Saturday, November 23, 2013


There are some things money just can’t buy.
Love. Happiness.
And a big black trash bag full of fresh mustard greens.
Love, we all know about.
Greens, not so much.
Of course, you can buy greens, but as I was blanching the towering pile of greens on my counter to freeze today, I realized I could never have bought these particular greens.
True: you can buy greens in the produce section of the grocery store. Lettuce, definitely. Kale, maybe. Collards, even. But probably not mustard greens.
You might be able to get them at natural food store, Whole Foods maybe, on a good day, or the local natural foods store. And if you’re lucky enough to have a fabulous farmer’s market like mine, you’ll be able to get them there as well. Or, you could grow them yourself But if you want a whole big black trash bag full of them, you’d have to have a lot of space in the garden.
Like Frances.
Last week, I was at the Callaway Community Cannery, a place that’s been open since 1945 for local folks in Franklin County, Va. to can their greens – along with their tomatoes, applesauce, venison, beef, you name it. I’d already been told that people there share their bounty with one another, and they share the work of preserving it. If you finish cutting up your potatoes and you’re waiting for your soup to be finished before you pack it into jars and place it in the ginormous pressure canner, you go over and help the 90-year-old gentleman who is smashing up his apples in the strainer and packing it into his jars. You swap recipes with your neighbor, and share advice about tin cans vs mason jars. You let your friend know when you’re slaughtering the pigs, and offer her a ham. I overheard all these transactions the day I visited the cannery.
Frances and her friend, Shirley, were there canning greens, and when she heard I loved greens she said, “Come with me.” Then she took me out to her car, where I saw more greens in one place than I think I’ve ever seen. There was the big black trash bag, along with those black speckled pots – enormous ones -- full of cooked greens ready to can. Frances cans a lot, and besides the greens, she’d brought chickens to can the day I saw her. She gives more than half of her canned goods away to neighbors who don’t have easy access to fresh food. She is one giving person.
In fact, when she found out I wouldn’t be able to come by and see her garden and get some fresh greens straight from the source (I’d told her I was envious of a garden that could grow that many greens) she gave some of those greens from the back of her car, stuffing a quart jar full of the cooked ones, and cramming fresh ones into a re-usable shopping bag I had in my car.
These are the sweetest, tenderest greens I’ve ever eaten. Thank you Frances.
Money can’t buy that kinda greens. And it can’t buy this kind of community.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Everything but the squeal

The first time I tried scrapple, I was sitting on a stool at the Exmore Diner on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and I had to ask the local fellow sitting next to me what it was, exactly.
He put his coffee down, turned to me, and shook his head.

“You don’t want to know.”

But, of course, I did. So I pressed. A little.

To make a long description short, scrapple is a kind of sausage – and we know how making sausage is compared to all messy processes, including the political variety (“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made," said the oft-quoted Otto von Bismarck.) As long as you like the outcome, you don’t want to know what goes into it.

I ordered the scrapple anyway.

It was delicious. Creamy and savory on the inside, crunchy and crispy on the outside, a bit salty. You have to fry it long enough, the cook advised, or it really is awful, mushy and unappealing and too close to what it is: the discarded scraps of the pig slaughtering process, the who-knows-what bits like ears and snouts and, I don’t know, maybe eyelids. The cook did not, of course, describe such things across the breakfast counter.

I’m not sure why there’s all this aversion to eating every part of the animal. If you can get past eating animals at all – their legs, their bellies, their butts – why would it matter if you also eat their livers and hearts and gizzards, whatever those are? I think eating “everything but the squeal” is smart. Admirable, even. Waste not, want not.

Though I do draw the line at beef tongue. Its texture is waaaaaay too close to that of my own tongue. And it’s not even dressed up with a nice name to help me forget what it is – like “tripe” for intestine, or “sweetbreads” for glands.

But mostly, I think it’s a great idea to use every part of the pig. In her book, Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa slaughtered a pig, took the bladder, cleaned it, blew it up like a balloon, and gave it to his girls to play with, like a ball. Laura and her sister, Mary, also put the pig tail on a stick and roasted it over the fire; they were so excited to eat it, they burned their mouths on it every time, never waiting for it to cool.

The same concept can be brought to the vegetable garden. At one point, our food co-op had an arrangement where if you hauled away a portion of the produce department discards as compost once a week, you got a 10 percent discount on your groceries. It was the best deal ever: I got great compost for my garden, I got the discount, and I got to pick through what they were tossing to find all sorts of edible food – whole red bell peppers with just a bit that had gone soft, apples with nicks and bruises that were perfect for applesauce, potatoes with blemishes. Granted, I had to root through soggy lettuce and smelly, yellowed broccoli and slimy carrots, but it was worth it.

