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Very Big Fat Greek Wedding. And they had two twirling around. One might have been a goat. Hard to tell for sure at this stage.

I park my car in the school lot and jump into a van with an 8 1/2 x 11 paper Greek flag on the dashboard. And I’m the sole passenger, which means I can ask the driver lots of questions about the Greek festival at his church without irritating everyone in the backseat, not that that would have stopped me.

I don’t know from Greek food. Well, I mean I know Greeks love their lemon and thyme and mint, and their lamb and seafood. But I haven’t eaten a lot of Greek food. Baklava, I guess. Feta cheese. The very nice guy said there would be plenty to eat, and that it was all cooked by the parishioners. That last bit was the magic part. When you see a church festival flyer on the hair salon window downtown and they promise great food, you really hope they don’t have it catered. Even if the caterers were good—even if they were spectacular—I would much, much rather have someone’s Ya-Ya make the moussaka. And Greek food aside, this ideology has never gotten me disappointed. When regular people who care about heritage cook, it’s the real bloody deal. It’s authentic flavors and quality and experience. And it’s getting more and more rare these days, so I run toward it whenever I find it. A Greek Orthodox Church festival? Sold.

We pull in and I hop out. I pay the 2 bucks to get in, and a chipper woman hands me a program, raffle card and an ‘Opa*!’ sticker to wear. I read that the church property was designed to emulate a Greek village, with a courtyard and outlying buildings, and the church at its center. Pure white tents are scattered here and there, and underneath are dozens of parishioners in equally pure white slacks and blue polos, manning grills and cash registers. I take a lap to get the lay of the land, food-wise, and settle on a souvlaki. It’s served by a young guy who sees my eyes pop out when it arrives (it’s massive) and assures me, ‘It’s good for you! That’s why Greeks live so long.’ I do like a guy who doesn’t see a meal fit for three Marines who skipped breakfast. He sees it as healthy.

The woman who rings me up says all of the parishioners working under the tents know each other from the parish, but many have never worked together before, and they are making it up as they go. Everyone is calm and friendly. The sense of community—that everyone has something to contribute and that they are a team—sort of spills out of the tent to us goyim**. It feels peaceful.

I intend to eat half of the souvlaki and take half home, but decide to go with efficiency. After all, it’s a warm day. I should let it go bad on the 10-minute drive home? Shameful!

And yum.

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Lettuce, tomato, raw onion, tzatziki (yogurt dressing) and a little bit of sizzling pork peeking up out of a big, chewy, warm pita.

Next I go under one of the pastry tents (there were two) stacked high with something like eight kinds of pastries and half a dozen assorted Ya-Yas behind them.

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Greek pastries are purportedly legend. I wanted something way out of my format of biscotti and sponge cake, and choose galaktobouriko. Never heard of it, let alone tasted it, so bingo. The program describes it as ‘layered filo pastry filled with delicate custard and drenched with homemade syrup.’

I sit down with it and a plastic fork and promptly shovel half into my face before remembering that I should take a picture of it.

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It was prettier before. Had everything else going for it, though.

I taste very fresh sweet egg and milk (I was told ‘gala’ means ‘milk’ in Greek), and the syrup was caramel-like. It was almost nursery food in its perfection; like homemade vanilla pudding, it was simple, unimproveable goodness. And I save the rest for breakfast this morning. Don’t think I’m virtuous or anything. I went back to buy another kind of pastry.

Mid-shovel, the Ya-Ya who sold it to me walks by and says, ‘I see you’re enjoying your galaktobouriko***!’ I offered a helpful ‘Mmmllph,’ and she continued, ‘Be sure to get a lamb shank! Last year we sold out in an hour!’ Another thing to admire about the Greeks: apparently there’s nothing wrong with having your dessert first.

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Here’s how it looked. Mesmerizing, I could almost hear it falling off the bone, but didn’t go for it.

I tell the the lovely lady under the second pastry tent that I am a food writer and don’t have an awful lot of experience with Greek food. She says if I have any questions about the pastries to ask, and she would be happy to answer them. I liked how she pronounced ‘phyllo’ as ‘phylla.’

