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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gaiman’

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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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Vintage German Advent calendar with very subtle Hansel and Gretel undertones. The angel in the upper left is about to munch on a hot pretzel.

There are lots of versions of Hansel and Gretel. This past week I read the most recent, so new that the book’s spine made a little creaking noise when I opened it. I got palpitations when I snatched it from the librarian’s hands and scurried home, one, because I’m an English nerd, specifically a folklore nerd; and two, because Neil Gaiman wrote it, and he’s no lily-livered twat who would shellac over snuggly themes like cannibalism and abandonment.

And bless his melancholic little heart, he didn’t do that. But despite the above, what struck me most was the gnawing, pervasive theme of hunger throughout his version. There’s the strictly food-hunger perspective:

-When we meet the children and their parents they are poor but not hungry. Soon, though, their country goes to war and they are always hungry. This propels the parents to leave Hansel and Gretel in the woods.

-The animals in the forest eat the bread crumbs Hansel has dropped to find the way back home.

-The children are so hungry that they eat bits from the old woman’s gingerbread house.

-The old woman is hungry for protein; her house is a trap for those who would snack on it.

But it’s also a story about how other kinds of hunger can motivate (for good and ill):

-The father doesn’t want to abandon his children, but his hunger to stay in his wife’s good graces makes him lead them into the forest.

-Hansel’s hunger to stay alive gives him wiles enough to trick the old woman into thinking he’s not getting fat enough to eat.

-Gretel’s hunger to save herself and her brother gives her wiles enough to feign stupidity and push the old woman into the oven.

-The father’s hunger to find his children and bring them home (and surely to assuage his guilt as well) sends him into the forest every day to search for them.

-The mother’s hunger (for what it is not clear, and even the author does not know) writes her early-death certificate.

It’s hunger—for food, certainly, but also for acceptance and for life and for freedom—that drives these characters.

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I’d be remiss if, in a post about hunger, I didn’t mention the hungry around us. Food shelters happily accept a single can of food or an SUV-ful. This week many supermarkets in the U.S. are asking patrons to donate a dollar or more to food banks as well. The other day the Pope spoke pretty powerfully about the dangers of greed, pinpointing it as our downfall if we keep turning a blind eye. It’s my hope that our hunger to do right will propel all of us to feed those who are food-hungry.

But in real life as in stories, there’s more to hunger than food-hunger; and no matter the variety, deprivation is all it’s cracked up to be. For those who are hungry in other ways—for attention, for a shoulder, for a laugh, for the truth, for a little peace—give a dollar’s worth if you don’t have much. Give more if your personal bank is in the black. Most of the time people, in my experience, are just hungry to be seen…really seen.

May we all be fed and be filled—bellies and hearts alike.

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Strawberry blueberry mulberry clafouti–a combination I threw in the pan one day, and now it’s my favorite.

I recently read Gaiman’s Coraline, in which a ballsy little girl outsmarts, outruns, and hands assorted monsters their rear ends; but this same little girl won’t touch anything her dad cooks.

I’ve been trying to make sense of Little Miss Paradox, and think I might have it: she doesn’t like that he cooks from recipes, that they always produce freakish chicken with tarragon or some such nonsense. This is a child who goes looking for adventure, and when she can’t find any, looks harder. She gets scared, she gets into trouble that’s far more whack than her dad’s chicken, she gets herself out of it, and she goes looking for it again. It follows that she wouldn’t want food made according to a set plan, dinner that’s made on a tidy little track going from Point A to B.*

My kitchen sees both, when it comes to me. I’m equally comfortable with a recipe and with winging it; and admit with zero shame that I have found trouble at the end of both wooden spoons.

On the other hand, there are those who are thrilled with a set plan. My octogenarian uncle had absolutely no problem having a weekly dinner schedule—precisely the same dinner on Monday, and another on Tuesday, and etc., for his entire marriage. When another elderly family friend goes to his favorite Italian restaurant, one that has been around since the 1940s, he gets the ravioli. And I mean every single time. Yet another family friend (gone now) had pizza every Friday night—the same kind of pizza, no less, and it had to be from the same pizza place—for decades. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s a male thing. I don’t know. But I don’t think so.

What makes a person choose recipes versus routines? And what makes others scoff at both?

*Neil, if you’re reading this, correct me. And ohmygod, hi. And wow.

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Comfort food #1: gingerbread-chocolate chunk cookies.

I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s about a little boy’s surreal adventure with his neighbors (and monsters. We’re talking about Gaiman here). And in his characteristically masterful way, he drives home his plot without ever coming near a cliche.

To show the difference between the climate in the boy’s home (precarious) and the climate in his neighbors’ home (safe), Gaiman uses food. We learn the boy has grown up scared of it: his grandmother would tell him not to gobble as he ate. School food was to be eaten in tiny portions. And if he didn’t like something served at the dinner table, he’d be chastised for not finishing it. All of this sorely damaged his relationship with food.

Then we’re shown a stark contrast: the boy enjoys hearty portions and happy mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie and spotted dick* at his neighbors’ house. These folks care for him and protect him unconditionally. In the safety of their kitchen he feels comfortable and accepted, and for the first time in his life, he is able to eat, and eat well—without fear.

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Lemon curd, cooling and regrouping.

Having a safe place to eat is a fundamental, primal need. Where do you have to be to relax when eating?

Mind you…I don’t mean eating food that tastes best in certain places, as in eating crabs by the beach, or Brie and baguettes in Paris. That’s about charm and locale. I’m talking about eating in a place that’s peaceful and comfortable enough that you can have your fill and be satisfied.

I think of the squirrels outside my window, who will nibble a seed while sitting on the ground, but if they win the carb lottery with half a discarded bagel they will scoot up a tree to eat it. I think of my late and much-missed dog, who—much to the consternation of my mom—always ran into the dining room to eat on the silk Oriental rug. I think of my favorite hangout when I was home from college**, a place lit by ancient, battered candles, checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, crappy, slanted paintings on the wall, the best thick-cut, toasted, buttered pound cake I have ever tasted, and Dutch coffee—a concoction that’s about 10% coffee and 90% heavy cream, whipped cream, and butter. The place was started by hippies and since I am a hippie, I sank into my chair like butter on that pound cake and was completely content. I was relaxed enough to taste—really taste—every single bite. Aside from my own dining room table today, that’s my place.

Where is it for you?

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Homemade Nutella (gianduja)–warm semisweet chocolate, toasted and ground hazelnuts, cream, butter and a little sugar.

*A classic UK pudding of cake studded with currants or raisins and served with custard. I saw it on the menu in a pub in a tiny Scottish village called Pool of Muckhart. It was a toss-up, but I had the jam roly-poly instead.

I love the UK.

**The Inkwell in West End, NJ, now and forever.

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