This week, I salvaged vegetables from the garden before the weather turned seriously cold. I picked all the green tomatoes, stripped the pepper plants, and grabbed the basil for one more batch of pesto. And since I don’t love fried green tomatoes, I found a recipe for green tomato pie. Delicious.

Well, I thought so. Here’s another opinion:
Me: So, what do you think?
My honey: I think it would be better with apples.
Me: It does taste a bit like apple pie, doesn’t it?
My honey: Yeah. They both have crusts.

Two nights later, it had somehow gotten better, and we shared it with our wonderful friends whose table we always enjoy: they often serve us beef raised in their back yard, and veggies from their garden. Tonight, it was pork roast from a local farm, mustard greens we brought from another friend’s garden, and a wonderful baked combination of apples, figs, mushrooms and egg white. They also gave us some home-cured pepperoni and sausages to take home with us – complete with a description of how they were made.

You don’t want to know.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Humble pie

Being a person who works with words all day, every day, I tend to have some opinions about correct use of the English language. And, when someone makes a mistake, there’s at least a tiny part of me that raises an eyebrow and begins to feel superior. Even though I try not to. Everyone has their strengths, right? Someone may write “they’re” when they mean “their,” but they might be brilliant at crunching numbers, or manipulating all those pipes under the sink until the plumbing works again, or getting the balance of fruit and cornstarch just right so the cherry pie doesn’t run all over the place (if anyone knows this trick please call me).
Still, it’s hard to quiet the voice in my head that mentally edits a person when he or she says, “I couldn’t care less” when they really mean they could care less. And so on.
Except now, I really have to hold the judgment, even the unspoken kind. Because now I am making the same sorts of mistakes myself. 
For some reason, my fingers have been slipping on my keyboard. I type “hear” instead of “here.” This is not just spell-check gone awry. It is some subconscious mechanism that keeps making mistakes I thought I would never make, not since fifth grade. Today, my keyboarding fingers made up an entirely new word: disatisfication. It reminds me of “comfterful,” a word my cousin Susan made up. Comfterful, comfortful, comfortable. Or “draweau,” my little-girl word for bureau. It has drawers, so why wouldn’t it be “draweau?” Also Clara’s adorable “Pizza Hot” for Pizza Hut.
I actually like disatisfication. It sort of draws out the idea of being really dissatisfied – and then I don’t have to use that evil word that some teacher somewhere declared unnecessary and which I subsequently consider amateur:  “very.”
But I digress. Another pet peeve. 
This humility extends beyond language. Some imbecile driving in front of me neglects to get in the left turn lane on time, but I cannot fume, because I did the same thing just yesterday, looking sheepishly from the right lane as I tried to cut in front of the line of left-turning cars. Or, I feel disdainful of the women who pass the check around after lunch in a restaurant, reluctant to calculate the tip themselves (“math class is tough,” whines Teen Talk Barbie) – until one day (despite the fact that I really do know how to do this!) I somehow manage to tip the waiter 50 percent instead of 15 percent.

Good thing the check was a small one. Even so: That’s some expensive humble pie. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

To build a fire

Okay, I am not so desperate as the guy in the Jack London story, fighting sub-zero temperatures on a remote trail while trying to coax flame from a few sticks in the snow. But I do get anxious about making a fire, and this weekend it was more important than building a picture-perfect blaze in the fireplace.

It was cold. There was no central heat. I needed that fire.

We are talking out in the country. And, here’s the thing: I am no master fire builder. Every time I put my match to newspaper, tucked carefully under sticks of kindling and neatly placed pieces of wood, I worry that the ratio of big to small branches is workable, that the newspaper is neither too tightly crumpled nor too loose, and I hope that the fire gods will smile on me and give me heat. Sometimes, they do. Most times, even. But it still comes as a surprise.

Perhaps that’s because I did not grow up making fires. I gathered kindling in the “woods” behind our Long Island home – a vacant lot in a suburban development in Setauket. I approached this very important assignment with the earnest vigor of the good little 7-year-old I was, gathering the driest, best-sized sticks, then twisting pages of newspaper just so to set beneath them and delivering it all to my father, who put it all together and made the actual fire himself.

