We are camping, and my sister Hannah brings cereal, the multi-pack with Froot Loops and Raisin Bran and Frosted Flakes. This is not, should not be a point for concern or contention; as children, this was our ritual, a special treat only experienced out in the woods, as inextricably wound into camping as moss into our hair. Sometimes, we would open the little boxes flat, pour the milk from mom's battered metal cooler into the inner packaging, and eat straight from the boxes; other times, we would use the camping bowls we'd brought.
When I pack for camping, I do not pack my mother's camp cooler, no picnic table salt-and-pepper, no Bisquik box, no packets of sugars saved from diner meals. I do not pack individual boxes of cereal, and I must hold my mind's tongue to avoid judgment or commentary. This is my path and it is one I love.
On my path is bacon, sliced on a picnic table; on my path there are campfire pancakes. How hard is it, after all, to pack flour and baking powder, sea salt and cinnamon? Can not the pepper mill fit in the camping box too? Should not a slab of bacon take the place of sodapops past? And where the cooking oil my mother brought might have gone, I have cold-pressed coconut oil; where she put the cereal boxes, I store butter and more butter.
I've known Vanessa for less than an hour when I decide she and I are kindred spirits, Anne of Green Gables style, a happenstance of meant-to-be. She has come to a food swap hosted by Chris Musser at the urging of Kate Payne. They're college friends. Vanessa and I are friends for another reason.
It's a sad reason, and it goes to the heart of me, and I ride my bike home slowly, musing. Because I cannot think of anything else to do about this, after a few weeks have passed I invite her over to make cherry jam.
This is probably what you should do for all new friends: clean your house, as much as you have time for; perhaps be the proud accomplisher of a couple of minor organization projects and a major DIY renovation of some upstairs room. Get bad news, news that means you were right, all along, to think more about your pantry than The Man. Buy, spontaneously and with financial abandon (oh, you've just lost your most regular freelance gig, you should have saved that money... but...) 12 pounds of Rainer cherries.
An oatmeal chocolate chip cookie for breakfast can, has, will be a source of guilt. When I was a teenager, we ate the enormous chocolate chip cookies the high school cafeteria served, with a never-big-enough dollop of soft-serve ice cream, for lunch. If we were lucky, they hadn't been baked quite long enough and were so gooey you could practically taste the separate elements -- white sugar, shortening, gloriously soft white flour -- with every spoonful. In my twenties, I put away childish things, I went healthy: oatmeal, of course, would set me aright. If there were raisins, too, it was practically a four-course meal. How many cookies have I eaten for breakfast? The number is unknowable.
I cannot say that I have never opened the door to my messy home, struggled with tangled hair and last night's tomato sauce-stained shirts, found socks (somehow, always-paired socks a quest for a heroine braver far than me), tied or velcro-ed shoes, pull squirm lose temper take breath and no you don't need mittens!, remembered (somehow) my wallet, my coffee thermos, done breakfast coffee shop-style. Cookies bigger than any of our hands, wrapped in the most efficient bit of plastic wrap, one-dollar-seventy-five apiece.
The coffee shop closed in December, pulling my crutch out from under me, painfully. Since then, I've been perfecting (if you could even call it that) this, a whole grain almost sugar-free chocolate chip cookie about which you can nag your children, a chocolate chip cookie that the neighbor kids will make disappear if you let them and your husband (in his far too severe-these-days spurts of kitchen purging) will throw away, thinking them too messy to be edible. They are; they're not. They're delicious and good for you and you must eat them with one hand underneath to catch the crumbs.
I am bicycling home from a craft fair (where I have sold one flower fairy hat, one teething goose, and one stuffed pickle) hungry. My route takes me past favorite restaurants and food carts, and I think about stopping to buy ice cream because I am also hot, having baked slowly, a frog in a lukewarm pot, and I have eaten sugary things, ill-advisedly, my head is almost swimming for many reasons.
It is there, kitty-corner from the truck selling (not ice cream but) icy treats that are non-dairy, I see the seafood truck. Inside -- you walk up inside the truck, no sales window here -- a man who looks young for his age, with lines of good humor and work in the out-of-doors, is kneeling, shifting ice from bag to cooler, and I feel that I am walking into another state or a narrow shop beside a mountain lake. I look back at the noisy parking lot, just to be sure.
