Archive for January, 2007

More about food

January 30, 2007

Whitishrabbit wrote to ask, “When did we become too busy for meal preparation to be important?” That’s actually a fairly important question. I wrote previously about food preparation, but now I’d like to spend a little time on consumption.

Food has traditionally played a very important part in many of our spiritual rituals. Consider Christian communion, Jewish Seder, and the Muslim breaking of the Ramadan fast–Eid–as examples. Sharing food with other humans (or animals for that matter) is an important part of our social organization.

After writing about preparing food, it occurred to me that most of my most memorable meals have little to do with the food that was prepared and served (although in fairness, there was a lot of it and it was generally made from “scratch” with loving care). But what makes most of these meals so memorable is the sharing, the breaking of the bread together, along with the liberal pouring of the wine, the laughter (a proven digestion aid), and the occasional sharing of deep thoughts at an otherwise light-hearted meal. These are the things of which bonds are made.

And in the final analysis (hah! with me there’s never any such thing), food is probably as much about relationships as it is about eating. I get great pleasure from preparing and serving the best that I have to offer to people that deserve only the best–my friends.

I think we are losing a bit of this in our rush to efficiency. Somehow, sharing a Big Mac on a hurried lunch hour is very different from lingering over a candlelit table for 3, 4, 5 hours.

I’m lucky to be in a position now to take time with both the preparation and the consumption of food. It’s only one of the benefits I’m finding to being unemployed.


Some thoughts about food, the production thereof

January 29, 2007

There’s a terrific essay in the Sunday’s NY Times Magazine: “The Age of Nutritionism,” by Michael Pollan. (Full disclosure: I am most inclned to believe an essay is “terrific” if it espouses a position with which I am in full agreement, and this one does.)

Briefly, Pollan argues that scientists, in an attempt to find the silver bullets that will put an end to human illness and suffering, have divorced food from its natural physical and social contexts. In doing so, he writes, they have created an American culture of food in which the population is both sicker and more clueless. Favorite line (perhaps paraphrased): If it’s something your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, don’t eat it.

Now, my purpose here isn’t to recreate Pollan’s essay. You’ll have to go read that for yourself. But once again today I’m baking bread, a task best done with love, a hands-on technique, and the simplest of ingredients. I learned much of the technique from a Julia Child’s recipe I clipped from a newspaper more than 30 years ago, I’m sure. I’ve probably mentioned it here before. But her technique in this particular piece involves a food processor, something for which I’m sure she was paid handsomely by this new-at-the-time industry. But you can tell from her qualified comments that she really doesn’t espouse the use of this machine and clearly prefers a manual technique. There are repeated warnings about the heat from the processor and the problems it can cause.

The food processor, to my way of thinking, is one of the most useless machines ever invented. It doesn’t do anything that you can’t do with a good set of knives and some patience and attention. I suppose if you routinely catered lunch for several dozen people, it might be handy. But I still object, because the fact of the matter (experiential evidence only, no scientific backup) is that, like the microwave oven, the food processor in its operation changes the physical characteristics of the food it’s processing. I don’t think that can be totally healthy.

Another useless piece of technology is the bread machine. It probably makes your kitchen smell good, but it doesn’t produce anything remotely resembling real bread. If you think I’m being foolish, go read the label on one of your bread mixes. Then compare that with Julia’s fine French bread recipe–flour, salt, yeast, and water.

“Real” food is an interaction of plants and animals with their environment. Many natural processes occur in the food chain to produce complex foods that contribute to the health and well-being of any organisms, not just humans, that feed on them. In our rush to haste and convenience, we’re rapidly removing the “food” from our diets to replace it with “nutrients,” something about which it becomes increasingly obvious that we know little and understand less.

I’m sure I sould like a Luddite. I’m not. I just think the stuff we put into our bodies to nourish them deserves far more respect than it gets these days.

There’s a whole other aspect to food that is primarily social, but I think this has gone on long enough to wear on your patience, so that will wait for another day.