As a teenager in Florida, I made a small fire in another vacant lot, which I somehow knew was not allowed – just as I knew the cigarettes my friend snuck from her mother’s purse for us to try, lighting them at our tiny stick fire, were forbidden. Later, in North Carolina, my college boyfriend showed me how to light a fire in his woodstove, which I did while he was away and I stayed at his house, taking care of his cats. I felt like a pioneer woman, choosing quick- and hot-burning pine to burn in the wood cookstove, congratulating myself when the water for my tea finally boiled.

I shared my own house in college with two fire building housemates, who dealt with the woodstove themselves. We rented the house, on a mountain road outside Boone, N.C., for $150 a month, total, and it was as drafty as a barn, with gaps in the walls where moonlight and the cold seeped in.  The stove was in the one interior room, and that is where we spent all our time, with the doors to the kitchen, living room and bedrooms closed tight against the weather. At bedtime, we would turn on electric blankets in the bedrooms, wait for them to heat up, then dive under the covers until morning.

We needed fire in that house. Last weekend, same: drafty house, up in the mountains of SW Virginia. Cold grate. No fire.

I know I can do this – I’ve done it before. But I am a junior firebuilder. A junior firebuilder, walking into a cold house at the end of a dark road a mile from any neighbor. Well, less than a mile, but far enough so that it was pitch dark walking between the car and the front door and the only sounds were deer sneaking around in the woods. This was no vacant lot in Florida. It was the first time I’d been on my own there, and I arrived at 8:30, in the dark of one of our first cold autumn nights, with temperatures below 30 degrees outside—and probably inside as well. I kept my hat and coat on.

To start a fire: I checked the flu in the fireplace. I gathered up the very dry kindling and wood I’d brought along, crumpled newspaper just as Daddy taught me, arranged my sticks on top and placed a couple of small logs just so. I struck a match. I used the new trick my honey (and master firebuilder) showed me, and directed the first wisps of smoke up the flu with a lit bit of newspaper held where the fireplace gives way to chimney.

Voila! A face-warming fire in the grate.


I know the woodstove in the next room would have been more efficient. It would eventually warm the whole house, unlike the fire, which burned one side of my legs but left the other side of me, and the rest of the room, cold. Like a camp fire. But I kept my hat on and, for the couple hours before bed, the fireplace was perfect.

I sat contentedly, luxuriating in the fire’s glow, occasionally feeding it another log that I’d warmed on the stone hearth first.

At bedtime, I placed the screen over the fireplace and opened the door to the bedroom.

Where I’d switched on the space heater.

There are lots of ways to build a fire.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Raisins and salt

My dream is to work out in the garden, pushing the edge of dusk, happy to be rearranging the earth and its bounty until it’s too dark to see, while inside my house someone is making dinner. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Division of labor. You can have both: late hours in the garden, AND homemade dinner.
That’s not the way it works when you are single. Any late gardening means dinner will be late, too – and it will probably be scrambled eggs or grilled cheese or something equally quick and easy. Which is fine – but wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to come in, wash the mud from my hands, and sit down to a real meal that someone else has made? Or how about this: come home from work at the end of a long weekday and have dinner ready? I’m not talking about being met at the door with a martini and my house slippers – just being met at the door by cooking smells and knowing that dinner is already underway.
This happens now.
It is one of the many perks of being (newly) married.
And there are more.
Just today I called my husband (don’t you love the sound of that?!?!) and asked him to pick up raisins and salt. And he will. I don’t have to make a special trip to the co-op, or put it on my list for later, or go without raisins in my oatmeal tomorrow morning, because there is another person who is my partner here, and we work together to be sure the pantry is stocked.
Also. He sends me copies of the bills he’s paid. He is paying the bills. We share costs, but the act of sending the money in, on time, every month, is no longer my sole responsibility.
Liberation can mean a lot of things: besides being free to do as you please, it frequently means doing everything yourself. But it can also mean giving some of that responsibility up to someone else. It can mean raisins and salt that you didn’t have to run out and buy yourself.
Thank you, my honey.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Patchwork living

I’m always struck when I visit Floyd County to see how people make a living in what is still a hard-scrabble place. Hard scrabble in a different way now than it once was – yes, literally the soil is rocky, but since most folks don’t make a living from the land anymore, they are scrabbling in different ways.

Driving down Highway 221 I see a hand-painted yard sign for small engine repair, “from ATVs to lawn mowers.” I imagine this evolved from a neighbor doing favors for family and friends, then deciding to make it a business. Ditto the hand-lettered “deer processing” sign – all those hunters, heading back to the city after a weekend, don’t have time to dress their deer. A business is born.

There’s also the woman who cuts hair at the back of the general store, and another who make barbeque sauce and apple butter to sell at the farm stand. 

