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Posts Tagged ‘NJ’

Been a bit of an arduous Fall so far, as evidenced by the big wall of space between the last time I blogged (two months ago) and now (currently), but I’ve been tossing around lots of ideas. Let’s start with this one:

Every year at the end of August, I go beach plumming half an hour north on Sandy Hook, NJ, a six-mile stretch of pines, sand, WWII training ground remnants, and the odd white-tailed deer. A local pastry chef commissions me to forage for him throughout the year, and one of his favorite ingredients is beach plums, the little wild and astringent ones the size of cherries that grow on Sandy Hook. He candies them and adds them to desserts, and people go crazy.

This year I thoughtlessly* hurt my back a few days before my plum excursion. But I had promised Matt I’d get him a bunch of plums, and besides, after working so hard for so long I really needed a foraging fix in the near wilderness. I went. It took me about 45 minutes to get in and out of the car, but I went.

And despite my injury—or maybe because of it—I ventured more deeply into the wilds, and took more chances, and consequently found more plum bushes. Getting totally lost on this remote peninsula as night was coming on would be a serious matter. But I needed to get lost a little.

Beach plum bushes in this area are ancient and leggy and scratchy. You have to maneuver your way into the center of them in order to get the most fruit. This work is not for the fearful or dainty. I never remember to wear a long-sleeved shirt, I always pay for it with slim cuts up my arms, and every time I’m afraid that standing on one foot and reaching will one day make me pay even more dearly if the aged branches give and I fall into poison ivy. It’s difficult enough work without an injured back.

But I got several quarts of plums, and while standing in the middle of my last bush, so old and tall that it was all dry leafless twigs, I reached, and was surprised that its brittle bones didn’t give. The farther I reached, the more resolutely it gripped me. It didn’t let me fall.

 

 

*I have a little problem with feeling invincible, and not surprisingly, it can get me into trouble. In this episode, I lowered a heavy six-foot upholstery table without help** and felt it in my lower back for two solid weeks.

**Don’t do this.

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The little bits of chopped peanut on top didn’t hurt.

Notes from an afternoon in Princeton, last Wednesday. God, but I ate well, but I’ll come back to that.

Background: I went to a small boarding school nearby with students from all over the world. You couldn’t help but become friends with kids from Orlando, FL, the Caribbean, the Ivory Coast, Bangkok, Taiwan, because that’s largely whom you bumped into in the halls and while brushing your teeth at night. A few years of living with a variety of faces and accents felt very normal, which I didn’t realize until I went to a college where everyone looked like me and was mostly from NJ or PA. It was a good college, but it felt bland as pasta straight out of the pot.

Foreground: Princeton was crowded, cold and grey though it was. A handful of us were ordinary Caucasian Americans. The rest? It was like the U.N. was on its lunch break and pouring down Nassau Street. Here, as at my high school, this was the rule.

I heard Cockney English spoken behind me outside the bookstore, Russian beside me at the crosswalk. A group of three—two young students of Middle Eastern and Latino descent and an African-American cop—were chatting idly and chuckling outside a falafel shop, their breaths puffing in the cold.

the bent spoon, my favorite ice cream shop in NJ, was closed for vacation. Which pained me, as it was Chocolate Day and I had planned to make it count, but on my way there I had spotted a sign outside Jammin’ Crepes advertising a Mousse Parfait special. It wasn’t chocolate, but it was probably worth trying my tears for. The place is fantastic.

I sat down and ate the above—that’s peanut butter mousse layered with homemade jam and whipped cream, with toasted sugared crepe chips on the side—very slowly. This was while listening to a couple speaking Parisien French right beside me (p.s., they ate every bite of their crepes, and they’d know from crepes) and another couple speaking the Queen’s English behind me.

Diversity reminds me of some of the best years of my life, simply put. I feel calmer when the people around me don’t look and sound just like me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I actually feel like I fit in better. It was an immensely peaceful experience.

And I noticed on my way back to my car that those two kids and the cop were still kibitzing in the cold about nothing in particular.

