9/26/22: Fruit & Folks

To the management at our treasured open air produce store, the folks matter more than the fruit.

The art gallery with new exhibits daily

At Fruit & Folks, that greengrocer façade is just the axis for a harmonic convergence of interesting people who come together to explore produce and talk about the meaning of life. For a thoughtful observant shopper, it’s a money-saving gem. There are always unique bargains and offerings to be found. The resourceful owners research and work with contacts to anticipate and access seasonal finds that might otherwise be thrown away. For those who adapt their cooking to benefit from the latest offerings, and who rotate their fridge produce, this store is the next best thing to shopping in Paris. It’s a Son & Pop business where Marcus Senior runs the back of the house and Marcus Junior runs the front. How many fathers have a son who follow their vocation, who take on and shoulder the family business side by side? It must be a gratifying experience for both of them.

Marcus & Marcus never seem undone over the zany outbursts of the American customer. One woman lit into Marcus the Younger, about a specific vegetable exotic to this clime: isn’t this a pretty meager selection, and hasn’t the price gone up? “Why yes, Ma’am, that it has,” he respectfully sympathized. “For this year, [international crime cartel] got it. See the United States imports the whole supply from only two plantations, and They got almost all of it.” Her expression faded down from outrage to bewilderment to contrite dawning awareness: She would just have to take it up with Them. Ma’am.

One day a man with a pronounced New York accent lost his Zen at my favorite lovely cashier over the price of some fruit. She and Marcus the Elder de-escalated and consoled the customer, who finished yelling and stampeded off into the darkness. I expressed sympathies to Favorite Cashier and Marcus the Elder, and explained to them both that back East we Anglo New Yorkers have a historic precedent for over-the-top hyperbole. “Ay-uh,” Dad agreed in unruffled calm, proceeding with his inventory, “My career was on Wall Street.” (Fun fact: That was Favorite Cashier’s last day on the job. She then invited me to her wedding. This Christmas, she and her dear husband bought me a Russian movie subscription. She texted me just today from her new city. Hello, Precious Heart!)

The store closes for one week each year, so the staff can have a vacation. Last time, I was the last customer on the night before closing. I stocked up on as much food as I could carry home. Marcus Jr. patiently waited for me to load it all on the register belt, then let me know that all of it would be free of charge, with the logic, “It will only spoil this week, Mary. Just take it.” In no time he whisked the food into my bags for me. That generosity was such a thrilling surprise; only at home did I realize that (Doh!) half the bonanza was glass jars of tomato paste from Lebanon! After their vacation when the store re-opened I marched in and surprised Marcus Sr. with the greeting “Your son played a trick on me!” He refused payment for the glass jars, but fortunately he saw the humor in my accusation, as he does in most situations. (He even composes a light-hearted monthly Produce Jingle, with featured edibles exchanging philosophical quips. I’ve threatened to submit my own ditty, with better puns, to compete for top billing on the register tape.)

The rest of the staff share the same inspired ethic of good will and kindness. They haul carts and sweep up and staff the register under the roofed open-air space in all weather year round, and in December work late hours hauling and selling a rush of holiday trees. They draw our attention to the sky during special sunsets and rainbows. They make humorous signs, and maintain the decor. (There’s a stuffed baby gorilla in the banana section, a sparkly disco dance ball overhead, Christmas lights year round, and souvenir Fruit & Folks swag). One cashier sprinted two blocks and surprised me at the bus stop, handing me back the library book that I’d left on the counter; he was not only fast and conscientious, but guessed which customer in a crowded store just might have been reading the life of Mother Angelica. Another telephoned me at home to see whether the umbrella left at closing time was mine (no, but gosh thanks). The staff welcome dogs, and keep a jar full of treats on the counter. Dogs on the sidewalk drag in their amused owners, who naturally make some purchase during their treat stop. The cashiers’ taste in store music is eclectic and knowledgeable; many of them are musicians, happy to enlighten me about the genre wafting over the sound system. One cashier heard me humming to the store music, and offered to record my singing for free, for her course in studio operations; she did a beautiful job of fine-tuning the sound and harmony tracks, and after a two hour session I came home with a vocal CD. Others are artists and writers, pleased to share updates about their current exhibits or manuscript drafts. One taught me about practical irrigation systems devised by African farmers, then moved to Africa herself to study faming there. These young people are so engaging and good-humored that back when I lived across the street I invited them all to come over after closing time for refreshments. (When they arrived I asked where they were all from, and then said “Oh wait! Sorry. Was that a creepy stalking question?” “Mary?” they pointed out. “It’s not stalking if YOU invited US into your home.”)

The pandemic shut down many family businesses in town. But Marcus & Marcus masked up, put up safety posters, adjusted to the times, and sailed through. When hand sanitizers were out of stock for weeks on end, Marcus Jr. researched hand sanitizer formulas and made up large batches with the optimal amount of alcohol plus wholesome skin-soothing herbal ingredients. He put giant dispenser pumps on the counter for customers to use as they entered the store. Business flourished. The idea of shopping in open fresh air appealed to new customers as well as old. At the time many people were stepping outside the house only to walk the dog. They quickly realized the value of a dog-friendly business for those precious daily outings.

On today’s visit, the bargain bin (50 cents a pound) yielded good quality jumbo carrots, ripe single bananas, artichokes, and limes. More important, the visit provided another missing piece in my ignorance of popular culture in these modern times. Marcus Jr. discovered that I knew nothing, absolute zero, about the world of animé; he kindly clued me in to the basic concept while trimming lettuces with a box cutter and wrapping them in twisty ties, then suggested two of the best titles for a beginner to explore. A delightful new cashier endorsed Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I promised to complete my homework report back to both of them on the next adventure with fruit and folks.

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9/24/22: Salutary Bitterness: St. Theophan and the Melon of Mystery

The big excitement around here today was a tour of a very unique international garden of food and medicinal herbs. The prettiest of them all were these scarlet runner beans.

scarlet runner beans

The inner prompting for this trip (Guardian angel? Maybe!) was, “Look sharp, and pay attention! There will be cultural riches, and also many people all around you with distressed lives.”

This tour was going to be a challenging situation anyway. The lifelong plot has been aspiring to put a best foot forward with other people, then discovering that the best foot (or either foot, best or not) can underwhelm or even annoy others. This time with this group I resolved to keep quiet, stop asking questions, stay out of everybody’s way, and give this activity one more venturesome try.

As moral support, especially afterwards for the train and bus ride home, there was a brand new purchase that I was eager to read. It’s the Russian classic The Spiritual Life with letters of wise counsel written by St. Theophan[es] the Recluse (Феофан Затворник), Bishop of Tambov, 1815-1894.

St. Theophan

The book came along with a Mason jar of water and some lunch for after the tour. Bringing provisions seemed wise. The neighborhood doesn’t have public rest rooms, so before setting out for the day it was necessary to abstain from eating or drinking. (That’s a good way to tune in to St. Theophan, who would have gone without food and water from Saturday sunset until after Sunday Liturgy every week of his life.)

So. The neighborhood. Historically, an exciting high-density area near the waterfront, of immigrants from a number of countries, packed with tourists and musicians and festivals and parades and little family food carts and window-in-the-wall eateries and tiny popup garden produce markets and blankets on the sidewalk with handcrafts on display and wholesale warehouses selling Sunday vegetables at markdown to the restaurant trade. It was always an educational place to purchase new types of produce and plants, to read and listen to different languages.

But that was then. Now it’s all suffered badly from the two years of lockdown and pandemic and heartbreaking incidents of xenophobic violence It was a real surprise to step off the train at 9:00 on a beautiful Saturday morning and see that every person on the central square, every one in sight, was experiencing distress to the point of being out of commission. There were only one or two frail elderly immigrant women from various countries struggling along with little shopping carts. The rest were young White men lying on the ground or searching in trash cans or pacing about shouting in turmoil. Everyone looked dissociated from everyone else. The exception was one very pleasant looking young man (20?) who held up what might have been a vaping unit, and asked very politely whether I could loan him a portable charger. I apologized sincerely to him, and he gave me good wishes and a lovely smile. As a chronic dental patient, I was sorry and concerned to see that his poor teeth were all worn down.

