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Posts Tagged ‘Halloween’

On my kitchen counter I keep a little stack of recipes that I’ve torn out of my weekend New York Times. Some, like Caribbean-style ribs, look astoundingly delicious, but I’m never going to make that just for myself or I’d eat them all and they’ve have to cut me out of my apartment through the window, the way they move grand pianos out of pre-war walk-ups in the city. Recipes like that I file away for when I cook for company. For me, I do simple but powerful.

A couple of days ago for dinner I pulled just such a recipe from the stack, a spicy open-faced sandwich from Mumbai called Eggs Kejriwal. The ingredients are fairly normal, but together sound maniacal: cilantro, Cheddar cheese, red onion, a chile pepper…and mustard? Then you top it off with a fried egg and serve it with ketchup? I did it all but the ketchup, which seemed like double overkill at the time (but now that I think about it, next time I’ll give it a whirl).

You butter both sides of a slice of Pullman bread and sizzle it up in a pan until it’s lightly browned. Then you top it with the mustard, the cheese, and the rest of the veg. Pop it under the broiler until the cheese melts. In the meantime, fry the egg. You can use the same pan. Top the slice of bread with your egg, add cracked black pepper, and go to town. It’s gooey, it’s drippy, and it makes you cry, but in a good way. A perfect dinner.

The cilantro and egg I got fresh from the farm; the latter came right out from under the hen and was still warm. The recipe calls for a serrano chile. But Tom at the farm is a friend of mine and gave me a ghost pepper for free*, so I cut up a teensy bit and added that. The ghost pepper, also known as Bhut Jolokia, is the hottest chile produced, doing the Watusi at around 1,000,000 Scovilles. I keep it in my fridge crisper where it’s likely antagonizing the leftover cilantro. Adding just a 1/4 teaspoon of ghost pepper at a time pretty much assures I’ll have it until Halloween. Appropriate.

Boo.

*With apologies to Billy Joel. You Gen Xers know what song that sounds like.

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I’m guessing it couldn’t be helped. When the sour hearkens, a willing heart answers.

This is Halloween. Usually on this date I’m home handing out candy, or more likely crewing a show. This year I’m living in a high-rise and am not backstage, plus I’m taking a much-needed break, so I decided to do something I haven’t done since Halloween 1984: snoop around my old neighborhood after dark.

We’re in a liminal period right now. Halloween is the middle of an ancient three-day pagan holiday, Samhain, which marks the end of their summer and the beginning of winter. And times of transition make people nervous, no matter what year we’re living in. Everything is up in the air, and we don’t know how the chips will fall, if you’ll forgive two idioms in the same sentence. We’re in between planes now, smack in the middle of the cosmic doorway. Back in the day people believed evil spirits could come and go through that doorway during times of change.

These days, I’m feeling that liminal period hard core. New place, new work, a close relative with a questionable diagnosis, a high-voltage election looming (re: that last, I feel about it the way I felt about The English Patient: I want it over and done). Waiting to see what’s on the other side is really, really tough. I’m wondering if evil spirits—be they bad news, irrational colleagues, unintelligible insurance reps, what have you—are sniffing around my threshold. But I won’t know until I know. None of us will. And no matter how you slice it, ambiguity is a bitch.

Walking through my hometown tonight helped. It was a lot quieter than the Halloweens of yore, which was bizarre. What’s more, today’s residents have an odd preoccupation with sweeping leaves off sidewalks; we used to scuff right through them on Halloween. At the end of the night they’d be clinging to the hem of whatever costume I had on.

But another thought came to mind as I was semi-scuffing down those familiar sidewalks, and that is, this was and is a safe town, with lots of houses open for candy-hawking. We didn’t go in at the end of the night because we ran out of houses to visit, or because our moms were texting us to come home (for the pre-cell phone era at Halloween, thank the Lord, Jesus, St. Peter if he’s not too busy, and every last cherubim). We went in because our candy bags had gotten too heavy. There were still plenty of houses and plenty of candy if we wanted them. As much as we wanted, enough to fill our bags to the tops…and more still.

So maybe the trick to weathering liminal periods, when we’re (okay, me) panicking about What Might Happen, is to remember that at times of change anything’s possible. Like anything. Good stuff has just as much of a chance of dropping into our clam chowder as does bad. Anything is available to us.

I’m going to try to imagine a blue-sky future, one with dozens upon dozens of housewives at the ready with orange bowls of full-size Milky Ways. Who’s to say there isn’t plenty of plenty out there waiting for us?