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When I learned a few years back that crab apples weren’t just decorative, I went a lil nuts. First I made them into schnapps (electric red and fantastic), then I made applesauce. One significant lesson: They’re a pain in the patoot to work with (they have tiny seeds like sesame seeds), and can be dry. I now turn on some good tunes to keep me company while chopping, and hit them with the schnapps for sweetener and to juice them up. That helps.

Recently I picked a bunch of my usual red crab apples by the lake and put them in the fridge to work with later. (Like their cousins, your regular cultivated apples, they keep very well.) One day soon after I was driving along a busy stretch of highway and spied trees with deep yellow fruit. I flipped out a little, not so much that I was a menace to the other drivers, but just enough that I pulled into the nearest lot. Thinking they were wild persimmons, I scampered back along the road, came upon the trees…and saw they were crab apples. Just yellow ones.

Bummed out a bit. I only know of two wild persimmon trees in the area, and I get the stink-eye when I forage there, so this would have been a solid find. But no. Turned around, headed halfway back to the car, then said, ‘Although. Yellow crab apples. That’s new.’ And so I turned around again.

(Hence, TIP: If any of you happened to see someone pacing back and forth along Route 36 in Oceanport, NJ last week, like the girl version of Hamlet in a black leather jacket, that was me.)

They were really healthy for fruit from wild trees. I picked a bunch. Here’s how they look in my bag….

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…and here’s how they look cooked down with their red brothers, on top of toast and a layer of mascarpone for teatime…

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…and, non sequitor, here’s the author. Today is my birthday, and I shot this in early July. This is what almost 47 looks like.

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All through the ’70s and ’80s, on the first Saturday or Sunday (I forget which) of August, I did the same thing every year: Before my family would get in the car in the morning with all of our beach stuff, I’d walk down to the driveway’s apron and look north, a block and a half to the ball field, to see the flags posted. It was the official signal that volunteers were setting up our small town’s annual picnic. All kids love rituals—I defy you to show me one that doesn’t—but this kid is nutty about them. Another picnic!

(A note: Have you ever heard someone use the expression ‘small town,’ and then you find out it has 7500 people? Yeah, a recent census clocked in Interlaken, NJ at 820 residents. Small. Town.)

My best friend at the time lived a few streets away, and he called this event Interlaken Day. We just called it the picnic. It was neighbors, people who tiptoed over icy streets to my family’s annual Eggnog Party on New Year’s Day, who plowed out our driveway without asking when it snowed. We waved and called each other over from porches all summer. And it was extended family, many of whom who lived in town with us. The picnic was kind of like a reunion between people you never really said goodbye to in the first place.

During the day there were games and races, but not being especially sporty types, we kids never missed them. We’d walk over after the beach, around dinnertime. My parents would head under the trees, where all of the grownups would be parked in lawn chairs. Many of my relatives weren’t big beach people, so they made of day of it: three aunts (sisters), uncles, and lots of older cousins—the first- and second-removed type. They’d ask us how the beach was, and if we’d eaten yet. Italians, you understand.

One of my removed-type cousins was a plumber who had a glossy black toupee and a jolly demeanor—an admirable combination. He manned the beer stand and introduced the band, which was made up of local people. When he got old enough, my third cousin John ran the corn table and then the hot dog table; the latter were courtesy of lifelong residents, the Haydus, who lived a block away and had a hot dog company.

When we were little there were pony rides led by my babysitter, another resident. No Moonwalks or anything like that. They weren’t invented yet; and besides, people would have figured if you were at a ball field outfitted with ponies, a jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts, and a bunch of grass to run around on, anything extra was silly. Which it is.

One year we brought my dog to the picnic, a perpetually hungry Lhasa Apso, and while my parents were chatting with neighbors he ate a carton of sauerkraut that someone had spilled beer into. When we went home that night he drank a full bowl of water in one go.

I live right next to my hometown. Last Friday I saw signs posted around advertising that the the picnic was to take place the following day. We used to get notices in the mail on pale blue paper in the beginning of the summer. Maybe they still do that, too.