Around all this suffering there was splendid old architecture, faded murals and frescoes, ornamental wrought iron, beveled glass, decorative beadwork inlays in the pavement, boarded shops with bay windows and green copper roofing, broken statues and abandoned flower beds. The last 200 years brought in concentrated cultural riches from all over the world. Now many shops and residents are gone. There were no tourists in sight. It’s a credit to the remaining business owners that they are still soldiering along in such a valiant manner.

The members of our tour began climbing up to the old heritage garden, a true grassroots organization handed down for generations on a high steep hillside overlooking the water. The location and waterfront vistas are superb. The land was always much too steep for construction, so immigrants terraced many small steps of land and turned it all into an amazing variety of crops.

In our other city-governed community gardens, each gardener is required to weed and clean the bed, or it will be taken away; the composite beds form an eye-catching patchwork of color and textures spread out like a quilt. But this hillside was grandfathered in before the rules. It was understood that gardeners from other parts of the world might value weeds and thickets and brambles as sources of food or medicine, and they could raise what they liked. There was no pleasant open quilt landscape here; each gardener built high fences and cages from salvaged materials (or castoff junk) to keep out theft, and to keep the beds private. There was no clear view of any bed or its contents. Only rarely did a sudden turn or change in elevation allow a glance through a chink in a garden fence.

This was no casual stroll. For local people doing their best to cope out of doors and get some rest with their belongings on the benches, our traipsing through the park must have been a real intrusion. It seemed insensitive to be discussing among ourselves while standing in what was essentially their living quarters. And the keepers of these private gardens, unlike the usual run of garden folk, looked wary of our presence; these were not plantings to show off, but protection against food insecurity. The hill was steep, paths were narrow, and one had to pick the best footing around strategically placed cinder blocks and turkey wire and stakes and boards and roots and thorn branches and rat traps and garbage of all kinds. Despite the fresh lovely weather, there were heavy vapors hanging over some of the beds. Our guide explained that the traditional fertilizers include human products. (Wait, doesn’t that have to be seasoned first? For a long time?) Judging by the harsh smell, there might have been meat scraps or blood too. Whatever it was, the method must be working; the few plants we could see were large and lush.

The main takeaway was how many fascinating plants we could see and admire, items we would not find anywhere else. To save space, the emphasis was ingenious vertical gardening, with high cages holding interesting gourds and beans. They grew right out of their plots, to twine overhead. Edible and medicinal weeds flourished right through the fences and all along the paths. Our guide explained in detail their origins, optimal growing conditions, and uses.

After the tour I went to an Asian market and bought four bitter melons, also called bitter gourds (kû guā). The cheerful young Anglo folks staffing the register asked me “How do those taste?” “Like gunpowder,” I assured them. “But it’s not like uh-oh pesticide bitter; it’s fresh green ice-bucket-challenge salutary bitter. The goal is to try saving the seeds to grow next year.” It’s true that they taste something like gallbladder bile. They also have a fine reputation for health benefits. I slice them lengthwise, scoop out the pulp, slice thin, drop them in simmering water for a couple of minutes, drink the broth, and eat the slices cold. For some reason, including them in a meal makes my system feel more content. (One website praised the vitamins in a “one cup serving.” It’s adorably optimistic to think that people would be munching down a whole cup of this stuff.) One sensible Chinese recipe is to soak them in brine, rinse, then saute with tender pork, spicy black beans, and pickled mustard greens with garlic and ginger.

On the way to the train, outside a cafe with a menu in Chinese characters, there were two older Asian ladies selling all kinds of unfamiliar green squashes. “Dù bu qî, qîng wèn,” I asked them. “Dzhège shì kû guā ma? Excuse me, please tell me: is this bitter melon?” That’s about all I can cobble together from my year of Mandarin in 2016. The two women were completely taken aback. Probably the quality of my Mandarin is a culture-appropriating insult, and they are likely to speak Cantonese instead. Their reaction though suggested that I must have accidentally demanded their business license. To smoothe over their astonishment I picked out a small melon, paid the two dollars, gave them a hearty thanks, and left them in peace.

What did I just buy??

Here’s the little creature. On the train I thought “What is this doodad? Am I about to cook and eat a loofah?” Hopefully these are not for bathtime use; those spines are really sharp. Holding it carefully by the stem end, I washed it several times in Bronner’s soap and baking soda and rinsed very well.

Here it is again, with the four Chinese bitter melons.

4 Chinese bitter melons plus our mystery guest

I got back on the train and was happy to take refuge with my travel companion St. Theophan. But I must not have capped the little Mason jar tightly enough. The drinking water was gone, and the new book was soaked. The book is warped but drying in the sun now.

The trip involved some additional encounters of pathos and bewilderment, though the main impression was those young men in the main square. The day also brought new customs to see and learn. It was a relief to get off the bus and home for some water and beans and rice, then go clear out the zucchini vines.

Incidentally, that fresh red-orange Gerbera Daisy in the picture above? That wasn’t there this morning when I left the house. There’s no telling who planted that in my patch. But there is a usual round of suspects, and all of them are named Wing. In fact, I’ll go give them some melons right now. They will know how to turn gunpowder into something delicious.

Update! Mrs. Wing recognized the melon right away. She very kindly pronounced the name several times. It sounded like “Foshou Gua” or Foshou Melon. But I couldn’t identify the tones or figure out what that meant. Then a loyal reader of this blog suggested in the comments section that I use a Google Lens function in my cellphone to identify the image. Hm… That gave me an idea. A Google search for “Chinese Gourds” turned up many many images, so I picked the closest one. That was called a Chayote, but it didn’t have prickles on it. So I did another search for “Prickly Chayote” (just making up a term out of thin air), and… Eureka. There really is such a thing. So in Google translate I entered “Chayote” on the English side, which gave me Mandarin fóshôu guā. Now to figure out what a Chayote is, and why people eat it… Live & learn. Thank you, Dear Reader, for the good idea.

Update 2: Captain Wing just told me that fóshôu translates as Buddha’s Hand. He explained that one seed can yield 400 fruits on one plant. I reasoned that just because he is a 1:400 gardener, that does not predict such success for anybody else.

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9/23/22: Farm Tour. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy

A local research farm sponsored a short community tour.

The farm was a mention on the radar here and there, but I’d never paid it any mind. As farms go it’s pretty small, under two acres, smack in the city across from a shopping mall. “Research farm” sounded like locked greenhouses with murky windows and hydroponic leafage under fluorescent lights with dubious chemical drums standing around and everything wrapped in loose plastic. Still, sometimes it’s good to peek out and go see the world.

Well. What a place. Lush, thriving, groomed, neatly arranged in pie order. A radiant joyful student guide greeted us, and to start off invited us to help ourselves to the Little Free Library of plant seeds to take home (people can bring and donate seeds too). The group went off for the tour. But I just stood there under the sky gazing around at the fields. It did the heart good. Here is the kale row (2 varieties), collards, beans, and pumpkin vines.

Kale assortment.
High Towering Beans
Pumpkin Patch

I marveled over the selection of seeds, picked out a little packet of heirloom beets for next year, and texted Captain Wing about the farm. He decided to go donate his own stock of collected seeds to their library, and he’s taking his family there tomorrow to see it for themselves. I want to go back this week. The team needs extra hands for the harvest. Maybe there are tasks where I can help.

In other news, the Baptist church up the street had their midweek evening service on Wednesday, and I headed over to listen. It was a wrap up of Paul’s second epistle to Timothy. Even in my Giant Print Bible, that’s only 5 pages. Apparently the church has spent almost a year (48 midweeks, 48 hours of sermons) mining through those 4 chapters. Each sermon unpacks and opens out and clarifies one single verse, putting it all in linguistic and historical and spiritual context and then applying it to everyday life. Then after the service over coffee and homemade goodies, they have a lively followup discussion about the Bible text. These Baptists are the closest I’ll get to life at a Yeshiva.

Concluding the series, this sermon described Paul facing imminent death. What was on his mind in his final days? In these verses, he showed five qualities: 1. friendship, 2. forgiveness, 3. focus on ministry, 4. value for learning (he asks Timothy to bring him his parchments, for some extra study time), and 5. caring for the spiritual welfare of other people. Paul had always wanted to be a prestigious prosperous Pharisee. Instead he’s in prison facing death, able to do not much but write letters. God had another plan for his life dream. God’s plan meant disaster for Paul at the time, but his account of travels and trials also left us with much of the New Testament that we read today.