Where have all the marbles gone?

January 29, 2007

Today Ralph and I made one of our semi-regular Sunday morning expeditions to town to get the Sunday Oregonian and the Sunday NY Times, to pick up odds and ends of needed groceries, get some coffee that neither of us made, browse things that interest us, and so on. We do this while our spouses are sleeping in and are generally back in time to deliver morning papers with coffee.

We fooled around in town a bit extra today, because I am determined to find some marbles for my Aggravation game. If you’ve never played Aggravation, it’s a bit like Parcheesi on steroids. I have a wonderful handmade board that my grandfather made for me nearly 40 years ago.

Granddad discovered the game before it was being marketed, and made game boards of plywood with hand-marked and hand-drilled holes, finishing the whole thing up with several coats of shellac. He loved to play this game. He was very competitive. I have seen him “accidentally” upend the card table when he was losing and became too “aggravated” to deal with it.

I still have the board, but I long ago lost the marbles. Now the four of us want to play it, and there are no marbles to be had.

The board uses the same sort of marbles that Chinese Checkers uses–plain colored marbles with a smooth round feel, no flash, just distinctive colors for each player. But there don’t seem to be an regular marbles to be had.

I’ve been to assorted hardware, craft, and antique stores, even made a stop at Toys R Us on my Friday trip to Salem. The answers to my inquiries are similar: “We had some, but we’ve sold them all and don’t expect any more,” “We’ve never carried them. I have no idea why,” “There used to be some around here, but I think they’re gone.”

I fianlly called Pablo, a friend of mine who deals in antiques and collectibles to see if he had any. He has no idea (this is a very typical second-hand store operation). He said marbles were problematic because his 3-year-old daughter gloms onto them and they disappear. His wife was shouting from the background that she had some if she could only remember where. They’re going to see what they have and call me back. But I did score an old metal Chinese Checkers board with this call.

But this raises a very important question for me: Where have all the marbles gone? When I was a kid, I had a huge bag of marbles, including a whole variety of “shooters,” those oversized marbles that were used to fire your opponents’ marbles out of the playing ring. Every kid I knew had a similar collection. Now there seem to be none to had anywhere.

It isn’t just that there seem to be no new ones (except, of course for the decorative crystal type that you put in vases and fishbowls). But the old ones are nowhere to be found, either. Based on my experience, that means that there must be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tons of marbles in assorted landfills, never to deteriorate, but perhaps to be discovered by some future archeologist as the jewels of our culture.

Pablo noted that a few years ago marbles became highly collectible. Old marbles were very valuable, and anyone who owned any marbles at all seemed to think his retirement was assured. So he thinks many of them are being hoarded. What a shame, because we could play games with them and ultimately they’re not worth much for anything else.

But I have to say I no longer understand the concept of collectible. I want a few very nice things that I can enjoy using or looking at. That’s it.

In the meantime, it’s clear and cold tonight (already headed for frost). Cassiopeia, mother of Andromeda, hangs in the sky, the Pleiades are almost eclipsed by a waxing gibbous moon, both fires are going, and all is well with the world, at least in this space.

Fire, shopping, and dog snacks

January 28, 2007

Yesterday morning I did my best to set fire to the house. Fortunately, I failed.

Now, in fairness, the stage was set for me because it’s been too long since we cleaned the living room chimney, and we use that stove a lot, particularly in the winter. I got up about 4 a.m. (totally dark, but I couldn’t sleep and saw no reason to keep Ben awake with my tossing and turning). I lit the fire, fed it off and on, and dozed a little while listening to NPR. I was too late for the BBC news.

It was just atarting to get light when I opened my eyes to see a flaming ember floating past the window. My first thought: “What a weird reflection!” Then more burning stuff, and it was clearly outside, not reflected on the window. Luckily the fire was dying down again, because the chimney had caught fire and was burning on its own.