Just to draw a line under that, here’s a pie.

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Improved upon a local classic this week, with apples poached in apple cider and toasted walnuts. I ate this like the Kraken coming off the Atkins diet. Just one slice left. Curses.

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With the sole exception of peanut butter, I hated nuts growing up. All of my Halloween Snickers bars and Almond Joys went directly to my sister (and she hated peanut butter, so I got her Reese’s). Peanut butter was my glory. It had to be smooth, though; crunching through nuts appalled me.

Then I outgrew it—all of it and then some. Now there is no nut I won’t eat, although I draw the line at adding them to cookies and brownies. I work in marzipan, grinding my own almonds. And I want my peanut butter as crunchy as they’ll make it.

But recently I read that peanut butter is carcinogenic in high quantities, which is essentially how I was eating it. Peanut butter and homemade jam on hearty bread makes a filling breakfast, no matter how old you are. Same deal on apples and bananas. What could ever replace it? I like almond butter, and I like my homemade walnut butter, but neither touch my heart quite like peanut.

Enter cashews—and it occurs to me now that there was one nut I ate growing up: this one, salted. To me it’s the most assertive, richest, heartiest nut there is. It’s the Bradley Cooper of nuts, if he put on 35 pounds or so.

But I couldn’t find it anywhere in chunky, and why I still haven’t figured out. So I bought a jar of smooth with salt from Trader Joe’s, took a spoonful in the parking lot and tested it. Win for flavor, but very runny. So I went back inside and bought a bag of raw cashews, brought them home and toasted them, ground them up a bit. Then little by little, added them to the jar.

People often tell me how resourceful I am, which is very nice. A lot of my food ideas flop, or take forever to get right, so when an idea nails it from minute one….well, this is the kind of resourceful I am proudest of.

That’s it. All I wanted to tell you. Just how GOOD this is. Better than peanut butter, much as I love it. I can’t wait to dunk some good quality dark chocolate in there. Happy Mond…oh crap. Tuesday.

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High-tide line, Atlantic Ocean.

red light green light

the feeling of almost,/the door between worlds ajar, now,/as two lights dim and fade to black/shape shifting within square one/scary, illuminating, boundless/the taste of chocolate/warm possibilities/second, and third, and more, chances,/as many as I want/swirling in circles like the leaves/this night between two days/slowly slowly letting its cloak fall

*

I wrote the above almost five years ago, just before I was about to move out on my own for the second time in my life. It’s striking how often life requires this of us, whether it’s literally moving (across town, across the country, or across oceans) or figuratively moving (away from old thinking into new). The only thing we can safely predict while we’re on this big blue ball is that nothing stays the same.

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A box turtle, weighing his options on my street in 2010.

When I was moving out in 2010, I held in my mind a statement I’d seen recently (funny how you see and hear what you need when you need it, right?) that said the human default reaction to change tends to be fear, but why can’t it be excitement? Why can’t we choose to see change as an adventure? This perspective helped me a lot during that Matterhorn of a year. I kept reminding myself that being in square one meant being in the unique position of being a shape-shifter. We can do, go, be, feel anything in square one.

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Women chilling at the beach at sunset.

Here’s another one: I was crap at bio, but I remember this tidbit from one of my classes: it’s at the edges—where the water meets the sand, where the grass meets the wood, where one ecosystem abuts another—that the greatest diversity and activity are present.

Think of harbor cities, and how they tend to be filled with people, languages, and foods from everywhere. Think of the wet sand just at the high-tide line, where mussels, clams, and other bivalves lie atop the sand, with sand crabs and more below. Everything on the dry end is bumping up against everything that just came in. Think of inland, where backyards and mini-malls bump up against property lines, where the tidied and civilized meets the wild and unspoiled—those are the places you’ll find an abundance of wildlife.

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Beach plums, which the deer like as much as I do.

It’s at the edges, of sand and land, where children love to play and dream most. As soon as they’re old enough, beach kids are at the high tide line, running, digging, splashing. I saw some tween girls at the beach one evening not long ago, creeping around the jetty rocks which hold back the ocean. I asked what they were doing and they said, ‘Just looking around.’ ‘For a class or just for fun?’ ‘Just for fun.’* Grownups are at the water’s edge, too—fishing, harvesting mussels, walking, thinking. Much activity.