Applying that to our daily lives, the sermon question was, “What did you want to be when you grew up, that you aren’t now? Let’s see how the detours in our lives can reveal God’s plan.” The fun part was that when called upon, the congregation members admitted that they’d spent their lives doing exactly what they dreamed of doing! Fortunately, I happened to be there as a useful sabot in the machine: “I always wanted to marry my husband at age 18 and have six children of our own and six adopted, and have a big farm with alpacas.” Pastor said “Well that’s fine, Miss Mary. You are right on course. Well, except for the age 18 part.” That was a funny and cheering thought. The point was, no matter how our lives end up, when we contemplate our own end we can still benefit from Paul’s perspective and his five priorities.

Downstairs one of our hostesses served up her homemade apple cake with whipped cream and smiles for all. One member brought us back some North Dakota specialty chocolate-dipped potato chips. They were a real hit. Others brought mixed nuts and chips and other snacks. A good intuition (my guardian angel? maybe) ordered me to “Sit right there at the women’s table and listen to everyone around you. There are stories right here that will make a profound impression.” It was true. Just in that one chair, tuning in to everyone else and their threads of stories weaving around, it was a revelation to hear how much wisdom and courage and faith was witnessed by these close families. There were hard times in that gathering, and it was all buoyed up by people swapping support. They all managed kind words and some humor, and made sure that everybody got enough cake with cream on top, with wrapped goodies to take home.

That was food for thought, walking home in the early fall dark with Jupiter or is it Neptune afoot and following on the rise in the southeast sky.

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9/22/22: Tomato Hijinks and Women at Supper

In our last episode, the goal was to save tomato seeds for next year.

To review: one can cut tomatoes lengthwise, and then squeeze or scrape the tomato seeds and their juice and gel into a glass jar, top up with filtered (not chlorinated) water, cover with a paper towel and Mason jar ring, and store in a dark place for 3-4 days until a mold forms on top and eats up the gel coat covering the seeds. (That gel coat is a sprouting inhibitor. It protects the seeds from sprouting until next spring.) Ideally, once the mold munches away the gel coat, the naturally cleaned seeds can then be rinsed, dried, labeled, and stored. (The whole venture was a source of good humor for Captain Wing. “You could just dig a hole next year, and drop in some tomato slices,” he pointed out.) He’s right. But at least this way I could preserve two desirable control groups: one batch of especially tasty Sungold cherry tomatoes from some dear co-workers, and one batch from truly beautiful heirloom tomatoes donated by Neighbor Bill. 

Results are in. The first batch of dried seeds below is the Sungold cherry tomatoes; the second is Mr. Bill’s heirlooms. The heirloom seeds appear larger and more robust, but to be fair they are also just bigger tomatoes. A good safe place to dry these was a plastic bakery cookie container from church. It has a protective lid to keep the seeds from blowing around, but enough ventilation so they can dry out.

Cherry tomato seeds, cleaned rinsed and dried
Heirloom tomato seeds, cleaned rinside and dried

My own Roman tomatoes are still growing outdoors. But saving the Roman seeds doesn’t seem worthwhile. Romans are compact and narrow like plum tomatoes, but with a more blocky high-shouldered shape. My guess is that they were bred for shipment and display. They are excellent producers, with big clusters growing and ripening every day. Their color and gloss are attractive. They keep for a long time, hold their shape, and are durable for transport, with thick skins and plenty of that frosty/sparkly mealy outer layer that doesn’t have much taste. They would travel well and display well in a store, but don’t pack a lot of flavor. Of course, that might be all my fault; perhaps they didn’t get the nutrients that they needed. 

Roman tomatoes from the raised bed outdoors

In any case, the Roman tomatoes weren’t very good for eating out of hand. So I tried the fermented probiotic raw-sauce recipe from Off Grid with Doug and Stacy, the episode called “You Have Never Seen Tomato Sauce Made Like This!” I hope it is okay to give away the plot here. Stacy puts 4 tsp. of Redmond salt in a quart jar, adds some garlic and basil sprigs, then chops in some super ripe tomatoes with the top core cut out. She gives the jar a hard vigorous shaking, then stores it away from the sun. At least once a day, one has to gently loosen the lid (don’t remove it) just enough to release any fermentation bubbles, then shake the jar a bit more. 

The Roman tomatoes did not yield much juice. In fact, the skin shell and bland meaty part made up a good 60%, with only 40% juice and gel and seeds that had to be scraped out with a spoon. (In contrast, the Sungolds needed only a gentle squeeze to burst into the jar, leaving only empty skin.) I blended the 60% to make a blandish puree for raw soup. The 40% went in the Mason jar with garlic and salt for a good shaking, then went under the sink for 4 days before going in the fridge. My mistake was adding the full 4 tsp. of salt, then discovering that the jar filled up only 40%. That made a heavily salty solution. Still, the sauce had good flavor. I’ll add a dash of Bragg’s cider vinegar, and keep it in the fridge as brine for the pickle crock for amateur kimchi. 

For most of the year, instead of buying store tomatoes it makes more sense to buy tomato puree in glass jars in bulk. But for a few short summer weeks, home grown tomatoes are good to grow and to share. If these cherry and heirloom seeds store and then sprout indoors next spring, that could give a real head start to the season. The best outcome would be early seedlings to give away as gifts.

Women at Supper

In other news, Angelina and I planned a potluck, and let the other womenfolk know. One invited us to use her gorgeous garden and patio furniture; she joined us outdoors, bringing comfy flower pillows and a lovely platter of fruit and fancy cheeses. Angelina made delicious dip and raw vegetables and supplied all the serving utensils and place settings, and brought Super Pup and Bingo. I brought my latest pickle crock of amateur kimchi with daikon, cabbage, and apples. To go with that, there was a batch of brown jasmine rice and wild rice tossed with a little coconut oil and anchovy sauce. 

I also baked a protein casserole:

Glass pan, greased with coconut oil. I mashed a leftover russet potato with a little plain almond milk to make a patted crust to line the bottom.

Celery and cabbage, ground up in the Cuisinart.

Mushrooms, stewed in a little water with lentils defrosted from the freezer; when they’re done, add the celery and cabbage and cook them lightly.

Cottage cheese, beaten with eggs and some almond flour.

Strain and keep the tasty broth out of the vegetables and lentils. Drain and press the vegetables, and beat in the cottage cheese and eggs and the almond flour. Pour into the potato-lined pan and bake until the eggs are set. 

This was tasty and filling. It could use some rubbed sage, salt, black pepper, and some minced onion and garlic. For somebody like me who still misses Thanksgiving stuffing, this would make a good low-carb substitute.

On to the women’s supper. The garden spot faces a garbage dumpster cage, so as other women took out their trash they kept saying hello to us and we kept calling them over to share, and the food kept expanding to fit and feed more people. As it got dark, the sun-powered lanterns and candles in the garden switched on and the dogs frisked around mooching for pets and bites and the conversations were soulful and profound. Kip from next door ran outside to feed us sugar-free lollipops from Mexico, and her mom came out too and ate with us and we talked about Korean movies.

The especially interesting part was the dynamic. In the dark by glass candlelight, the women exchanged deeper accounts about their ancestors and family origins. These were profound stories of interest to everyone. What puzzled me at first was this: every time a new woman came along with a bag of trash, the ladies would stop the story cold right in mid-sentence. They would holler a whole big hello and ask the new arrival about her life and family and how-all she was doing. Each time, my linear mind thought Wait wait, what about your grandfather traveling to America in steerage all alone at age 12? Then what? This was interesting! 

Finally, it dawned on me. This was not a logical progression of facts or feelings to be remembered word for word. Instead, the women fostered a living expanding molecule of connections. Then like a blob of happy protoplasm the whole molecule kept engulfing the energy of each new member, taking in her mood and the colors of her day. Then the molecule would select and generate a whole new origin story to fit the new expanded consciousness of the larger group. Once I caught on to that, I just sat back and took it all in.

Finally we untangled the leashes and sorted out our dishes, and dispersed for home. I hope we have another women’s supper very soon. 

Thank you, Dear Hostess; your gardenette is gorgeous. Got your serving spoon, Angelina. I’ll put it in the shoe basket outside your door. Night night.

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9/10/22: Smoke Day

A braver person would be outside, taking pictures of the smoke

Saturday was going to be a whole garden day, prepping for winter and spring.