Chose karidopita, below, because it had such a resume to recommend it: ‘Honey-soaked walnut cake with a hint of Cognac.’ This the lady packed up for me in a bag with the first pastry. I nibbled a piece off the end with my fingers when I got home.

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Okay, so it was more than a nibble.

Karidopita tastes like crumbly gingerbread with a little happy boozy warmth underneath it. Awesomeness. Another breakfast contender.

Then I watched ‘Mamma Mia,’ which was shot on location in Greece. Honest.

*About.com translates this as ‘more than a word–a lifestyle.’ Feeling a little left out. All I had was the food.

**A little Yiddish never hurt anyone.

***I totally copied and pasted that from above. Stand by. I’m about to do it for the second pastry.

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The groovy thing about honeysuckle is you smell it before you see it. The other groovy thing is the stuff you can make with it.

By last fall I missed my chance on the making stuff part, and mourned about it here. This year, I’ve been picking flowers like a nice little Victorian who’d hit the Coca-Cola just a smidge too hard*, and making simple syrup infused with them. The flowers, not the Victorian and Coke.

Growing up we used to love to pull the stamens very gently through the flowers and drink up the drop of nectar that emerged. This past weekend’s syrup project was an elaborate version of this.

Step 1: Find honeysuckle, which, being invasive, is everywhere in the suburbs in June. I went for ones that weren’t on people’s property because it would likely have come into contact with pesticides. That and the homeowners might have taken issue with me swiping their flowers and all. Choose flowers that aren’t wilted, and get a mix of yellow and orange. The former’s flavor is lighter; the latter’s is deeper.**

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Step 2: Take them home and rinse them gently. (Inherently sticky plus dusty is an undesirable combination.) In a small, heavy saucepan whisk together 2 cups filtered water and 1 cup granulated sugar. Bring that to a boil. Then take it off the heat and immerse your flowers into it.

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Step 3: Wait nicely until it comes to room temperature, then strain out the flowers through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Pour into an airtight container. Taste, and promptly swoon. (I wrote to my friends on Facebook: ‘If Hawaii were a liquid, it would taste like this.’)

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Step 4: Offer some to your favorite local bakery, whose pastry chef loves to work with infusions, then get mightily stoked when he uses it in whipped cream to top a lavender panna cotta.

Step 5: Muse on how to use it in mixed drinks, and call upon the prodigious powers of your brother-in-law, who knows from these things.

Step 6: Put a pint Tupperware container of the syrup into your bag and take it with you to your family’s party, where you meet up with your brother-in-law and try it with bourbon, lemon, and rum. Get opinions, and determine it’s pretty good in all cases.

Step 7: Ask your sister-in-law how she’d want it served, and taste her one part vodka to one part syrup over ice. Go a little delirious, because it’s that good. THAT good, which means a lot considering you’re really not much of a drinker, and become relieved that you’ve supplemented all of this experimenting with a wrap and a half of breaded chicken and romaine from Surf Taco.

Step 8: Your sister-in-law will name this last drink ‘The Vacation.’ You will deem it a most worthy name.

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*You know its history, right? http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/cocaine.asp

**I remember noticing a difference between the two flowers even as a kid. Funny the stuff we notice.

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I recently saw a meat thermometer that has Bluetooth technology and is iPhone, iPad and iPod compatible, leading me to consider whether we’ve all gone absolutely barking nuts.

Or have we? You know I’m old school when it comes to cooking. I’m not above corner-cutting from time to time, especially nostalgic corner-cutting (I grew up slurping on canned Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, and I still dig slicing it along the handy grooves courtesy of the aluminum). And I’m not above getting an education on what’s truly useful.*

But that’s the issue, really:

1) How much time and effort does all of the gadgetry really save, and

2) How much of our sensory and instinctual skills get surrendered to Calphalon?

