Thursday, October 28, 2010

Food.... Glorious Food.

“I am in the kitchen now. I stir the risotto and type. I am waiting on the capon negro to finish in the oven, a bird stuck on a contraption to hold it vertical and allow it to roast, basting in the steaming beer in the dish below it. The bird is covered with a rub of cumin, paprika, chile powder, cocoa, and a touch of brown sugar. The smells are phenomenal. On the cook top, the colors of the vegetables in the risotto are bright, and make for good contrast with the black beens simmering in the neighboring pot. The risotto sizzles with each addition of the warm broth, a mixture of the sautéed vegetables and chopped Black Mission figs, mixed in with the fat grained rice and vermouth, gradually becoming rich and thick before the final addition of the various cheeses. Tonight I will add parmesan and asiago.  A sensory feast before its even on the plate.    I drool, therefor, I am.” 
(last night while fixing dinner)  
I love to cook.
This was not always so. When Mark and I married some many moons ago, my knowledge and experience with cooking was limited to being able to microwave a hot dog and heat water. Mark taught me to make cornbread and how important the care of a good cast iron skillet is. I still cook cornbread in that same skillet, his grandmother’s, well seasoned, with multiple decades of its use.
Eventually I managed to learn to cook a simple breakfast. A Crock Pot held my hand as I used it to learn how to make a meal. There were many errors along the way, but I gradually learned improvisation and a good bottle of wine can get you over most with little notice. 
I had several folks along the way who taught me basic stuff like combinations of flavors and proportions of ingredients, and such and I became a bit more comfortable and adventurous  as I learned. My cook book collection is enormous and I can spend hours reading recipes, tasting them in my mind, imagining the merging of the flavors, but rarely follow them. I learned,too, that it was about the food, of course, but that it was also about the sharing, that made the meal and the preparing of it, become, something special. Food became an art project on multiple levels of satisfaction, in both the production and the consumption.
There was our friend Pat, a poor fellow who was going thru a painful divorce and who needed a diversion to his evenings. Pat was the first real “foodie” I had ever met, he loved food. I mean loved, FOOD. So for a while, every Wednesday night, he would come over and bring whatever fresh veggies or bag of shrimp he had. I would pull whatever I had out of the fridge and we would all engage in the process of creating and experimenting with the random stuff we had. It was he who introduced me to cooking risotto. The night we first cooked it, we all got into such a giggling fit that we were paralyzed and could barely stand, much less, stir the rice. I had to pull in help from my daughter to handle the chore. She, of course and rightfully, thought we had all lost it and were crazy. We finished that meal off with enormous bowls of ice cream. Pat remarked that mine was so huge it was bound to affect the climate. It was so good. 
Eventually Pat’s pain eased and we ceased the regularity of our Wednesday sessions and we moved on in new directions. Pat sadly died this year, and those memories of our time spent in my kitchen, chopping and tasting are now more precious. I, of course, remembered the incapacitating giggles again last night as I continually stirred the rice and added the broth.

In all this time coming down this path of learning to enjoy cooking, the most surprising thing I have come to realize is, that the teacher who really taught me the most, I had not even known I was taking lessons from. Her name was Francis.
Francis Clayton was a very tall and very round black woman who my parents hired when I was in 3rd grade to keep their house, cook, clean, run me around town, and do whatever. She was very good at all of this. She raised me, from our introduction in 3rd grade until my senior year of high school. Her influence on my character was immense. I preferred time with her to most anyone, and I spent endless hours in her kitchen, not helping, but just sitting and talking and, watching.
What had not occurred to me however, until recently, was that in my watching, I was learning. It just took years of struggling thru the formality of learning to follow recipes and such, to finally understand that she had already taught me the real basics of cooking. Comfort. She cooked from the soul, and she was abundant with her love, and her cooking always was soothing and sweet for the soul for those lucky enough to sample her fare. Her food deeply nourished on so many levels. There was nothing fancy about it. It was just simply, good.
Now whenever I cook a batch of collards, batter fresh bream from our pond, season the black eyed peas, drop corn meal covered green tomatoes or okra into hot grease, or mix some butter beans with corn kernels to make a salad with mayonnaise, or any of the more southern types of dishes I can see her still in my folks kitchen in town and up at our lake house, doing the same, and I mimic what she did and feel her spirit. 
We are what we eat, literally in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Food prepared with anger or out of obligation, or with a lack of concern for even basic esthetics goes down badly and sits like a rock, refusing digestion. Fast food is without any spirit and is the worst.  Food should be fun and makes folks happy.
I have been told many times by the folks who have shared a meal at our table, that my cooking makes them feel better. Unknown to them, that the ooh’s and ah’s  they give to me, is really high homage to this wonderful teacher, Francis, that graced my life and left her legacy to me, to share with them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Sunday I enjoyed a very nice brunch with the family at the downtown marina restaurant. It was a fine October day and we sat on the covered deck outside, which is perched high on the bluff overlooking the Alabama River, under tall oak trees, and saw the boats below us waiting patiently in their slips. Acorns dropped above our heads, landing on the clear fiberglass roof and like small bricks being hurled our way, and I felt like I was really in a version of my new favorite Iphone game “Angry Birds”. Then they would roll noisily and slowly down the grooves of the roof until they made it to the edge, then silence, and they were gone. We enjoyed omelet’s, silky cheese grits, along with other various breakfast fare, and eased it all down with a screwdriver or two. Nothing fancy, but good for the soul and the stomach.