Then on Thursday the weather service forecast warm temperatures and 48 hours of wildfire smoke seeping in over the mountains, Friday through Sunday. On Thursday night I texted a warning to some neighbors, and made 5 trips to the store to fill 5 gallons of drinking water bottles at the filtration machine. Then I prepped a daikon radish for the pickling crock. Then to get the cooking done ahead of time I ran out and harvested the zucchini, kale, and tomatoes before the smoke got to them. The zucchini made 3 quarts of soup with ripe plantains, onion, garlic, celery, and a couple of pitted dates instead of the usual apple. The puree went right into the fridge and freezer for cold meals.

On Friday at dawn I sealed up the windows and balcony door, hung damp sheets over them all, then ran through the building closing hall windows on every floor. For the bus commute to work, I put on a lined particulate mask as a second face covering; it did seem to help. All of Friday had a romantic goldish light, like the last scene in some spaghetti Western film, then a blissful rosy sunset. There were no birds making a peep, and things were oddly quiet without neighborhood dogs or traffic. With everything sealed up and everyone indoors, it was a silent evening.

One amusing side note was that without circulating air, the pickle crock aroma kept waking me up. Finally at 1:00 am I dragged up off the floor, bumbled to the kitchen, took apart the pickle crock and weights, packed the daikon radish into jars in the fridge, washed the gear, then fell back into bed.

On early Saturday morning, the AQI site at airnow.gov registered a yellow code “Moderate,” or 99 out of 400. That’s less than 1/4 the pollution from years past when in some summer weeks we had the worst air quality in the world. (If this were winter, we’d have more competition. That’s when other cities burn coal and wood.) By noon the air was an orange code, “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” 125 out of 400.

We were amazingly lucky that it wasn’t much worse. (In two past years we were smoked in for two solid weeks each, with smoke levels approaching that top number of 400.) People in neighboring states are really suffering, and some 5,000 firefighters are out in this region working on fires. There is nothing to complain about here.

It seemed self-centered to stay sealed up in the studio when the front-line workers are out there same as usual. But if “Sensitive Groups” includes a senior citizen with asthma in remission, then it’s a good idea to stay put and mind my own business so the front-line workers don’t have to do it for me.

Okay then, it’s a weekend right in this room. What would Ma and Pa Ingalls say, if prairie smoke kept the girls home from school? They’d put them to work first thing, is what. To bolster morale, thanks to their prairie inspiration the bathroom here got a good scrub & shine with vinegar and baking soda. Then the cabinets were all aired out and lined with fresh paper. All the stuff inside is decluttered in labeled boxes and jars and repacked. There were plastic prescription containers of dental antibiotics, so I peeled off the labels and mounted them in page protectors for my Hospital binder in case providers want to see the drug history. The little plastic bottles are washed and dried to store harvested seeds. The laundry is scrubbed and hanging over the bathtub instead of outdoors. The ironing is all caught up.

Well, I’m not front line, but there are always people at my job clamoring for customer services. So for Saturday and Sunday I spent the days on the work computer ticking through requests.

Here are two views of the sky. That moonrise was a few days ago half an hour after sunset. The other is the same view last night an hour earlier — half an hour before sunset in broad daylight. (In the upper left quadrant there is a tiny jet plane soldiering along. What was the view like from up there?)

September 4, half an hour after sunset
September 10, same view in broad daylight, half an hour before sunset

By mid-afternoon the outdoors smelled something like a burning tire. According to the news, by 5:00 pm Saturday the peak was 190, a “Generally Unhealthy” code red. There was a red flag fire condition warning too, through Sunday night, with evacuations in other parts of the state and rolling blackouts in neighboring states and ash falling north of our city. Even the fastest trips outside with a surgical mask left me pretty queasy with sore eyes and congestion. I charged the cell phone to 100%, washed up, and changed into clean street clothes for the night just in case. By then the air was best in the sealed bathroom and in the coat closet. I moved the bedding to the closet with a philosophical attitude that a full night of deep sleep was not going to be today’s luxury privilege. Sure enough, at 1:00 am I was up again in a sweat with eerie dreams, to get a drink of water and some eye drops and to read National Weather Service alerts and AQI data while listening to “Tears” by The Chameleons. What better way to calm down and cheer up, than to move everything out of the kitchen and give the floor a nice scrubbing. Then everything was dusted and put into place. Then it was time for another closet nap. At 3:00 am I got up again for more water and eye drops and news updates, and this time tackled the kitchen cabinets. Then back to bed. Then up at 5:00 to sort books to take to the Little Free Library later. Then back to bed until 9:00.

It was a great relief to feel the air improve today. At least we’re down to yellow “Moderate” 98. I got to crack open the south window for some coastal air, cook a pot of soaked beans for the freezer, carry buckets of dishwater down to the garden, and wash some laundry and hang it on the rack in the bathtub.

About those cherry tomatoes in the picture above. They were a bargain at 50 cents for the lot; full of flavor but overripe, with the skin beginning to grow loose and a few starting to split. Before munching on them I squeezed the juice and seeds into a jar, put a paper towel on top to let it breathe, screwed on a Mason metal ring, and put the jar of slurry under the sink with a label showing tomato variety and the date. In about 4 days it’s supposed to grow a thick coat of fungus (or is it mold) with an obtrusive smell. The fungus eats away the gelatinous coat of germination inhibitor around each seed. Then apparently one can skim and toss the scum outdoors, then strain and wash the seeds well, spread them out on wax paper, separate them after they dry, and pack them away for spring in a labeled container in the fridge. Yesterday with the windows sealed up it didn’t seem a good idea to start in with home-grown obtrusive scum, but now I look forward to seeing how the method works.

I also pulled up a sweet potato vine to see whether any potatoes are down there. (If there are potatoes, they’ll need to cure in my room, to air out during warm weather for two weeks. That needs to happen before the cold rain season sets in.) There weren’t any potatoes. It was a late cold spring and sweet potatoes need about 110 days. At least the vine was lush and healthy. The vines can root in water and make good winter indoor plants. Sweet potatoes are not nightshades, and the youtube farmers say the greens are edible. But there’s a zillion sweet potato varieties out there. I wouldn’t know which ones we can eat. Don’t go trusting some language major for your foraging habits.

Meanwhile, here’s something we can eat for sure.

Recipe: Daikon Radish 1:00 am Alarm Clock

If you sleep on the floor 2 steps away from the kitchen, then open the windows unless you want the radish aroma to wake you up in the wee hours.

Sterilize the pickle crock and weight (mine is a quart Mason jar of water, with a Russian kettle bell on top).

Peel about two fists of daikon radish. Save the peels to simmer in your next batch of potassium broth.

Grate the daikon. Strain out the juice so it doesn’t overflow out of the crock. The juice has good health benefits, so I drink it down before my taste buds know what hit them. (Or gently simmer the juice in rice milk with honey and ginger for a very soothing winter pick-me-up.)

Put the grated radish in a bowl. Sprinkle in a little Redmond Real Salt (or other mineral-rich salt) so that the taste is mildly pleasantly salty but not overbearing, and scrub that in well with your hands. Pack the salted radish firmly into the crock, and tamp it down the sides. Set the Mason jar in the crock (mine fits perfectly), and set the kettle bell on top.

Next day, remove the kettle bell. Pull out the Mason jar, and stand it upside down on its lid so it stays clean. Drain out the excess salt brine. Fork over and mix the radish pulp so it ferments evenly. Add some a couple of raw garlic cloves to the crock, a couple of raw slices of ginger, a sprinkle of cayenne, and a dash of Red Boat anchovy sauce. You could toss in a few thin slices of cabbage too. Stir again. Put the jar back in the crock and the weight on top.

Next day, peel and grate in a crispy zippy flavorful apple or two, something like a Gaia or Honey Crisp. (Captain Wing says grated Asian Pear is even better.) A nice mix is 60% pressed daikon, 40% fresh apple. Stir well. Let it sit out a few hours. Then pack it all in a jar in the fridge, and wash the crock and jar.

A good fermented condiment for zucchini soup, eggs, or brown rice.

Time for sunset, but there’s no sunlight. Oh no — that tiny misty noise, is it falling ash? No, it’s a mist of precipitation. Wonderful. The sky here at the east window is flat blank gray — but wait, over in the west there’s a flaming cherry pink sunset. It’s a pity a cell phone camera doesn’t capture magnificent sunsets. Maybe this one will be in the news headlines tomorrow?