I hollered at Ben, who sighed and got up to check the roof area upstairs. All was well, the fire died down, and eventually my heart rate dropped to normal. I am terrified of fire. My mother said it was because I was actually in a number of house fires as a child. I have little memory of those, but I obviously remember that fire is a reason to panic and get very excited.

Then I drove off to Salem to do some mandatory banking that I preferred to do in person. With that done, I attempted to so some shopping, but nobody had the things in stock that I was prepared to spend money on–a Wii and some marbles of the right sort. I did succeed in buying some very funny dog snacks for Kayla (Ralph and Brenda’s dog, which I spoil unconscionably). But my major shopping efforts were totally thwarted.

I both envy and feel sorry for Roger Angell

January 26, 2007

I’ve been reading a collection of the essays of E.B. White published over about a 40-year period in The New Yorker. I bought the collection while I was in school and put it in my “to read” stack. I pulled it out a week or so ago to read.

E.B. White is an amazing writer. He has a poet’s sense of detail and irony captured in stunningly clear and readable prose all wrapped up in a fine sense of humor. In addition to his essays, he published a number of wonderful children’s books like Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He is the co-author with William Strunk (I think he’s really the author, but he says he based the book on the notes he made in a writing class in which Strunk was his professor) of Elements of Style, a book widely recognized as the bible of writing books. It’s familiarly called “the little white book,” something that caused me great grief today when I was looking for it to see if it had an answer to Brent’s question about the use of “regard” vs. “regards.” My current copy of the book has a silver cover, and it took me awhile to find it even though it was correctly filed with my reference and “how to” books. You see, I was looking for a “white” book.

I just ordered a copy of White’s collected letters after reading several reviews. I now have another author I wish I could have shared at least a bottle of wine with.

O.K., dear reader, I hear you saying, “Get on with this. What does all that have to do with Roger Angell? Who is Roger Angell?”

Roger Angell is another fine writer. He’s also had a long affiliation with The NYer, and still publishes an occasional piece. But he’s of interest to me here because his mother had the good sense (his observation) to marry E.B. White when he was fairly young. So he is White’s stepson.

Now I suspect that was a real asset when he was a young writer looking for a place to land. I suspect it had a fortuitous influence on his application at the magazine. That’s not to say that Angell couldn’t have landed the job on his own; he is very, very good.

But for the pity part: Can you imagine growing up wanting to write and having to compete with your own stepfather, arguably one of the truly great stylists in the English language? What a stress level to have to operate under! White must have handled things with a great deal of grace, because Angell writes so lovingly of him.

But then, as nearly as I can tell, White did everything with an extraordinary amount of grace. We should all be so blessed.

My pet peeve of the moment is magazine subscription policies

January 26, 2007

I subscribe to a fair number of publications. It’s one of the costs of living in the middle of nowhere and trying to keep up with what’s going on. But magazines are driving me nuts. . .

As soon as you send in a subscription, they start sending you renewal notices. I can understand them wanting to keep a stable subscription base and know what to tell advertisers, but it’s really reached the point of the ridiculous.

One of my favorite publications is The New Yorker. I renewed it around Christmas even though the subscription wasn’t up for another few months. That allowed me to send my daughter a gift subscription. But yesterday I got a notice saying they were unable to process my subscription update because my credit card information wasn’t complete.

I grabbed a recent copy and looked at the label. It showed an expiration date of 2009 (at least the NYer is kind enough to print that information on the mailing label so I can keep track–not everyone does). So I called customer service.

I was informed that they were trying to process an automatic renewal request that I had entered some time ago (more than a year). I told the nice representative what my label showed. She said that the label included the year’s subscription they were unable to process and that I was really only paid up through mid-2008.

After a few seconds while I processed that information, I asked them why they were trying to renew a subscription that still had 18 or so months to run. Her reply: “Well, I can cancel that request.” My reply: “Please do.” Now this makes no sense at all to me.