I came home after this diversion, with thoughts of doing something outdoors that might be both gratifying and productive. A given glance around this farm gives an endless list of things which might fall into either of those categories. I juggled and few and then I looked at the area formerly known as the veggie garden, now an overgrown jungle of surrounding shrubs that have way over grown their “matures to something? feet high??”  nursery tags, the interior path ways filled with dry grasses, volunteer zinnias, and goldenrod, and raised boxes undetectable. I felt somewhat like Scarlet O’Hara standing in the post Yankee ravaged South, ruined garden of Tara, and I said to myself, “As god is my witness, I will grow collards in here again!” And thus began my afternoon of righteous labor with intent to take back that which nature had the full summer to run amuck with.

I stood at the gate and was significantly overwhelmed when I took in the whole scene of what lay before me and the knowing what the cost to my poor body would be. It would have been so nice to blink my eyes and have it be done, all tidy again. Nice fantasy but it wasn’t going to happen like that, I knew that, so I looked down and focused on what was within my reach and I began, that is, after I had hacked down the branches of the lady banksias rose to even get into the garden. The dogs all assumed their positions in  shady places and waited for me to work it all out.

Soon I was in my rhythm snatching the villainous weeds and stuffing them into my bucket. Once full, the bucket was dumped into the front end loader. This continued for unknown hours. The tractor made at least 4 trips to the compost pile to dump this mess and at long last the horses convinced me it was “quittin’ time” and I stopped my mission for the afternoon. Mission was not anywhere close to being accomplished but I had scared some of the weeds still left in there pretty bad, and they know I am coming back for them, soon. I did feel pretty darned gratified.

My dad used to employ this type of gardening, in his twisted way of relaxing, when we went up to our lake house and later at the beach place. Early in the morning, out he would go, a cigar stuck in his mouth, and with his University of Alabama coffee cup and machete in hand, armed for warfare. A few hours of hacking at the underbrush, sticker vines, and honey suckle, he would emerge from the newly tamed jungle, blood oozing from the scratches on his arms, bucket loads of sweat pouring off his skin, his cigar shorter, and coffee gone. He would smile and reach for a cold Heineken beer and feel the piety of beginning a day with such a determined effort. This was usually before 7 am or so, while we snoozed away, knowing that once again we would be safe from all of the encroaching vegetation, saved by my favorite super hero, dad. Of course this pattern perpetually repeated itself as the vegetation always grew back allowing the ritual to continue.

I did pause Sunday, as I worked, and looked around, and listened, enjoying the pleasure of being able to be outdoors again, and even though working hard, not dieing from the heat. It was pleasant, apart from a few nasty fire ants that got into my glove, to be working with the soil, making room for new plants. The scent of the herbs that I hit as I weeded filled my nose and made my mouth water. First, closest to the gate is the bed of chocolate mint, a small leaved mint that has a distinct sweet and yes, chocolate smell, like peppermint patties. Then the garlic chives mixed with this, followed by the thick scent of the basil stems I broke, and then the rosemary chimed in. It was an olfactory overload, but very nice.

Across the pond from the garden, the tall sweet gum trees were filled with the autumn arrivals, the fish crows. This time of year these birds come in large groups and sit at the very tops of the trees boisterously yakking back and forth with a nasal sort of honking and beeping. They are smaller than the regular crows we have here year round and they do not make the “caw” type sound of the larger birds. Theirs is a sound that now quintessential October background noise for me, like June bugs in June. These fish crows will hang around for a while and then be gone to parts unknown, hopefully to return to sing their songs next October, and for more after that.

My back “told me so” the next morning when I got up, about that weeding thing, but a few Tylenol later I was up and kicking. I rode my mare, Sunset, back to the creek, through the woods on the south border of the property. We sauntered along like I was on a Thelwell pony, with her grabbing bits of grass as we walked in the filtered sunlight, leaves crunching under her feet, and lazily made our way back to the creek. The creek was very low and the swamp maples were only hinting at turning colors but showed promise of doing so soon. The trails had done like my garden and were a bit thick to travel through in parts but it was a nice hack.

The perimeter trail ends on the north side into a field that doesn’t get cut regularly and tends to grow wild after a few years. When I came out of the shade of the woods I came into a field of golden sunflower/daisy like flowers blooming on very tall shafts. Goldenrod blooms laid out in a blanket of gold below it and sporadically placed were towers of a pink wild flower I don’t know the name of.

It was spectacular, and it was peaceful. It is nice sometimes to be able to be totally blown away at a simple field of wild flowers and not just be a viewer from a car window, but to be riding a nice horse through it, and just be, there, in a sweet moment suspended in time, and one of sheer unexpected beauty.