The air right now is Yellow Code 97/400. Time to tote down some dishwater and take out the trash…. Look, somebody put a cheap plastic dresser with drawers in the dumpster cage. It fits right in the bathtub for a good washing tomorrow. Even if the dresser is broken, the plastic drawers are perfect for holding flats of seedlings this winter. What a find.

Off to bed.

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8/31/22: Squorsh Exchange

‘Tis the season, gardeners!

A dear Small Family at church set up a whole row of Patty Pan Squash next to the coffee pot, a formation of golden bonnets on parade. I just thought they were there as a successful centerpiece decoration. But Small Family Mother eagerly invited me to adopt as many as I wished, and take them home. I was happy to comply and took one, not wanting to be all grabby so others could have their share. Toward the end of fellowship hour, Small Family Father asked me to do him a favor and help myself to more. It was endearing to think that one could do the family a favor by making off with their vegetables! It sounded as if they’d been dining on Patty Pans at home, perhaps for days, so I very happily obliged by taking another. Today at sunrise as the light came in I took a picture of them, with some sprigs of wild rosemary.

It’s something to thank God for, the fact that we are so fortunate to have enough squash to share and pass around, to be in peacetime with dirt space for our use. Yes, in August we’re getting our harvests of Squorsh, the proper name in a state where I once lived. My three plants are turning up a large zucchini every day, and the Wing Family kitchen garden (and Wing circle of friends) keep me supplied with more squash and bright smiles.

Zucchini Bread is of course a universal favorite. But this standby weekly recipe comes in handy at a simpler level. Often I add an apple or two to this, but the harvest isn’t in yet and apples are a little expensive. Besides, yesterday at the open-air fruit stand the bargain bin held fresh local corn on the cob, a good apple substitute for yesterday’s soup batch.

Five yellow and green summer squash, medium-small.
Five ears of corn, cut off the cob.
Five large carrots.
Six inches of leek. Two celery stalks. Handful of green fennel stems.

This simmered up until soft, and went into the blender with seasonings:

Ginger juice, 2 tbsp; Mixed-nut butter, 1 heaping tbsp; Allspice, 1 tsp.

Plus enough rice milk to puree it all.

This tastes like pumpkin spice soup. I’ll bring some to church tonight and see whether our Small Family would like to take it home.

PS – They took it home! I hope that they like it.

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8/28/22: Minding the House

She didn’t need to bring me presents, but she did.

Sunny was a joy for the whole class. He was an eager student with a kind appreciative heart and sweet hilarious sense of humor. One day as he had us all laughing as usual, I said in admiration “Oh, Sunny. You are a regular riot.” This was just a reflex old-school New Yorkism from seeing The Honeymooners as a kid on TV. At this new compliment, Sunny beamed. With great anticipation he whipped open his English-Chinese dictionary to the letter R, and spotted Miss Mary’s new name for him. Fortunately I was standing right there as his merry face fell in dismay.  “Wait, I can explain!” I intervened. “‘Riot’ has two meanings!” With my royal apology and impromptu vocabulary lesson, we all enjoyed a big joke on the teacher. 

One day, Sunny showed up so sad and worried that he could not follow the lesson. In deep woe he looked at me over his glasses, his eyes misting over with tears. “Sunny! Sunny!” we cried. “What happened!” It took a while for this good soul to choke out some mention of civil unrest in his home village. He was too upset to say more. At the end of the period, we gathered around as he finally confided in us. Then it was clear: Sunny’s upset was all caused by me, and my exotic housesitting lifestyle.

The whole housesitting saga of 40 years ago came to mind this month. A dear building neighbor going on vacation asked me to spend 10 days watering her balcony plants. Each day I texted her pictures and status reports of her lush flowers. But her trip took place during the longest heat wave in local history (trivial by world standards, but news to us). Every evening I doused her fuchsias in water. But the poor creatures baked in the sun and finally succumbed, covering her balcony in a layer of cornflake-crisp leaves. Before her return I cut back the dead stems and swept up the mess. Then I texted the news that she would need all new fuchsias. Return from world travel is a sensitive transition time, and it seemed important to prepare her feelings. Happily, she is a calm resilient gardener who concluded that next year she would simply buy full-sun plants. She also had the remarkable thoughtfulness to bring me perfectly selected gifts: a long gorgeous silk headscarf for church, and an Orthodox Christian icon (doubles as a needed fridge magnet), and $40 for the time and trouble. I have never been bankrolled before for killing off plants.

The week brought back nostalgic memories as a housesitter, starting in 1980. That was in my new cozy college town, an area of low population density and high reliance on good neighbors. I still miss those social ties. In our close-knit Slavic Department, the new moms juggled studies and family by sharing infants at the classroom door, passing their secure contented kidlets from arm to arm to swap breastfeeding and naptime. Students and faculty lived in easy walking distance, often in group houses, swapping textbooks and typewriters and casseroles and bartered chores. With no internet, no cell phones, and no social media, we kept in touch by taking a walk or hopping on a bicycle to halloo at one another’s windows.

Our university community members often sublet their rooms to travel on a language scholarship, or give birth closer to family, or help Grandad with the harvest. The landlords valued personal contacts through word of mouth, and were reassured when they got to know me as a fill-in who collected the mail and defrosted the freezer and scrubbed the clawfoot tub before departure. Over time, faculty and staff began thinking of me when they needed someone to watch the house. They knew I had no family or pets to care for. If someone with a car was available to drive me, I could move my belongings out of one dwelling to the curb in only an hour, and in another hour unload and set up in the next set of digs. That was just as well with the local Victorian wood houses and extreme climate. A quaint roof or gabled window could flood or fall in at any time. Hail and snow could knock live wires down into the yard. Rattlesnakes or raccoons or rats or brown recluse spider hatchlings made surprise appearances. In one basement near the river, massive tree roots warped our living room wall; to avoid strong electrical shocks we roommates had to leap off the floor and use a rolled-up newspaper to whack the light switch until we finished moved out. All in all, it seemed wise to have backup housing, a symbiotic system of places to stay and the skills to be useful there.

Soon there was a waiting list of people asking me into their homes. I opened a post office box and set up shop in spare rooms in three houses, storing items in this attic and that sun porch. My students began calling the food coop to leave homework questions for me; the amused cashiers would pass on the message on my daily shopping trips. The frequent housing hosts gave me copies of their key. I put them all on a large ring and wore it around my neck on a thick jute rope. 

Invitations came in all shapes and sizes. People even asked for a housesitter when they were right there, sitting in the house. One was a rent-free week, to walk the dog and water and eat the zucchini. One request was to come next Friday to let the plumber in, for rights to windfall plums in the yard. Or to camp out Tuesday evenings with a faculty member and her kids, while her husband worked late at the lab. Or a standing invitation to supper and company when severe weather was on the way, for a colleague afraid of severe weather. (That always suited me. I was more scared of it than anybody). Or a week with a wise wonderful droll teenage lad while parents cared for Grandma out of state. Or summer on my teaching supervisor’s lovely little farm, fixing dinner for the family and helping to milk the goats. One year was even rent-free; the housesitting requests formed a solid mosaic of places to stay, in a life rich with new acquaintance and experience. 

Naturally, there were quirky incidents here and there. Three houses triggered instant asthma attacks (was it the daily sage smudging? the eight cats? the vintage taxidermy collection?). A faculty member asked me to come clean house for her elderly neighbor in the hospital from heart surgery — but neglected to alert the patient. The neighbor came home while I was scrubbing the floor and nearly had a cardiac relapse, thinking she’d been evicted. Campus Housing alerted me to a neighbor 87 years young who had a free upper floor while his wife was in the hospital; I stopped by, but soon departed when he showed an interest in other personal services. One lady was upset to find that I had used and not replaced some paper grocery bags. (At that time, paper bags were free. And yes, she counted them.) One fellow graduate teaching assistant had an injury and needed me to come in and clean, but was afraid that her friends would judge her for utilizing domestic help; when company called, my orders were to hide the mop and pretend that I was only there for tea, then resume mopping after the guests left. One couple with a bouncy hound dog was departing for a month. Over the phone they let me know they’d fumigated for ants. I showed up to a house full of pesticide fumes and everything sealed in plastic trash bags, from dishware to bedding to towels. All flat surfaces were sticky with chemical residue and dead insects. I kept the hound in the garage to keep him out of the fumes, giving him visits and walks to calm his baying lamentations. It took three days to scrub everything clean, scoop out the bugs, liberate the dog, and find out which bag held the spoons so I could stop pouring cold cereal from box to mouth.