I used the think all of the offers of new credit cards and blank checks to bill me existing credit cards were the worst junk mail I got. Now I’m not so sure.

I guess I’m going to have to set up a database so I can keep track of all of this.

Some things just don’t need improving

January 24, 2007

A few days ago Phil wrote about a “why not before” invention. If you click on the link provided, you’ll find a truly beautiful ceramic toaster of a novel design. Now, I will be the first to admit that from an aesthetic standpoint, this toaster is truly lovely. I didn’t see the demo, but looking at the picture, it seems to me there are a few potential flaws in the operation of this device.

It looks like the toast feeds slowly through a bar like one of those pen-style photo scanners. I’m not a physicist, certainly, but it seems to me that one of two things is required: either you toast the bread at impossibly hot temperatures, changing its fundamental characteristics, or by the time the last part is toasted, the first part is too cold to melt “yellow death” (butter, for the uninitiated). Either of these two things would be unacceptable to me.

Besides, why is there this insane drive to keep reinventing items that work perfectly well? I give you my toaster as an example.

I know people used to toast bread on forks, and I’d submit that my toaster is a significant improvement. But I’ll bet the patent on it dates back to at least the early 20th century. Admittedly, it takes a little more attention than the electric models with built-in sensors, but it also only cost about $10 new and operates for an incredibly long time (I did pretty well burn one up beyond usefulness, but that was after 20 years–that’s how I know how much a new one costs).

Here’s what it looks like:


It works on both my wood and gas fires and produces very good toast (please forgive the fuzziness of this picture–Ben ate the toast before I discovered the picture was so out of focus).


So let’s devote this inventiveness to some useful purpose, like a microbe that will thoroughly clean the dishes without removing them from the table. THAT would be useful. Think of all the time saved in not getting the dished out of the cupboard, serving the food, carrying them to the sink, washing them, putting them away again, and then starting all over.

Tuesday: Big elk herd on the Big Elk

January 24, 2007

I went off today to finally attend my writing group, the Tuesdays. It was a great session, and I got a strategy for fixing a poem that’s been giving me fits, half poem, half prose, but worth struggling with.

But what really made it really worthwhile was the trip home. I saw a magnificent herd of elk in one of the fields near milepost 3. There must have been at least 25 of them, not the biggest herd I’ve seen, but large, very close, regal, disdainful. When I stopped to watch them, they moved away, but not in a panic. I think they knew I wouldn’t hurt them. They just resented my nosiness.

I’ve never figured out how animals know when it’s hunting season, but they do. The deer that are making you nuts one afternoon suddenly disappear for several weeks. Then they’re back, the day after hunting season ends.

We don’t hunt or fish, unless you count my extremely occasional deep-sea fishing expeditions. I suppose we would if we were hungry. But we’re not. I prefer to be a gardener-gatherer and buy my meat at a good meat market, something, by the way, that’s becoming harder and harder to find. But that’s a post for another day.

It’s not a moral issue with me. I grew up as a country girl, have seen chickens killed and know how to strip the feathers and pin feathers and gut them, have seen steers slaughtered, helped brand cattle, watched my father butchering venison, and so on. I know where meat comes from. But we don’t need the meat, and I love watching the animals.

Elk are magnificent. Their dark ruffs make them look like they’re always on the way to a formal dinner somewhere, and their posture reinforces that impression. I would like to have half the self-confidence of the average elk.

I have a sixth sense for them, a sense that’s kept me out of some potentially disastrous situations. I was flying along Harlan Road one night when my hackles went up and I stepped on the brakes, hard. About a dozen cow elk ran across the road in front of me. When my heart rate returned to normal, I put my foot on the accelerator with a faint mental “Whew!” Then a bull bigger than my truck stepped out. I missed him, but I must admit I slowed down for the rest of the trip.

Somehow this post went far afield, but that’s the nature of stream of consciousness. I don’t have any pictures to share. My camera was at home, and it was twilight, probably too dark to capture them anyway. But my brain has captured them forever, I hope.