Today I will do battle with the willful garden again, and give those remaining weeds what for and the ol heave ho. Adios and farewell ye weeds. Collards are coming to take your place, and snow peas, and chard, and maybe some broccoli. It has been said that to be a gardener one must be an optimist, living for the reward of one’s efforts, and I eagerly await the fresh greens that will grow from this soil.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Jack stood at the bottom of the stairs at the back door, looking up, quivering, and he was scared. He remembered his gallant attempt to jump up the first step the other day and how he had missed terribly, and impaled his soft broad belly on the corner of that first step. This time, his quivering, which began with this anticipated fear of pain, turned into more. Jack started to have a seizure.

Jack’s body began to jump and shake out of control. His eyes looked at me now with a new and different fear, a pleading, help me, I do not understand fear. I picked him up and put him on the floor inside the house. He frantically tried to regain control of his involuntary twitches but couldn’t. I grabbed a jar of honey and put some of the golden sugar in his mouth and soon the spasms thankfully subsided.

I called the vet and got advice on what to do with him for the evening and was told to bring him in the next am for a blood sugar test to see what was going on with the diabetes we were dealing with.

My thoughts from this episode were running pretty darned gloomy. The past few weeks since Jack was diagnosed with this issue has been rough and extremely intensive, time and attention wise, watching his every move and mood, wondering where his levels were. I have been carefully feeding him small amounts of food several times and day and following feeding up with three insulin shots daily. None of this has been fun or amusing for either of us, and I hate looking into his eyes before I stick yet another needle into his skin. So my thoughts were groping with the realizaiion that this was the way to the end, Jack was not going to be here much longer.

Surprise. The blood test showed that Jack had seized not because the diabetes had worsened, but that his pancreas had caught back up and had begun producing insulin again and the higher dose of it in his blood stream had caused the attack. This is a great thing. Jack is a recovering diabetic. The vet lowered his dosage and was thrilled at the results. Me too.

That was yesterday and as I needed to man the gallery in town and didn’t have time to take him home, Jack got to go urban with me. Jack went downtown, a first for him. I got him out of the truck and put his leash on and started to walk to the corner to cross the street. Jack was very disturbed by the cars, and the noise, and the big things that moved very fast past him. There were strange smells and the ground was not grassy but hard and white. His little tail was tucked firmly between his cheeks and his head was low and his face would not come out from behind my heels. There was finally no choice but to pick him up and carry the sucker if I wanted to get to the gallery in the present millennium.

Once inside the gallery, he remained a bit worried until some folks came in after their lunch at the nearby restaurant carrying their leftovers. Jack could smell the garlic and savory flavors they carried and he followed these folks around the room as they admired the photographs and paintings, wiggling and doing his best to get a sample, but to no avail. I had told them he was diabetic and they withheld the yummy pasta in their boxes. I gave him a piece of cheese from my leftover sandwich and he was cool with that. I still had to carry him back to the truck when I left tho. The big city is just way too scary for this little country dog.

Ironically, we both nearly died on the way home. Driving down the road and coming up the last big hill before our turnoff, I looked ahead to see an oncoming car, in my lane, the driver, a woman, deeply absorbed in her cell phone in her hand. Time went into super sonic speed and my reaction was first to lay on the horn and the only other option in the short period of time before the impending impact was to drive off the road onto the shoulder to let her pass. I don't really think she knew or noticed. Jack didn't say and it admittedly took a while for my blood pressure and fury to subside at the stupidity of this person who was so nearly the cause of my demise. Of all the ways to die, that ranks right up there with the ridiculous. Of all the near touches with danger in my days, to die at the wheel because of some bimbo checking her email or dialing a number while going down the road, would have made me a ghost to be reckoned with in the after life.

Once safely back on the farm, the remains of the afternoon were sweet. Only two weeks ago we sweltered in 96 degree temps while riding our horses in the dressage clinic with Jeff Moore. At long last the weather gods have smiled and long sleeves and flannel are the garb of choice to wear. I actually got 4 horses ridden/worked the other day, didn't break a sweat at all, and had gobs of energy left over to do other farm projects, but didn't bother.

The tea olive shrubs at each end of the front porch are just beginning to bloom now, but already the tiny white flowers are filling all the air in the front yard with a heavenly smell that never fails to bring back my memories of Mrs. Holding's kindergarten school playground and getting to finger paint. The only colors we used at this time of year were orange and brown and the theme of course was Halloween. There was such a delicious joining of the tactile joy of getting to finger paint and the smell of these shrubs, combining with the anticipation of the upcoming trick or treating night to come. How many pumpkins and witches on broomsticks did I gleefully paint while inhaling the powerful scent of these shrubs I have no idea. The memory remains ingrained in my brain, and is as strong as the scent, and is just as sweet.

It has been almost a year since I began writing this blog thing. From the stats feature I have seen that I have readers in places all over the world and I wonder at what they must think about what my life and dribblings about it must seem like to them. I reread some of my previous posts today, and both laughed and cried, and am glad that I have had a place to put down in some form that which has transpired in my farm world in the past months. Just hope to keep staying out of the path of oncoming cell phone drivers for a few more so I ride more horses, paint more pictures, cook, garden, write, and continue to enjoy this world I share with my wonderful friends, family, and critters.