One radiant beautiful accomplished graduate wrapped up a degree in her second language. She introduced me to her friendly doglike cat and the goldfish who had shared her life for years. Then she headed to the airport for her wedding day, leaving me to hold down the fort during her honeymoon. As her taxi pulled away, both goldfish leaped out of the aquarium. I rushed them back into the tank with towels and wooden spatula, but they leaped out again and died on impact. Just then, the phone rang. “Hello?? Lindsey’s housesitter? Uh, your cat just committed suicide. He watched her taxi pull away, then ate some toadstools in my yard and died. Can you come get him?” Meanwhile, Lindsey arrived in her bridegroom’s city to find that he no longer wanted to get married and wasn’t ready to talk. Lindsey went back to the airport with wedding dress in her arms, flew home, and found that her fish and cat companions were dead. She got busy applying for jobs in the safe beautiful prosperous country of her second language. She moved there, met a man who treated her like gold, and they were happily married. 

For a month in one upper-class home, every night at the same time I sat on the floor for an hour with back to the sofa, softly tapping a little pocket comb against the floor. There were two purebred Persian cats somewhere under that sofa. The owner was afraid to handle them, and described them to me as aggressive with their teeth and claws. Each time I sat down, the cats would hiss and spit. When the comb started tapping they would lapse into silence. When the hour was up, I’d walk away and go off to bed. One night, one of the cats leaned out and swiped a paw at the comb. I kept my back to him and went on tapping. In a few more days they were slipping out to sniff the comb. Then they groomed their whiskers on it. Then I held a scissor in the other hand, and when they played with the comb I’d snip off felted fur; their coats were all matted. The owner came home to find two smaller motheaten cats missing hunks of fur. They were rolling all over me, demanding their daily combing & smooch.

Still, there came a time to take a break. One evening I was strolling home, and suddenly could not remember where I was going. Who in town was counting on me to sleep over that night? For clues I sat down ticking through the keys on my rope ring. Then I pictured that day as a film running backwards, back to breakfast and the house where I’d woken up that morning. That solved the puzzle. But for that year in grad school, it was time to stop the multi-bedsitter routine, to rent one room and stay put.

Within days, it was Sunny who clinched the decision to settle down. Why was he so upset that day in class? Because back in his home country there was a new gang of thieves on mopeds. The thieves yanked off the wedding rings of elderly women walking to market on village roads. For tight rings, the thieves would steal the gold by slicing off the victim’s finger. That was what alarmed him. “Oh Miss!” Sunny cried, looking at my neck rope. “What if the robber wants your KEYS?” Right away I removed the rope and looped it at my belt to pocket the keys out of sight. I apologized to Sunny for frightening him, thanked him for his good thinking and concern, and promised him never to display keys and never to wear a neck rope again. That promise holds true to this day. 

After Sunny told us his story, I went to visit my favorite landlord. He was happy to rent me a little room with shared bath. There were still plenty of opportunities to swap food and activities with the neighbors. But during thesis research and grad school, it made just the right home.

What would drive someone into the pathos and busyness of other people’s lives? Sure, it saved money. It brought in surplus vegetables and windfall fruit. But maybe it was distraction, to fill in for the lack of my own home circle. Maybe it was wanting multiple backup plans and places to run. Maybe it was a wish to feel welcome and useful. Maybe it was the fresh customs and adventures. Maybe it was magical moments like keying in to a house while a napping German Shepherd thumps his tail and goes on sleeping.

But really, it was the hosts and their generous hospitality. Some were reluctant to ask for help, but were pleasantly surprised to find that they enjoyed having a new person around to help out. I certainly liked being there. It was a big step up in emotional maturity to discover that even successful people with good families can sometimes feel lonesome in their nice houses, and are happy to share some everyday experiences. At home, we formed social connections at a deeper more personal level. That’s why those dear people and their houses and support are still a warm vivid memory. We learned how to pool resources, get along, and enrich our lives and our community. Housesitting is a great idea. I plan to do a lot more in the future.

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8/24/22: Scrambled

Heirloom vegetables. A work of art cultivated by a talented and generous gardener couple up the road

Strolling home from work yesterday, I spotted a beautifully inviting well-watered garden. It was outlined with staked vines in orderly green curtains growing up to the second floor, as an amazing use of growing space for beans, cucumbers, squashes, and much more. In all this lush greenery, there was the gardener at work. He was harvesting vegetables in a flat round basket. I asked for permission to photograph the lovely purple and yellow flowers growing over and around the metal lattice patio chairs. He graciously agreed, and even answered my questions about his garden.

“This was all raised from seed by my grandchildren,” he let me know. As it turns out, he was a middle school teacher who taught children about saving seeds, raising food, and developing a connection with the seasons and the earth. He introduced his wonderful heirloom vegetable varieties, and talked about the importance of curating and preserving our seed supply.

That was the moment to hand him my current reading from the Little Free Library. It’s an appealing and informative account called The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, by Janisse Ray on her farm in Georgia. The gardener and I swapped a story or two about plants and community building. Then the lady of the house looked out and greeted me. They thanked me for the book, offered to read and return it, and invited me to come back up on to their porch to pick it up soon. They also took their flat round basket of vegetables, and tipped the whole contents into my carrying bag to take home. There is a sample of these treasures up in the picture. I hope to talk to them again.

(History retraction for the story below: The enchiladas actually appeared in a separate food swap, with the spinach ice cream caper. We apologize for any inconvenience.)

In other news, over at Angelina’s house, where energetic people have a life and go places, everybody was planning a big week of work or travel on Saturday. (For one thing, Angelina took a new step in her front-line career of saving and helping people all day.) I figured they could all use a fortifying high-protein healthy-fat snack to tide them over while rushing to and fro — something they could eat hot tonight for supper or cold tomorrow for breakfast. At 5:30 pm I texted the house. They agreed on a delivery of a breakfast-style goody at 7:00. I headed to the kitchen and looked around.

Maybe scrambled eggs? I took 8 mobile-pasture-raised egg yolks, and beat in some tomato paste, goat cheese, fresh spinach, fluffy celery puree, ginger, and garlic oil. The cast iron pan warmed up with a little coconut oil while 8 egg whites beat up all fluffy, and folded right in to the yolks. Then on no-reason impulse I rummaged for a can of salmon, didn’t find any, and mashed in some sardines instead. When it was all cooked and puffed to a perfect high golden dome with red and green touches, I texted the house to alert them. In the biggest jumbo kneading bowl I laid out paper bags and heavy baking mitts for insulation, covered the skillet, packed it all up, wrapped the whole affair in a super thick thermal blanket, and headed out.

That was a heavier and more ungainly armful than one might imagine, down 42 steps, outside, up 20 or so more steps up an incline, then over to the house. I pounded on the door, waiting for a happy outburst from within. Usually at the sound of approaching steps, the dogs would be inside flinging themselves against the door in full voice. Hark! A visitor is here to play with us!

Nothing. Not a sound. Hm. Perhaps the “breakfast” offer suggested that I’d be by at 7:00 am as in tomorrow. They must have taken the dogs out for a run or something. Well, this bowl is sure heavy. And hot, too. Better sit outside here and wait. La di da, la di da.

Neighbor after neighbor stops by. Hey Mary, are you just hanging out holding a big ol’ blanket bundle? Were you feeling chilled today or something? All of a sudden I’m the toast of the town. It’s irresistible. People gravitate right over to sit down and chat. We’re got a little conversation line going on. But, no sign of a returning party with dogs. Maybe I should feed these people? We could use our hands maybe.

But finally I ease on upright and trudge back home, schlepping breakfast down the walkway and up the 42 steps and in the door. Check cell phone for message. There is none. Of course. These are busy people! Bothering them on such a hectic weekend was a terrible idea. A normal American would prepare a moderate portion of brownie mix, cut them in neat squares in tidy Tupperware, and drop it off on the windowsill with a nice card without bothering the family and causing a hubbub.