It happens in other small towns, too. Every time I visit Chincoteague, Va., I consider spending an entire summer there, growing tomatoes to sell from a table set out in my front yard. If I had a front yard, there. There was one farmer who drove his pickup truck to the island every weekend and sold watermelons from the back. And I love the tables set out with seashells for sale. Fifty cents each.

When my income dips – and, in my business, it can be like a roller coaster – I often comfort myself by the thought of all the things I could do if I needed to make money just to get by. I always think first of baking pie. I could sell it to busy friends and neighbors too busy to bake at Thanksgiving! One summer between college semesters, I baked three kinds of bread and sold it at the local health food store. I don’t remember now how much money I made, but I do remember being crestfallen when my father pointed out that I was getting the electricity to bake with for free, at my parents' house. And I thought I was such a clever young business woman.

Today, I’m thinking of the big bag of chestnuts I gathered this morning from under the trees near our favorite country hideaway. If I were living near Floyd full time, I could package them in brown paper bags and sell them at the farmer’s market. I could gather wild nettles, a sort of gourmet foraging novelty, and sell those as well (they’re actually delicious, which I know thanks to a Floyd County potluck). Or hunt mushrooms for sale, or pick dandelions and package them neatly, the way French farmers do for the Paris market.

Instead of lattice-top pies, I could make hand pies, maybe team up with a mountain woman who could share her recipes, and we could pool our profits. We could sell to the tourists who come up the mountain for the fall leaves, we could use lard to appeal to the traditionalists, and vegetable shortening for the crunchy-granola vegetarians. I could write a book about baking with Esther, or whoever I find willing to tolerate my enthusiasm for tradition that isn’t even my own, long enough to bake with me.

Or, I could go back to the city and write more local news, more local travel, more education policy, patchworking a living together the way I’ve done for the past 20 years. Patchworks come in all different textures and patterns. I guess mine will remain, in some form, the written word.

Though if you really want a Thanksgiving pie, you know who to call.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Held up by community

All the most private moments – birth and death, tragedy, accomplishment – seem so intimate. Not only does it feel as if they’ve never happened to anyone but you, in precisely the way you are experiencing them, but also it feels as though they are moments you must live through utterly on your own.

Why is that? Because the truth is these life-changing moments nearly always involve community: celebrating, sympathizing, supporting, crying, laughing or cheering us on.
And so, our community held us up last month as we celebrated our new marriage.

Let me tell you how community – and locally sourced -- this wedding was. It started out with invitations hand-crafted by artist/design friends. Other friends volunteered to gather flowers. Another contributed photography. Our guests fed us themselves – they brought potluck to add to the food and drink we provided. Food is one of the greatest ways people connect, and I loved seeing the many dishes our friends contributed. A trifle with berries and peaches picked by my sister and niece! A favorite chicken dish with homemade pasta! And TWO wedding cakes: one that I know ate up hours of weekend and late night planning and testing turned out to be a masterpiece of crunchy meringue layered with tangy apricot, a sweet almond cake that was dense and light at the same time, topped with  rich buttercream and organic – yes organic – white roses. The other was equally meaningful, with a history involving seven generations of Myers women on my side of the family – well, eight, if you count Clara Dodd, the daughter who baked it!

Our children and friends did a yeoman’s job of helping with last-minute details, making signs for trash cans, making sure the stereo system was working, picking up food and wine, toting potluck paper plates and cutlery, and cleaning it all up when we were finished. And contributions continue, as guests share their photos with us in the best ways, on line and in beautifully crafted collections.

Then there was family who came hundreds of miles to join us, surrounding us by a sense of rootedness that only family can provide, siblings and their children and their grandchildren, reminding us of where we come from and where we are going.

Even the larger community contributed: the folding chairs for the ceremony were borrowed from the local church. The flowers were from the Takoma Park Farmer’s Market a few blocks away. The sound system was set up by the local music guru, whose friendly face is familiar to anyone who’s attended a Takoma Park Street Festival or an IMT concert at the Community Center, or shopped at the House of Musical Traditions. Organization help came from JudyTiger, a friend who once ran the community gardens in D.C. and who took time out of her organizing business to pitch in. Some of the food came from Middle Eastern Market, and we held the event at the Cady Lee House, a landmark Victorian home restored by one of the leaders of Historic Takoma and now used as office space for a community youth support organization.

But most of all, we had friends and family all around us, so that whenever I turned there was someone to help out, or just share the moment, and share the joy. Heartfelt thanks must go out to everyone who launched us into our very happy marriage.

To be surrounded by such a loving community was the best way to share this most intimate moment.