We’ve discussed the second question, especially after I wrote this post last summer and this one a few weeks ago. And I alternate between ‘How did our great-grandmothers cook so well, with nine kids and without non-stick casseroles?’ and ‘But if they had Amazon Prime, wouldn’t they jump on it like Bond on a blonde?’ Still, it’s worth more discussion, especially this time of year.

I love my candy thermometer. I’m glad I don’t have to drop a little water into my syrup to see if it forms a ball. I’m further glad I don’t have to determine the temperature of my oven by sprinkling flour on the underside of a pie plate and watching it go from tan to brown, or doing the same with a sheet of paper, or—surely for the asbestos-skinned among women—plunging my hand into its depths and counting how many seconds I can stand it before having to pull my hand out.**

When it comes to Thanksgiving, a friend put it well when he asked why we should ‘spend a boatload of money when just a pan, a dollar store baster and a good recipe is all you need.’ For the most part, I’m inclined to agree. I like becoming pretty well engrossed in the experience. I need to get my hands dirty and create. But I’m curious about your standpoint.

Does it depend on the gadget, the skill or even the person in question? How far back do you scale when you cook a holiday meal? If you’re a gadgeteer, tell me truthfully whether you simply appreciate the newness and coolness of the state-of-the-art utensil (I understand), or if you find it significantly more helpful than the low-tech one.

And to me the bigger question is how much technology to accept, because it stands to reason that for each new gadget, a skill is often enough left behind. As I told my friend, spending money aside, I’m worried that buying devices we don’t necessarily need may be training us to trust them instead of our own five senses and instincts; and that it will be a dark day when we don’t know if something’s cooked (or raw, or burned) unless a device tells us so. That would be a millennia of human understanding in the toilet. The fact that GPSes sometimes tell people to drive into lakes and people bloody DO it tells me we’re on that road.

In my mind, we’re already detached from so much that is elemental. By buying and buying into everything new for the kitchen, do we risk losing part of the wisdom of our ancestors? Part of our humanity?

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*At a height of five foot three, I’m not above much.

**Seriously. These methods were as common as smallpox.

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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 of  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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Intelligent and Perceptive Reader: Wait, what? What happened to your early or mid-summer edible wild posts?

Me: Yeah. About that.

I was busy this summer. Most people claim work or childcare as their reasons for The Great Busy. Me, I crewed two shows back to back in July and spent August regrouping. Now here it is September, I’m late for my summer post, the honeysuckle is gone, I can’t wear white after Labor Day, and I’m irritated with myself. Next year I am doing a proper honeysuckle post with a recipe and everything. Syrup maybe. Just you wait.

In the meantime, here we are. Please keep in mind the advice I have given in previous edible wild posts:

1) Only eat a particular plant if you are 100% sure it’s the plant you’re after.

2) Don’t forage for plants off the side of the road because they’ve likely been blessed by household pets in a less than appetizing way.

3) Don’t forage for plants from neighbors’ yards unless you know they haven’t been sprayed and/or unless you are particular friends of the cops in your municipality.

In the picture above we have four lovely summer wild edibles common at the Jersey Shore and much of the Northeastern coastline. Clockwise from top left:

Beach plum (Prunus maritima)

I posted about this fruit a couple of summers ago in plum gig, and talked about my adventure foraging with my neighbor, Mr. Cook. He’s been picking these fruits all of his life (a solid 80 years or so, I am guessing). I gloated a little when I saw that one of Wikipedia’s shots was of beach plums on Sandy Hook, where he and I picked.

The plums are the size of red seedless grapes, and aren’t spectacular eaten out of hand. They’re best cooked with sugar to make jelly (Mr. Cook’s all-time favorite jelly) or in jam (what I like best).

Blackberry* (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberries are in the Rose family. Fruits begin jade green, then become red, then a shiny black. When they’re really ripe, only one delicate tug is needed to have them fall into your hand. Blackberry canes (the thick stems on which they grow) are notoriously thorny, so go easy when picking or wear gloves.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

I first read about this succulent invasive about ten years ago, but it’s only recently that it’s become a bit of a darling in the culinary world. It’s lemony, can be eaten in its entirety—leaves, flowers and stems—and offers a hefty dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Best of all, you don’t have to grow it. I mean it. It’s probably all over your property right now, in plant beds, in sidewalk cracks, everywhere. The sprig in the pic above? Found growing happy and lush in the crack between the curb and street in front of my house. Purslane plants are the Kardashians of the plant world; they just won’t go away. But despite being inanimate, they’re higher on the useful scale.