In the morning I went out to see if the flags were up. They were.

In the late afternoon I took to my bike and rode by. I saw people sitting under the trees, and food booths with little awnings, which was new. Still no Moonwalk, mercifully. Instead of a band they piped in music: it was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

I remembered a year I rode my bike to the picnic. It must have been 1986 because that was when the Monkees went on their 25th anniversary tour, MTV had a marathon of their ’60s TV show to promote the tour, and I became a rabid fan. I remember coasting through the streets humming, ‘The Girl That I Knew Somewhere’ (which is a fantastic song, and because you’re just dying to know, it was featured in the episode that guest-starred Julie Newmar.) I remembered the late-afternoon sun through the trees, riding with no hands, and a hot dog in the forecast.

Most of my family is long passed. The rest have moved away. I didn’t have anyone to visit under the trees when I went by yesterday. But the picnic was pretty much the same.

I think the biggest surprise you get when you become an adult is not that you have to work and pay taxes and take on responsibilities. You knew that was coming.

It’s how suddenly things change. Sometimes the changes are subtle, and other times they clobber you upside the head and blindside you. You climb a mountain and say to yourself, Okay, good, I’ve worked hard, I’ve got my footing, I’m getting the hang of this mountain, I can do this, and then you find out it’s not really a mountain, it’s actually really a river, and now you have to learn to swim, and you didn’t bring enough sunblock.

But people still sit under the trees at a picnic in a tiny town at the Jersey Shore. As I write this I’m walking in my memory, crunching over the first fallen acorns, telling my relatives the beach today was good; and starving, as all 12-year-olds, and Lhasa Apsos, are.

And they still set the flags first thing in the morning. They’ve been doing that for half a century or more. It’s not my family and my neighbors now. But it’s cool enough.

La la la la life goes on.

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I spent this week outsmarting insects called no-see-ums, dismantling and cleaning my apartment, and restoring it after a fumigation, just as everyone enjoys doing a week before Christmas. Me in black leggings tucked into new and surprisingly tight black* Hanes socks, with a long-sleeved shirt tucked into my waistband, to deter the biters. Dressed like this while dragging out paper snowflakes, ceramic light-up houses, and a suped-up tree stand. I looked like a Goth elf. But I beat the invisible little suckers.**

This is good news. And because I’m tenacious and in decent shape, the house is clean, aired, and bug-less. But I’m not ashamed to say this ordeal wore me out. Extra treats have been essential to get me from point A to point B, and I have been enjoying them without the faintest trace of guilt. Christmastime offers up some awesome once-a-year treats. Maybe you could use a couple yourself. Here we go.

Things that Cheer Me Right Back Up

-Driving past the house nearby that has a porch decorated with lit trees and a life-sized Santa.

-Making gingerbread men (to be continued; the dough’s in the fridge to firm up). Finding a cookie cutter for them has proved preposterously futile, so I’m cutting them out freehand. Edibility is the only requisite here, which is good.

-Dim sum and crepes, plus homemade stuff: mozzarella in carrozza, burgers made in the manner of English spiced beef, proper stuffing (which I sadly missed at Thanksgiving), and sour cream coffee cake. The recipe is here.

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The Cake. It won a ribbon at the county fair and is a Christmas morning tradition. One year I even put it under the tree as a present to me. Maybe I’ll do it again.

-Following the local volunteer fire truck as the guys dress up and deliver early gifts to our kids. The kids jump up and down in picture windows and I can see them mouthing SANTA!

-Decorating my tree, which I keep in my room, and which was cut down by a gold miner (truth). Yukon Cornelius made a rare appearance in Colts Neck, NJ. He looked great for his age.

-Filling the bedroom with white pine to keep the tree company.

-Visiting the antiques store to see bits and pieces of Christmases past.

-Buying myself a rhinestone necklace and wearing it home from the mall, even though I had on work boots. Logic, schmogic.