Wait, I can’t sit here fretting and overheating my lap. For food safety, this has to go in the fridge or freezer pronto! Except I don’t own Tupperware, and my fridge and freezer don’t have room, and hot food on a hot day will heat them up, so it needs to cool first in little slices. But then it won’t be sizzling and pretty at all. Nobody will want to eat it then. Quick peek. Oh no; it’s not a puffy dome any more! It’s all flat, like my spirits. Maybe it’s just as well. They wouldn’t like eating this. Who wants to eat out of something wrapped in baking mitts and a blanket? Who puts mashed sardines into other people’s food anyway? Someone with no social skills, is who.

My life does not work. I’m a dork.

Cell phone text. Who is it? Angelina! After a hard intense week she sat down for a rest and fell asleep bless her, and her two trusty Baskervilles fell asleep too. Now the three of them are hurrying to my house and will meet me out back. I grab the bundle and lock up and rush for the back stairs. Then from the top floor I get a glimpse of her little figure way down on the ground. She’s actually watching for my little figure to first appear in the window. She’s waving with both arms while Super Pup and Bingo wag their tails. Being practical souls, the dogs are staring not up at the windows, but at the back of the building. They just know that something exciting is about to burst out of that door. What could it be?

“Maryyy!” Angelina is hollering apologies from ground level. And here’s dainty Juliet on the balcony, laughing while lumbering down the stairs with the still-hot bindle swag.

Outside, the dogs are overjoyed. Super Pup is all bounce, like a tiny velvet black hand puppet from the Ed Sullivan Show. Bingo is usually wistful and bemused, like the tenured Ivy League professors I used to step and fetch for with their elbow patches and pipe tobacco looking helplessly for the Copy button on the Xerox. His name is not really Bingo, but his trim frame and features look half Beagle and half Dingo, so it’s close enough. The two are amazed. It’s Mary! And she has really stepped up and improved her smell. Mm. Fish essence. What’s in the bundle, Mare? Food? It is! She brought LOTS of food, and it’s ALL FOR US!

I was sad to disappoint the troops, but this skillet mess would have done their little tummies no good. Instead Angelina loops the leashes and hoists the bundle herself, and we head back for her house.

“Look at you with those flexible feet of yours,” I marvel at her. “All comfy and barefoot on rocks and bare ground!” It is endearing that she did not even stop to put on shoes.

“No, it just means I was raised by wolves.”

“I wish my feet could do that. They’re pretty arthritic.”

“You know,” she reasons, “you NEVER complain about that. But you could, with me. You can like gnash your teeth at the world.”

“If I were a better Christian, I’d know how. What is a Gnash even? It’s in Scripture.”

“Oh, it’s… oh you know. Like, ‘Though they come for my skin, yet will I gnash at them.’ I think it’s Leviticus.” She took the skillet upstairs, and brought down all the packaging, plus a big helping of Avocado Enchiladas and a grape ice in return. “I have never seen anyone wrap a skillet with so much effort,” she noted.

Next day a cooking review appeared in my texts, sent by a courteous family member. “Hello Mary! I enjoyed the snack. It was like a florentine omelette with a fishy twist. Thank you! Blessings to you and your garden!” The feedback came as quite a relief. I texted back that I’d come get the pan later, and meanwhile they could set it down on the floor for The Usual Suspects (ooh, new name for a pop group). I can go serenade their house window too. To the tune of “I’ll Bring You Home Again, Kathleen”:

It took some homecooking bravado / Your Enchiladas Avocado.

Who knew how tasty they can be? I should have shown more grateful glee.

You didn’t have to, thanks a bunch / They really made an awesome lunch.

If you should start your own café / We neighbors will eat there every day.

Instead of fulltime forks and knives / You’re on the frontline, saving lives.

Though Angelina’s Trattoria would be big / Guess the world needs you, to stay at your day gig.

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8/22/22: Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Nice Cream: Fan Tribute

The way it is supposed to look, elegantly crafted by a medical doctor and his team of culinary artisans.

“Mint Nice Cream” was the recent Featured Recipe at the website drfuhrman.com (Check it out. His books are good too.) It blends frozen bananas, raw spinach, pitted dates, nut butter, a dash of almond milk, mint leaves, and a sprinkle of 100% dark chocolate chips. Uploading the recipe here seems forward and possibly unethical. But maybe it is ok to use this little slice of screen shot above, because it certainly looks more tempting than the fan version turned out by me.

It’s the thought that counts.

When bananas on the countertop are fully ripe, I peel them and wrap in waxed paper and old bread bags, pressing out the air and sealing them up for the freezer. Then they’re ready to slice as needed. 

Spinach: For my third practice run with this recipe I hand-picked only the freshest driest leaves. The rest of the spinach was getting wilty and a little dark around the edges, so I cooked that up for tomorrow’s egg scramble. This bag of spinach was a very kind gift from the neighbor downstairs. A more practical less perishable substitute would be… maybe blending in celery juice pulp, or fennel greens, or baby kale, or jicama, or raw zucchini, or pureed sweet potato? Food for thought.

In the Vitamix I blended the spinach with just enough almond milk first, then added the pitted date pieces. Then in the Cuisinart, the hard-frozen banana slices spun around for a minute or so. They clumped up and had to be mashed with a fork. When they were well whipped and frosty, I dropped in some fresh peeled peach chunks, then a drizzle of coconut oil instead of the nut butter, then added the spinach mixture. (Our garden mint has a very strong taste, so I didn’t add any.)

Doesn’t it sound more sensible to put the spinach mixture in the Cuisinart first and swirl it around, then add frozen banana slices?

Yes it does. But in the Cuisinart the spinach mixture by itself (even with my hand pressed down firmly on the spout) went all over the kitchen wall and my hair. So just start by pureeing the bananas first.

I packaged up tonight’s batch and walked it outside to Dog Play Hour at the neighbors’ patio. Because it was too dark to actually see the dessert, two brave neighbors agreed to taste it. Angelina pronounced it “Totally edible. A kid would eat this!” I left her some for tomorrow, and she sent me home with some vegetarian enchiladas, a pretty good deal all round.

This dessert needs to be eaten as fresh-frozen as possible so the bananas don’t get melty. When frozen overnight, the texture is more scrap-y like an Italian ice than it is creamy. This opens the possibility of freezing in advance, then walking it over to the church freezer until fellowship time in the parish hall. The point after all is fellowshipping, not toting in equipment and making a racket and then washing spinach off the walls.

To me this is just as good as ice cream from the store, and no, you can’t taste the spinach. But even without the refined white sugar, this is still a whole hit of fructose. Next time I’ll omit the dates and chocolate chips and add healthy fat like avocado or nut butter.

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8/15/22: Things to Do in August

A mess of sunflowers

On Friday night after supper we stopped by church for 40 Hours Devotion. Then Dad drove us to buy groceries at Food Fair and let me ride the machine horse there for 25 cents. Then he drove us to Carvel for frozen custard. I got a Brown Bonnet flat cone, tall swirly vanilla ice cream dipped in melted milk chocolate and frozen again so the chocolate is crunchy.

On Saturday morning Dad went to Tony the Barber for a haircut and to hear all the news. Tony patted my head and said “Why Hello Sweetheart, are you here for a haircut too?” and all the men laughed and thought it was cute, a girl at a barber shop. Tony let me get on a chair and he pumped it higher and let me spin it around. He gave me a bubble gum with a Bazooka Joe carton wrapped inside and comics to read with ads for x-ray spectacles and sea monkeys.

On Sunday we went to earliest Mass before Church heated up through the windows. The candles had ripply heat over the flames. The Sisters had red lines on their foreheads where their wimples and veils were too hot and our mantilla veils and stockings felt scratchy and we fanned ourselves with the bulletin. Bees wandered in for the flowers on the altar. At the door the sponge in the font got dry and ran out of holy water. After Mass we went to Mondello’s bakery for Italian bread shaped like a crown. Dad picked out a peach pie too, and then Mr. Mondello packed it in a white box with red and white string in a bow. I looked at the display case of different bread shapes and licked my finger and picked up sesame seeds from under the racks to crunch on.   