Beach rose (Rosa rugosa)

These hardy plants grow in the dunes along the shoreline. Like all roses, the petals and the hips (coming in my fall post! To a WordPress account near you!) are edible. They’re thorny, like all of their rosy siblings and their cousin the blackberry. I’ve read that many beach roses smell wonderful. These didn’t have much of a scent, and the flavor was mild, like Bibb lettuce.

*”This article is about the fruit. For the smartphone and its manufacturer, see BlackBerry and BlackBerry (company).” –Wikipedia again. They’re so helpful.

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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

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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

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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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When I was a high school student away at boarding school, I ate a lot of something called Sun Country granola. My mom mailed me happy orange boxes of it, dozens, that I would consequently plow through. One Halloween I even dressed as a flower child and carried a bag of it with me as I trick or treated.  Sun Country has since disappeared from the planet (granted, it’s totally plausible that I ate it all). And I haven’t found anything that comes close to its flavor and richness.

But I do make granola, and have come up with a recipe that’s so delicious and so versatile that it helped to dry my tears. Actually, I’m not even sure you can call it a recipe. It’s just rolled oats (the Quaker oats-in-a-canister type), a sweetener of some sort, a pinch of salt and a bunch of other stuff you happen to like, in whatever quantities you like.

In the granola in these photos I used oats, honey, Turkish apricots that I snipped into bits with kitchen scissors (an admirable Nigella Lawson trick), walnuts that I toasted in a skillet first, and, because my will is so weak, dark chocolate chips. I currently have a huge crush on ground cardamom, a spice that smells like it was poured out of the flowers growing in Eve’s window box in Eden, so I added a few teaspoons of that. A pinch of salt, and that’s it.

Set your oven to 350. Take out a cookie sheet and cover it with parchment. (Don’t use a black cookie sheet or you risk charbroiling your granola.)

Next, get out a big bowl and a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Dump your oats, a few cups’ worth, into the bowl. Stir in your sweetener, then your spice and your salt, and spread the mixture onto your cookie sheet.

Chop up your dried fruit and toast up your nuts, if you’re using them.

Pop your cookie sheet into the oven and bake for about half an hour. You want to dry it out. Stir the mixture halfway through. When it’s done, let it completely cool on a rack, and then add the rest of your stuff.

Ideas for fun taste sensations:

-Real maple syrup, pecans, cinnamon and dried apples

-Brown sugar, Karo syrup and dried figs (this’ll make it crunchy, just so you know)

-Honey, macadamia nuts, dried pineapple and toasted coconut (hel-lo)

Add a few pats of pure melted butter to your mixture, and tell me how good it was.

To get more ideas, take a road trip to a specialty store that’s famous for their fantastic supply of dried fruits and nuts. I love Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck, NJ; Whole Foods is a bang, too.

Personally, I avoid using fresh fruit in my granola because I’d have to keep it in the fridge, which would dry it out too much and make it too crunchy (I have TMJ disorder. If you have to google it, consider yourself lucky). But the stuff’s yours. Do what you want.*

I snack on this right out of the big Tupperware I keep on top of my fridge. But tonight I ate the specimen pictured below, with milk, in my favorite bowl that I bought in a whack little store in Cambridge, MA. The best cereal ever!

*Keep in mind, always and forever, that a recipe—even the ones from fancy-schmancy chefs or publications—represents only a very small consensus on what tastes good to a few particular people. Their preferences are no more important than yours. Doesn’t matter if it’s cooking, teaching a class on Aztec culture, or carving walrus figurines out of soap—design of any kind is your gig. You really can say, “Do I like this? Good, great, it’s going in.” If you like it, it works. That’s the only rule there is.

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