The salmon is $6.99 a pound, a chalkboard outside says, it is Alaskan and wild, which is all I will buy for my family, I have just heard the author of the book Four Fish on Fresh Air, he has told again the familiar refrain: farmed salmon is fraught with so many environmental concerns, wild is overfished almost everywhere, our world's fish are depleting fast as steamy stinking water out a paper mill's pipe. Here in the truck, the vendor shows me two salmon in the box; mine, three-and-some pounds, is $25. I hand over all my craft fair proceeds. "It's fresh, never frozen!" he says, and I imagine it fairly swimming here down the Pacific coast. I shake off the chill of the Northern Pacific; it braces, it sparkles in the corners of my eyes.
I lived in the South for seven years (leaving Reston, Virginia out of the accounting), and still, when I think "South" I think Streetcar Named Desire, I think low-country fried oysters, I think corn pone in the dining room of the CEO in West Point, Georgia, I think Laura Ashley bedspreads and girls who go by their mama's last name, I think Spanish moss hanging from the oak trees, shrouding the highways outside of Savannah, Georgia. My image of the South is not how I lived -- in a series of dormitory rooms, apartment buildings, my diet consisting of bagel chips and low-fat cream cheese and lentils with mango -- but how I imagined living. With wide hand gestures; a taste for whiskey, neat; dresses which clung to me, sweat dripping down the small of my back, down, down.
With pimiento cheese spread. With fried okra. With watermelon rind pickles.
I've eaten my share of white bread, toasted, smeared with the South's special sauce; breaded, crispy rings of okra were my standard number one at every restaurant that served lunch with "three veg." But somehow, I'd missed watermelon rind pickles, it was too South, maybe, more Little Rock than Lexington, Vee-Aye.
I am running, I am running, and as I jog around corners and sprint up hills, on streets, on sidewalks, I see the sunflowers and the grape vines and the tomatoes. The vines, the indeterminate heavy shoots and curly tendrils and uncanny-fragrant leaves, are so verdant and electric I wonder if the city has been laced with some miracle drug, a concoction that makes everything grow and grow and GROW! But if so, the drug is flawed, still in the testing phase, surely. Because everything is green.
I brush past the tomato leaves on purpose -- not that I can help it, the vines spread from front yard cages to parking strip garden boxes, catching my legs with giggles of scent as I hurry by -- to drink in the heady balm, the promise of ripeness, shade of the night and the moon and the sun, tomatoes.
This year, this chilly summer with only an August streak of sunny weeks, all the tomatoes are green, still green on Woodward Street and behind the high school and through alleys and in my front yard. If I see red, it is a blush, a promise, a surprise. It is a hot summer evening; last year I would have been headed home to blanch, peel, chop, push tomatoes into their jars, pint by bloody pint.
And so, we wait, hope and fear equal seedy lumps in our collective throats.
Walk past my house -- I dare you -- and do not startle, mutter to yourself, call out a soft word of admiration direct from your marrow. Despite my clutter and half-skills and haphazard scattering of effort, energy, garden mysticism, August on my street is glory. The grape vines are the first to call to you, yes, their curling witch-fingers brushing on your cheek, your skirt, my pretttty... they say, creaking in the breeze. The lavender pokes purply, elegant and pastoral at once, echoing, imitating flatteringly, the ebullient row in front of my neighbor's home. There are sunflowers, now, cocking their cackling heads, throwing back chins and gulping in sunlight. The figs, big-handed, slow-drooping their fat sticky teardrops, they have their flowers inside, says Heather. Imagine that.
It's the mint, though, the mint that catches you. I wouldn't have planned this, didn't in fact want it at all, these rootling creepers sliding their leggy rhizomes through my precious dirt. They frill out in a patch of dark mushrooms, composting better than black plastic; they shoot up among the garlic; they worm their way under the fence and up through the lavender, the rosemary, the thyme. I wander in the front yard on my sprightlier days, grabbing big handfuls from the rootbase, curling fingers into earth and pulling with all my strength. My uprooting scents my fingers, my clothes, the air around me, and this is what you notice as you walk by. "I love your garden," you'll say to me, while I grunt and sweat and wish I were neater, more organized, more nurturing. Wish I'd never planted mint. "Thank you," I'll say, gulping back weepy confessions.