Go to a barbecue at a house that edges a little bit of tangled brush, and that’s where the kids are tramping around, their parents squalling across the yard to be careful of poison ivy. There are acres and acres of beautiful grass in my hometown’s ball field…and we kids ambled right across it to poke around in the narrow strip of wood at its edge. That was where the late-spring honeysuckle grew, perfect for a sweet hit on our tongues, and where we learned orange flowers taste sweeter than white. It’s where the fern-like plant, the one that closed up when you touched it, lived.** There was not a whole lot to discover in the flat, level grass.

It’s at the water’s edge and at the grass’s edge where I’m happiest, for the same reason the kids are. I never outgrew that. And bonus: it’s inevitably where the foraging is best. At the edges of sidewalks I find purslane. At the edges of my town I find wild crab apples, hibiscus, and mint. At the edges of park lands and fancy shopping plazas I find elderflowers. At the edges of the lake I find mulberry trees. At the Sandy Hook peninsula, jutting out into the Atlantic, I find prickly pear and beach plums. And every year, along the edge of some beach or some property line, I discover something new.

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The end of my road, overlooking the lagoon.

I live at the beach, at the very edge of a continent. With the exception of six years away at school—boarding and then college—I have never lived anywhere else, and I’d really rather not. College especially was an uncomfortable shock: I learned what ‘land-locked’ meant. Who would think a person could feel claustrophobic with miles and miles of open space around her? Who would imagine the sense of relaxation and reassurance that could come from being at a definite boundary? Last winter I spent many an evening on the jetty of my beach, wanting to stand as closely as I safely could to the ocean, just to feel that reassurance. It’s like the maps they have at the mall, the ones that show an X, a you-are-here, don’t-worry-you’re-good identifier. There is peace in that X.

We are all at the edge of a equinoctial change now, too. Here in the northern hemisphere, Fall is imminent. Halloween is derived from the Wiccan feast of Samhain, which marks the beginning of winter. It’s believed this time is a liminal one, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinner and can be traversed by spirits. Some cultures leave food, light candles, and more to appease the spirits and keep them from haunting homes.

Very similar are threshold myths: In ancient times it was believed doorways were another kind of edge, another liminal place. Like the two ecosystems butting up against each other, there is potential for significant, and in this case possibly dangerous, activity; anything can happen in this divider between worlds. Spirits, some potentially harmful, were believed to loiter in doorways. This is why grooms carry brides over thresholds—to prevent them from being snatched away.

Edges are powerful places.

This Fall (and whenever we’re up against an edge), I hope we own the chance to be shape-shifters, and are able to chase away fear and own that power.

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*So much for attesting that kids can’t look up from their phones, huh? ๐Ÿ™‚

**We never learned its name, but thinking back, it must have been carnivorous. How cool is that?

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Hot pastrami on rye, Ben’s Best, Queens.

It’s not like it ever stops, but lately it seems societal angst about food has been escalating, spinning off madly into illogic. It’s worrisome, and it’s not necessary.

Here’s the thing, and I’m speaking as someone who knows from illness (most of my 30s) that kept me from eating a lot of foods, and from being overweight (through high school and college). I learned a lot from being fat and from being sick. The answers are actually pretty simple, so let’s not make it any harder than it has to be.

1) Food is about balance. It’s not about eliminating entire food groups, or about denouncing natural ingredients, or about imposing senseless deprivation upon ourselves. Let’s keep sugar, fats, and carbs off the cosmic dartboard. That’s no way to live.

The body can manage short bouts of overdoing the fat and calories. While in Scotland for a week I watched my ex eat a classic UK breakfast: bangers, buttered toast, eggs, the works. This meal was for centuries the rich but wholesome foundation of a working farmer’s day, and that farmer needed every calorie. My ex is not a farmer. Yet he survived. For a week, the body can handle almost anything.

Historically, the human race has more or less structured their lives around eating moderate portions of wholesome foods plus the odd treat during the week, and blowing the lid off a bit on weekends (Sunday dinner) and holidays (eggnog). This system worked pretty well. It’s when we started to eat as if every day was a weekend, as if every day was a holiday, that we got ourselves into trouble.

Now a lot of people hand out stickers on Halloween instead of candy. This is a tragedy and a travesty, an adulterated—and I use that word deliberately—slam in the face of tradition. Part of the euphoria kids feel on Halloween is based on indulging in treats—treats that, during the year, they’re only allowed on occasion. Adults need to act like adults again. We need to re-establish moderation, to maintain balance in everyday eating. Lose the damn stickers. For one night a year, bring back the Milky Ways.