The loneliness of the SETI researcher

January 22, 2007

If you’ve read Carl Sagan’s novel Contact or seen the semi-lame movie of the same name, you’re already familiar with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research. You know that scientists have, for decades, been sending assorted complicated scientific information, mostly mathematical formulas, into space via powerful radio transmitters and monitoring for replies by powerful radio telescopes.

This approach makes sense based on what we know today. One of the few things that appears to be solid in our knowledge of the universe is its reliance of mathematics for its underpinnings. I suppose transmitting complicated mathematics into space is one way of alerting ETs that we are advanced enough to understand these principles.

Of course there was also Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with its outstanding performance by Richard Dreyfuss. The information broadcast into the skies in Spielberg’s classic was a set of musical tones. But these were, in fact (if my memory serves me), merely a representation of a mathematical relationship.

But go back to Contact. Imagine the loneliness of the SETI researcher, sitting in a remote lab, monitoring all of the noise that comes in from the universe (and there is MUCH–the “silence of the spheres” is a misconception).

Blogging strikes me a little like that.

I sit here in my remote location throwing out words and ideas into what I’m assuming must be an intelligent universe. I’m looking for something in return. Oh, I get blog stats, but they seem a little lame (based on the number of folks who say “Oh, yes, I’ve been reading your blog for months” in other forms of communication.

I’m looking for the sort of feedback that says, “Hey, I got your message and I [like it] [hate it] [violently disagree].” (Insert one). It’s very hard to have any sort of meaningful discussion when the listener is mute. . .;^}

Now it occurs to me that many of my friends don’t blog themselves and may have no clue how to insert a comment. When you pop open the blog, you’ll typically see everything I’ve written for the current month divided into sections by the post “titles.” At this point you can either click on the title or click on the “Comments” (or “No Comments”) link at the bottom. Either one will open the specific post and place a little form at the bottom that allows you to post a comment. Be sure you hit “Submit comment” when you’re done.

If there is intelligent life out there (and I’m very sure there is), please talk to me. I appreciate those of you who have. Now where are the rest of you, you “lurkers”?

More pictures: Some of the less bucolic aspects of country living

January 21, 2007

After some recent (albeit brief) exchanges with Brent, it strikes me that I have perhaps made my home sound a little too idyllic. So here is a little reality check. Once again, you can click on any thumbnail to see the larger picture.

I have a really cute truck (One of my former neighbors, to be fair, once said, “Excuse me, but that’s NOT a truck. Almost a truck, perhaps”). When I lived in town, I washed it about once a week. But here is what Buster looked like after a trip to town:


I’ve been debating about washing him for weeks, but what’s the point? The roads are just the same.

We have five woodstoves on the property between our house and shops and Ralph’s ditto. So part of living here is cutting, splitting, and moving and stacking (several times for each piece–once into a sunny area to dry, once into the woodshed, and once to the house or porch) humongous quantities of firewood. Luckily we have almost an endless supply. Here’s what it looks like:


You can’t even really see most of it. The main part of the woodshed, which holds at least 7-8 cords, is behind all of the tractor bays you see here. And that’s not counting Ralph’s woodshed (also full) or the quantities stacked in the living room, kitchen, and back porch for immediate use.

Here’s what the main house looks like:

Home, sweet home

The top floor on the left is the library. The part you see here contains about 4,000 books. I have another 1,000 or so in my office, a picture for another day. The guy on one of our four assorted Kubotas is Ben, delivering firewood from the shed to the house.

But there are still the plusses. Snowdrops, daffodils, and scylla are springing up all over. It was 45 F today, and I worked outside most of the afternoon. Ralph and Brenda came down tonight for a terrific spaghetti (I can say that because Brenda cooked it), home baked French bread, a nice salad, and two nice bottles of wine. It was a gorgeous day with a long, slow finish to it.