphasize again: It’s okay to use treats, food or otherwise, for motivation as long as they’re administered with care. Here’s how:

1) Treat yourself on a regular basis. You’ll be happier and have fewer cravings this way, I promise. Yes, eat right most of the time; yes, get your body moving; yes, avoid Testarossa shopping if you can’t afford toothpaste. But don’t deprive yourself of good things, in good doses. Life is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

2) Reread those last two sentences and put them on sticky notes all over your house, your car and your Burmese cat if necessary.

3) Create a list of extra-special treats that can help you get past a goal. Chino’s job was very physical; he worked hard for those Scooby snacks. He was twirled around while sitting in a basket, handled by eight actors along with me, and worked more than a dozen shows. Think about what you have to hurdle over next Tuesday, and make the treat fit the crime.

4) Give yourself another treat after you’ve slain the witch. And make it good, and don’t apologize. Earn your own trust. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Gratuitous personal story: I’m looking for a full-time salary and wanted to answer an ad yesterday. I knew baking the below would be the stick of firecracker in my back pocket I needed to do it. So I baked it, and it was: hot homemade cornbread topped with my current darling, Irish butter. We have lovely little dalliances a few times a week. Then we give each other a chance to miss each other. I don’t believe in rushing romance.

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*Someone at Wizard of Oz told me this was actually a sly drug reference from the mid-1960s TV show. It’s safe to say Chino really was addicted to his Scooby snacks, though, so it turned out to be a pretty accurate choice of words.

**Once I accidentally dropped his Tupperware container of treats right in front of him, and he went after them like a S-400 anti-ballistic missile. Not a shining moment in my backstage career.

***’High levels of green Kryptonite radiation can cause normal humans to mutate and acquire superhuman abilities.’ –Wikipedia FTW, baby.

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