2) Food is pleasure. There is nothing quite like experience of eating the first slurpy peach of the season, or a warm fat heirloom tomato pulled off the vine. But neither is there anything quite like Aunt Rosemary’s lasagna fresh from the oven, or Mom’s sour cream coffee cake. These foods deserve honor, not our projected castigation and reproach. Too much of anything is no good, be it Pop-Tarts or fresh blueberries. Enjoy rich foods, every single mouthful. Eat them slowly. Appreciate them. Write about it and describe it passionately, if you’re as nutty as I am. Treat them like the treats they are.ย 

3) Food is connection. Food is not just for silencing hunger. Other hungers are fed as well: our need to express love and to feel loved, to protect and to feel safe, to share memories and to remember. I love cooking for people, and I love tasting other people’s gifts of food. Everybody gets so excited. It’s powerful. I love sharing what I’m eating and being offered bits of my friends’ food. Some people hate that, but not me. It’s a sign of intimacy. When you go out a lot to eat with actors, food gets passed around. I have one friend who never wants his pickle, so I take it. Recently I picked all of the peaches out of his fruit cocktail with my fingers. It’s not classy, but it’s home—even if you’re away from it.

Go easy on yourselves, everybody. Keep balance in your eating. Enjoy everything. We’re supposed to be happy on this planet.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a peanut butter moose tracks cone. And I’ll live.

 

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Thanksgiving’s just a few weeks away. And while I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony, I am one to give credit, and thanks, where they’re due; and this seemed like the perfect time.

So. A schtickle of backstory.

I started blogging in 2011, on a lark, at the suggestion of a friend. Why? Because I just sorta decided (on another lark)* one day that I was going to be a food writer. Which makes no conceivable sense: my background is in business writing and editing, and I had precisely zero experience writing from my own point of view, let alone about food. I wrote crowd-pleasers like website copy, newsletters and fundraising appeals. Food was just something I thought about a lot and talked about a lot. Okay, a ton. But still. Write about it?

I knew very little about food blogs (still do, because I want to be sure to maintain my own voice), but I knew I didn’t want it to be just narcissistic blather, or to be cliche (how many blogs are out there with titles like ‘Fun With Cilantro’? Not that cilantro’s not fun, mind you; it’s a veritable RIOT at office potlucks, but I don’t want to oversell it, either). I also have no formal training of any kind in taking pictures; I don’t know a shutter speed from an F stop (is that the term?).

Since I’m clueless about technology, another friend set me up on WordPress. When he was done he said, ‘You’re ready.’ ‘What do I do now?’ ‘Well…you write something.’ ‘Right…yeah.’

I’d like to say I sat down and cheerfully banged out a stellar post within an hour.** I didn’t. But I did like my first post, rough as it reads to me now, which was an argument against letting outside forces dictate what you were and were not capable of creating in the kitchen.*** I’m a sociology nerd, too. I love ingredients and I love recipes, I do, you guys know I do. But I’ll always be more fascinated by how we approach food as a culture, what it means in our lives, how we shape it, and how it shapes us. Lucky for me there are so many of you out there, Eve’s Apple’s**** lovely crew of faithful readers, who like to talk about it with me.

My hat is off to friends and family who have supported me from the get-go, who read over the first few posts and offered feedback, coaching (see technology quip above), and recipes. And it’s off once more with an audacious flourish to the friends I’ve never met, most notably my LinkedIn food tribe, with whom I speak daily. I’m honored to have readers throughout the U.S. and all over the world, the collective wisdom of ranchers, retired farm wives, bankers, caretakers, artisans and many more, all of whom can discuss with me everything from why we don’t handcraft the way people did 100 years ago to the beauty of organic lard.

You trust me with your photos, your recipes, your memories, and your questions. You’re respectful of each other’s opinions and offer advice to each other. You’re willing to sift through my semi-coherent ramblings every week and encourage, counsel and make me laugh. You more often call my posts articles, or essays, not just pedestrian ‘blog posts’ (which is all they are), which is humbling. I can throw any topic out there—and goodness knows I do—and you all take it and run like slippery midnight bandits.

You want to celebrate with me the macro (farm stands versus supermarkets ), the micro (the smoke point of olive oil) and the warm underbelly (Halloweens of long ago). You get what I mean when I talk about the majesty of the simple. In my mind, you are the authorities when it comes to food, and sharing it, and I continue to be astonished at how much you have to teach me. You have made my world bigger, and have made me a more competent writer. I’m grateful to have this forum so I can keep learning.