-Observing the sky at dusk on New Year’s Day to predict what kind of a year 2016 will be. It’s an old custom. You want to look for a cloud shaped, however vaguely, like a bull. Totally not kidding! Look it up.

-Reading my old book of Christmas ghost stories, which are less scary than they are quaint.

-Sending Christmas cards. I might be one of the only people who likes this activity. That and eating fruitcake (caveat: homemade).

-Opening my vintage Advent calendars, which are German, at least 50 years old, and were owned by my neighbors growing up.

Sweet.

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Girl after my own heart.

*I wear black clothes a lot. It matches everything, plus it’s all that’s allowed backstage.

**These guys can get in through window screens. Explains why I never saw them.

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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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.┬áIt’s against darkness that we can see dimension and shape.

*

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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A planned life is a dead one. –Lauren Bacall

The Greens

I left on a walk today with no plans on where to go. Like none. Headed a few blocks west and thought, well…I don’t have enough spinach left for my salad tonight. I’ll go pick dandelion greens. So I went to a spot that’s: 1) untended public lands (pesticides unlikely) 2) away from sidewalks (and their attendant leaky dogs).

And did well, as you can see above. Dandelion greens are tenderest and the least bitter when no longer than a finger—shorter, if you can get them. And I have little fingers.

The Visit Home

Then, since these lands are opposite the ballfield where I spent most of my childhood, I decided to poke around a little and see what was new in the old haunt. We kids owned that place, and it was our home. No hyperbole.

There’s a batting cage and a tennis court, plus sometimes people tee off just for fun, much to the irritation of the cops. And apparently the aim of today’s suburban athletes hasn’t improved from days of yore; there were as many balls in the woods as there were old sycamore branches. You could open a Sports Authority.

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Okay, a kiosk.

And I see kids still have offline fun. Kind of heartening.

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‘Kinda loud’ JUST DOESN’T CUT IT.

I wandered to the northeast corner of the ballfield where we used to play an outdoor version of house, on the rough grounds that straddle the gully. It was usually dry, but got muddy when it rained a lot. The spot is overgrown now, and backs up against new houses. But in the day…it was a freaking kingdom.

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New Jersey’s version of Terabithia.

The Poultry

Right up against this corner is a house that—wow—now has a chicken coop? In Interlaken? And here comes a blonde woman to feed them, and—*resist passing out from shock*—I know her?

‘Hi! What are you doing?’ she asks.

‘Foraging.’

‘Oh, okay.’

As if she’s just asked where I got my pants, and I’d said, ‘L.L. Bean.’ But she does raise chickens in the tidiest, sweetest little suburb in the Western hemisphere. So her chill reaction makes sense.

Leslie’s husband makes hot sauce for a living. She’s trained in herbal medicine, grows a lot of that sort of thing, and raises these Rhode Island Red chickens. She ran inside for a dozen fresh-laid eggs for me.

And that’s how I came to carry a fistful of rapidly wilting greens and a dozen eggs through a town that has no stores of any kind. Well…I have had weirder moments in that town.*

The Last Surprise

I was stunned to see white violets (Viola sororia) growing a month earlier than usual. Here, these are May belles. Then I was further knocked out to see a variety I’d never seen before…and I know every flower in this one-horse town. It’s a violet, but can’t figure out what kind. Does anyone know? White with Pollack-esque purple speckles.

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More Poultry

Near the flowers I saw a Canada goose chomping away on grass, and called his attention to the violets. I told him that some varieties taste like mint, but he ignored me. Nice.

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Oh, like plain grass is so good.

The Dinner

Tossed the dandelion greens in with my smidge of spinach. That’s avocado you see in there, too, since I’m still inexplicably obsessed, plus a little bit of cheese, plus red onion, plus olive oil and salt. Didn’t have an egg yet. Tomorrow.

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I ate a massive chocolate chip cookie before this.

*Once I sold blue-tinted 7-Up with my friends from the edge of their driveway. It was roughly the color of Ty-D-Bol. Some tennis players came over for a drink, saw the color, and one of them said to the other, ‘You first.’

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