I no longer see recipes with mint and smack smug satisfaction, free in my yard, I've spent too many errant hours lying piles of it on my front walk, hoping the mood will strike me to collect leaves by the gallon-load and wash, dry, squirrel away. For what? There will always be mint.
And now there will always be mint ice cream. It started backwards, a quart-and-a-half of mint chocolate chip from Trader Joe's, memories of childhood favorites, 'twas mine, a question, "shall we make this?" And, hours later, a discovery: that nothing else in mint ice cream would ever matter again. It's complex and utterly simple, this honey mint vanilla ice cream, come, walk, pick of my mint, do this too. Ice cream is easy.
It is Sunday, and I am holding church at my kitchen sink. I have scrubbed the ceremonial ceramic-on-steel with baking soda and sea salt; my fingers are pink and near-raw from hours in the hot water, washing plates and water glasses and stainless steel pots. I have brought to this aged font these orbs, licentious and bawdy, pink and blush-red and saffron and crimson, possessed of a scent so sensuous I gasp, open-mouthed, slurping, lip-licking, hungry to my very bones.
The faucet is on, again, this time cold and pure, sent kitchen-ward from mountains far and high, near and smoldering. Hood, Tabor, I have visited these stately reserves on my gasping summer runs, I have seen from whence this water flows. I wash the nectarines and grasp, hold, sharpening my knife before slipping the tip into the base of each fruit. X, stigma or signet, cauterization.
I turn to the vat of bubbling water and, fingers gentle, final, plunge into the surging well. A minute. Just.
The blanch, this boiling water bath, softens the fruits not just to the touch -- and I lift them out with slotted spoon, gently, gently -- but to the light; the colors meld and flush, as the final burst of orange-pink before the sun's light disappears at night, seaward.
cafemama's life in the kitchen : food sustains us
It has been explained, to us, to married women and young, passionate career-ists and fathers, but especially to mothers, that our greatest desire is for convenience. All we need is not, after all, love; it is prewashed presliced precooked prediced prebaked presweetened wrapped up and with natural flavors added. With that, we can express our love with the minimum of work, only having to spend time in the buying.
We have done this, pushing piles of cookbooks off our counters whose titles express how busy are these modern lives. We will get all these recipes completed in less than 30 minutes; these other ones will provide the illusion of care, mess, agony over detail. Our media tells us jokes about women who buy cupcakes and roast turkeys and pretend to have made them, when in fact the career's demands were too dear to spend minutes (even 30), oven-bound. We are supposed to see ourselves in these images, we are supposed to laugh.
Our laughter is shrill, forced. We are hurting. Our children are hurting. Something neither we nor the men and women who work on tall hills, each sporting a doctorate or two, can explain, is rising up within these beloved-but-poorly understood. It lashes out, wraith-like, it raises high a dagger of this is wrong and plunges it into our throats. Gasping, dripping, bloody, we reach: for hope, a mantra, a tool. Anything to sustain us.
Something deep within us, an ancient wisdom from very near the dawn of familial ties, rooted in the earliest flush of prolactin -- the mothering hormone -- tells us that food is the answer. And food is not a subject we have been taught, it is alien to our areas of expertise. We know many things, how to dissect a sentence and write a convincing brief and balance an income statement. We know how to navigate office politics and write a resume that blithely eliminates our motherhood from a potential employers' concerns. We know how to work several voice mail systems and install Ubuntu.
But give us a box of peaches, a sharp paring knife and a case of pint canning jars and, even with this desire-that's-deep -- to know from where comes our food, to challenge our sugary addictions, to loose our kids from toxins like BPAs and pesticides, to fill our homes full of golden jarred treasures whose worth will not now, not ever, be traded on any exchange -- what rises in our veins, our throat, our souls is not life-giving pride, but fear.
I've felt the fear too, and breathed deep, swallowed, prayed, and conquered some of it, taking my food life by the shoulders and wrestling, Jacob-like, until I understood. We stood there at my kitchen sink, eye-to-mirrored-eye, and the charge that shook us deep in our bellies was the satisfaction, the quiet of whole, real, inconvenient food.
I am writing a book about this food, this food life. I cannot wait for you to taste it; sample, here.