Thank you. You’ve taught a girl typing alone at the beach so much.

*Truth be told, this one was a sparrow.

**I’d also like a pony.

***Here’s how much of a technodweeb I am: I didn’t even know you could add photos to posts. Consequently the first fat handful of posts were photo-free. Sorry about that.

****I almost called it Semisweet, but that name was taken. Not the bummer I thought it was ๐Ÿ™‚

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I have never bobbed for an apple. Nor have I toilet papered, Silly-Stringed, made popcorn balls, or played that game with the suspended doughnuts which you eat with your hands tied behind your back. Not that I’m complaining. The Halloweens I had as a kid in the ’70s-’80s were pretty much unimproveable. I talked about them in last year’s late October post, which is quite the romp if you want to revisit.
But as an amateur folklorist, somebody who’s fascinated by old stories, old traditions and especially holiday lore, I love hearing the way things were. I asked my mom, who grew up in a tiny NJ beach town in the 40s and 50s, what the holiday was like for her back then. She still uses the archaic spelling ‘Hallowe’en’, with an apostrophe, which acknowledges the word’s origin (All Hallows’—or spirits—eve, or evening). She has the below to say.
‘Memories are of Tootsie Rolls and apples (Dad). We put our own costumes together as older children. Don’t think there were store-bought ones. Memories of Mischief Night are vivid. Can still imagine running thru our neighborhood with 7th and 8th grade friends and getting tangled in clotheslines (every backyard staple then). We didn’t do any mischief that I remember, but got to go out after dark with our friends for an hour. Very safe small town, patrolled by police, just in case. The police were mostly trying to catch the boy who successfully hung a dummy from the town water tower every year. Don’t think they ever did catch him, even though the whole town knew who he was!!’
(I should note that I asked if she still remembered the name of the kid responsible, and she said, ‘Of course.’ Mind you, this is some 60 years after the fact. He’s not even alive anymore, but I still won’t rat him out here; I’m haunted enough by Algebra II, circa 1984, and Rachael Ray’s voice.
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I know a local woman in her 90s who told me a few years ago that for all of her adult life she has made popcorn balls on Halloween for neighborhood kids. Growing up we all thought this woman had a big mouth and labeled her a witch with a capital B. But now, knowing she made these…wow. Making popcorn balls is a bear; it’s hot syrup, plus the work of forming them in a short amount ofย  time. There’s a narrow window between the time the syrup’s so hot that it will burn your hands and the time it’s gotten too cool to work with. It’s a very physical project. How horrible could she have been if she went through this every year for trick-or-treaters? Unless the syrup was sweetened with hemlock, she’s kinda saintlike to me now. And what’s wrong with a woman with a big mouth? Just keep the words honest and have some brains about you, and you’re fine, I’d say. Does anyone make popcorn balls for Halloween?
Back in the day, this holiday was a special treat; it was the first night when people dug into their winter stores of nuts. Nut-Crack Night! Does anyone have memories of this, or did your parents ever talk about it?
Write and tell me what years you were celebrating Halloween as a kid, and where. Who sewed their own costumes? Who went out on Mischief Night, and what did you do? Who remembers school Halloween pageants? Who sang Halloween songs? (Yes, they exist…I sang them in 1973.) Who told ghost stories on this night? Who knows the secret to bobbing for apples without soaking your melon? (There’s a way! There’s a way!) What was your favorite jack o’lantern, hand-carved, without a stencil, and holding a real, lit candle? Remember the smell?
Talk to me…the older the memory, the better. But I love it all.
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*Wordpress isn’t letting me caption, so psst! Here I am. These ghost candles are part of my small vintage Halloween collection. I was just going to buy one, but the antique store guy gave me a two-fer. Now they terrorize the populace together. Mid century. I like that the older the ghost, the pointier his hood gets.
**This is a metal noisemaker with a wooden handle from the ’20s. I like how they threw the Devil on there. (People used to think that pagans worshipped the Devil. But the Devil is a Christian thing, so why would they worship something Christian? Fun fact: They wouldn’t. And don’t.) It makes a cool clanging noise. Noisemakers were used on Halloween for the same reason people use them on New Year’s Eve—to chase away evil spirits.
*** This cute little dude is made of painted cardboard, also circa ’20s. The antique guy told me it was made to be a candy holder.

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