On Monday Mom took us to Jones Beach. The night before, she set out our bathing suits and towels and suntanning lotion and sunglasses and beach hats and shovels and pails and thongs. In the morning other families on our street left the house at like 9:00. Not Mom. No, she just had to get up way early to squeeze lemons and fill the big yellow jug with lemonade, and boil eggs and make baloney sandwiches in wax paper and cut up carrots and wash grapes. She loaded the car with the big wicker picnic hamper. She woke us up while it was still shiver cold out and the sun wasn’t even over the trees. We put on our bathing suits with clothes over them. She got us in the car, and drove the 30 miles. At 8:00 or so we were in our favorite spot by the Pen & Pencil Tower and the lifeguard chair, covered with suntanning lotion and eating breakfast with the whole beach to ourselves. I was always scared of the ocean but she picked me up and said “Look, a big wave! Let’s catch it before it breaks,” and swam us out fast so the wave picked us high up and carried us right in and then we did it again. The lifeguards had white zinc cream on their noses because they were outside all day, and they let me climb the chair for a look around. We looked at sand crabs and sandpipers and planes dragging banners or writing on the sky. We picked up stones and shells and made castles and popped the bubbles in the seaweed. Then at 11:00 Mom made us shake out everything and pack up and get going. Then the whole parkway to the beach was bumper to bumper traffic on the other side. But we cruised along going the the other way past sea gulls on the wooden street poles. The hot asphalt was melty in spots and smelled like Necco Wafers and had mirages way up ahead like ripply water until we got up close and then the water disappeared. At home Mom made us go take cold showers and change clothes and put on cocoa butter so our skin didn’t sunburn. She washed our beach things and hung them on the line and unpacked everything and washed off the seashells and aired out the lemonade jug and the hamper. Then they were ready for next time.

On Tuesday we helped Mom hang laundry out on the lines. It whipped around in the wind, and to get cool we ran our faces right into the sheets. Mom hung one line low and let us make a tent out of the wet sheets and lie in the shade. She even brought us Hawaiian Punch popsicles in Dixie cups out of the freezer.

On Wednesday we kids on the block all put on our bathing suits and ran in the sprinkler. That’s ok on Wednesday except not on Sundays, because Sunday is too holy for girls to walk around in a bathing suit right on the street. Then we went to Ridder’s Pond to slide down the sliding pond and go on the swings and feed ducks.

On Thursday it was too hot to cook in the kitchen. So Dad put a lot of charcoal on the barbecue and made a fire. He made hamburgers and hot dogs and corn on the cob and onions and potatoes and toasted buns, and Mom opened some Schweppe’s Bitter Lemon seltzer and made hot tea with ice cubes and spearmint leaves. She peeled and sliced up cucumbers and salted them and then squeezed out all the salt and mixed them with sour cream and dill. She picked tomatoes and basil. She cut up watermelon into cubes and we spit the pits into the grass. We cut up Navel Oranges with no pits at all, except girls can’t call them Navel because it’s not polite so we have to call them seedless oranges. Mom made butter sugar flour crust in a big pan and cut up peaches and plums in pretty designs and baked them on top for sheet cake. After supper Mom toasted marshmallows on the fire and ate them all black and crunchy. When the charcoal got cool we took pieces and drew black pictures on the driveway.

Then there were things to do for every day. We helped water the garden and pull the weeds. We checked all the tomato bushes to take off the tomato hornworms, and checked the roses to chase away beetles. When vegetables look ripe or big enough we picked them and brought them in.

We had steel roller skates with leather straps but we weren’t allowed to skate in the street. The boys drew circles on the ground and set out glass marbles and then flicked their marbles with their fingers to knock the other marbles away. We had Mexican Jumping Bean races. We had paddles with red balls on an elastic string. We had puzzles with number pieces to move around inside a little frame. We had waxy cardboard drawing boards that you could draw on a clear top sheet with a plastic stick and then lift the clear sheet and the gray sheet underneath, and the drawing disappears. We had boards full of metal powder with a dog face picture under a plastic cover, and we could take a magnet stick and move the powder through the cover to give the dog long ears or long fur. We had Etch-a-Sketch boards to draw pictures by wiggling the round knobs and then erase it by shaking it upside down. We took wire coat hangers and twisted one half into a loop, and stretched an old stocking over it to make a net for catching bugs. We had soap bottles with wands to blow bubbles. We carved bar soap into shapes, and then our mothers took the scraps and saved them in crocheted bags for washing the clothes. We drew hopscotch squares on the sidewalk with chalk and tossed rocks to use as the potsy piece, and hopped around yelling “Butterfingers!” We took Mom’s wash line for jump rope games. We tied a lot of rubber bands together and made a Chinese jump rope too, a big loop that two girls held open with their shoes and the rest of us jumped in and jumped with one line crossed over the other with our feet in between and then jumped and turned and jumped out again. Dad showed us how to play tinikling with mop sticks that you tap on the ground and then tap together, and you jump in between them like the girls over in Philippines. Mom showed us how to play ball & jacks. She took Hawaiian Punch cans and punched triangle holes in the top and ran rope through the holes and tied the ends to make a loop. Then we could stand on the cans and lift the loops and have stilts to walk on.

We played checkers and Parcheesi and Scrabble and Old Maid and Go Fish. We made houses out of cards and blew them down. We played dominoes, and pickup sticks. Somebody at work gave Dad a fancy roulette wheel and board and poker chips all in a leather briefcase, and Mom said we do not gamble in this house but it’s fine to play with poker chips and build towers with them. One time our cousin brought a really big jigsaw puzzle with like 1000 pieces and a picture of just flat sand and far away a tiny little runner. So we took turns all week putting together one piece of runner and 999 pieces of sand. We played Monopoly with house and hotel pieces getting in and out of jail and Boardwalk and Park Place. Mom and I played together as one player with her helping me against the others; she planned a lot of real estate deals in her head and won a lot, but I just liked to play with the Scotty dog piece and match the colors on the cards and look hard at the pattern on the dollar until it looked like lines were spinning around. 

After supper it was ok to go back outside because in summer it’s not a school night. We caught lightning bugs in a jar and watched them flash around a while. The boys took a pinkie rubber ball and played stick ball against the stoop. The girls picked white clover flowers and we tied them into ropes and crowns. We used Dad’s flashlight making animal shapes with our hands. We climbed on the car and lay there looking for the first star. Then when the street lights came on we ran races. But then Dad told me to quit with the racing because I was getting too big and beating some of the boys and that isn’t polite. So I rode my bicycle instead. It’s really a bike but girls can’t say that word because if they do it’s not polite at all. Girl bicycles don’t have a bar in front for in case we wear dresses, and girls can’t ride a boy’s bicycle because everybody will laugh at her. I rode mine all through the streets in the dark and raced all over Park Circle, jumping the curbs. The boys called their bicycles just bikes. Some boys had extras like a banana seat or high handlebars or tag with their name or a tiger tail on the back. They took wood clothespins and clipped baseball cards to the wheels so the spokes ticked like a clock. When it got later Mom called us in and put rubbing alcohol on our bug bites, and we washed up and went to bed.

Sometimes it was way too hot to sleep upstairs. Then Mom and Dad let us stay up later. Some nights for our TV snack Mom got the iron fry pan and made a lot of popcorn with butter and salt. Or Dad made leftover fried pizza. Or we had blender malteds with ice cream and Bosco milk and eggs. Dad rigged the TV cord out the Dutch door to the sun porch and we watched with the breeze through the screens. Sometimes there were crickets chirping in the corner, and we let them stay inside because they are good luck. One time Mom let us stay up for the Alan Burke Show. A father and son came on the show to talk about their adventure with Martians. They showed a film as proof. In the film they were running away all scared, looking over their shoulders in a panic. But Alan Burke waved his big cigar and said “Who’s holding the camera — the Martians?” Then the guests explained that the film was a dramatic re-enactment. Then Alan Burke said “Cut their mike!” and “Get off my show and don’t waste my time.” After that Dad had this joke. All he had to do was hold on to his glasses and look over his shoulder and pretend to run away in panic, and then we yelled “Hey who’s holding the CAMERA?”

Nights always got cool again. Then it was time to go upstairs. Mom sat with me to hear my prayers. Then she tucked me in with my glow in the dark rosary and turned on the angel night light and said “Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” 

Outside the older high school boys stood under the street light listening to the transistor or working on a car or maybe smoking a cigarette if their parents were in bed and didn’t see them. Next door the TV was turned down low, with a high pitch signal and blue flicker light. All along the street, Norway Maple leaves flickered and shushed in the breeze. Click bugs ticked back and forth in the branches. Every little while a propellor plane flew over. With all the windows open, the little thrummy noise went from curtain and screen to curtain and screen all across the attic, over the house and away to Idlewild. 

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