Wednesday, October 20, 2010

sorely tempted

And so it was that I looked upon the beautiful pink orbs, nestled in an old oblong china dish from Grandma Fern, and I weighed the likelihood that anyone in my family would notice the tomatoes missing.

No chance at all. I live in a world where the fresh food goes unnoticed until the packing of school lunches, the quiz in which I ask, “did you pack a fruit and a vegetable and a protein?” Yes mom, yes mom, yes. No mom, the apples and bananas are all gone. Scott buys them little disposable cups of fruit cocktail, and I would rail against the waste of money and plastic, but I’ve seen them open the wee cups and sip the juice, first, before tucking into the fruit. My children do not drink liquid unless forced, so I concede to the little wasteful cups. I too am fond of the papaya chunks. God alone knows what preservatives rest in there. I close my eyes to the issue: they drink, and they eat fruit. And they leave me the perishable items which don’t pack well.

Dear God, the tomatoes! The last tomatoes from the last farmers market of the year, heavy, not orange or red but pink, art-worthy tomatoes. Heaven forbid that they go bad, waiting for someone to find an appetite. On Sunday I sliced one for a sandwich of grainy bread, goat cheese, and basil. I ate two such sandwiches, leaving half the tomato next to the cutting board with a knife. No one touched it, despite my announcements. I found a container and sealed it away tightly in the frig, but it can't last, there.

I’m allergic to fresh tomatoes. If I stop at half a tomato, two sandwiches, the sandpapery sensation will be mild, like I burned my tongue but not badly. If I continue to nibble tomatoes, red fissures form as the result of my rich tastes, followed by blisters and several days with a wounded tongue. Cherry tomatoes, so easy to snack on, must be rationed, first, then hidden behind something else in the refrigerator so I don't grab another handful.  

Andalusian Gazpacho is the tomato glorified, pureed with fresh bread and a touch of garlic. Not a Mexican gazpacho, not spicy, this soup is not home to any other vegetables, no peppers, no cucumbers, no onions. Just tomato, olive oil, a splash of vinegar, a pinch of sugar, and a few ice cubes to chill it. I remember the first taste of it, how ugly the color, how the soup stood up in the bowl at The Walnut Street Café in Erie, Pennsylvania. The restaurant didn't last a year, but the memory stays.

Today the whole glass of sweet gazpacho sits before me, two and a half pink tomatoes’ worth to be drunk slowly, rolling the summer in my mouth while watching the boats in the harbor. I walk back to the kitchen to scrape the blender clean, remembering not to stick my fingers under the sharp blades. Sorely tempted to find that one last spoonful. The blisters rise; I have accepted it.

Too often my solo meals consist of peanut butter from a spoon, or a handful of trail mix, now that green beans are not in season. Inelegant non-meals, anti-meals. The late summer lettuce is long withered, and I don’t know how long the fresh basil will hold out in my windowsill. How much more should I take the price of life and endure it? How much more ought I pour love into a glass and drink, despite the cost? Drink, while the season lingers for one more moment.

A toast, then, to the fall harvest and what comes next. A toast to the passing of summer fruits. I will remember these tomatoes for the next few days of sandpapery tastes and stinging, my last late-summer extravagance. I will not repent this tall glass, well worth the expense.

Friday, October 15, 2010


"Lately I’ve been thinking, and I need to get this down quickly--that grief splinters…it splits off into fragments,… and that each of those fragments then has a life of its own. Every day is a new way to grieve, and this morning, very early, I was sitting in the attic window watching the rain and I tried to imagine even one of those splinters--could I hold on to even one? Could I contain it for a day, an hour? – and it struck me as a story that could be told in science fiction. A woman loses her brother, or her brother is lost, and every moment of every day for more than ten years she rises and begins to grieve, and the grief leaves her body in something like a cloud and goes about its business. "

Haven Kimmel, The Solace of Leaving Early, page 185

to wake up: same story told a different way

Dear Reader, don't you already know everything about me? I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and it all must seem terribly repetitive. 

On the other hand, I like the odd twists I find in all the variations of the same story. So. Here you go.

If I grew up half-asleep to food, it’s because I grew up half-asleep to all my senses. I possessed no means to comprehend subtlety of flavor or construction of food. We opened cans. We ate in quantity. We liked our foods packaged, so the results were the same every time. Sloppy Joes, Hamburger Helper, Campbell’s Tomato.

I remember the first whiff of basil, age 25, still one of the most miraculous scents on earth. I remember the first taste of asparagus, age 20. I remember the first fresh bagel when my school drama team produced Fiddler on the Roof. Tabouli, that marvel of lemon and garlic and mint and bulgar—I asked the waitstaff, “but what IS it, in this dish?” French onion soup, amazing. The first cheese I liked, age 22, backpacking in Tennessee and just starving for protein. Smoked mozzerella, heaven.

Where had I been all my life?

The answer is quite simple: I’d been in my home on a side street of Farmland, Indiana. The food we ate was the food everybody ate, food from the television commercials, processed foods designed to make people’s lives so much easier. None of it was much better or worse than anything else. In a beautiful little town of tree-lined streets and quirky people, we lived by eating what the television told us. The television told us things all the time, and so it was always on at my house, and the constant noise level droned, a constant level of activity throbbed, a lack of quiet, a lack of social skills, a television-induced haze. No activity was much better or worse than anything else.

One Sunday a month my extended family of aunts and uncles would meet for a giant noonday meal at my grandmother’s house, fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, peas in cream sauce, or chicken and homemade noodles and apple pie. Grownups would eat until the meal required recovery; clean-up would require hours, practically until dark. No television could be watched unless there was a very good reason. It’s not that we didn’t notice the qualitative difference between the food in grandma’s kitchen and the foods in our own—we’d practically wrestle over the rights to certain precious leftovers. But no kid expected her own mother to produce such ambrosia: that’s what grandmothers did. That’s why grandma’s meals were special. She didn’t eat foods from boxes or cans. But then, she was retired, and she lived alone, and she obviously prepared for hours, which is something no mother could really do. Not really.

When I left home I went directly to college, where the food was different but not necessarily better. Nothing was much better or worse than anything else.

After my freshman year of college I took a summer job in the Colorado Rockies. My boyfriend taught me to forage for blueberries and salad greens. My roommate crafted vegetarian Dagwoods for me, introducing me to avocado, sprouted grains, hummus. I met adventurers who questioned everything about why we wear what we wear, why we live how we live, why we eat what we eat. I took a course on backpacking cooking, where I discovered a recipe for Wheat Thin crackers, and it occurred to me that every food in a box was developed from some recipe devised by some person in a kitchen. Even the local restaurants featured their own blends of iced tea. Without a television indicating what was “normal” food, I made the break from my sleepy world: some person in a kitchen could make Wheat Thin crackers, and that could be me. I was no cook, but I loved to experiment. I’d find whole wheat flour somewhere. That could be me.

When I returned home to my mother’s house I tried the experiment: homemade crackers are utterly delicious, almost precious, and not much harder to bake than cookies. I returned to college, with a jar for alfalfa sprouts and a keen determination to eat more whole foods. To eat whole foods, one must commit to curiosity. Still years away from my own kitchen, the curiosity arose.

What did I wake up to? Thinking back, I woke up to the great experiment that is eating, first, and I woke to the oddity and wonder of how food is crafted, what kinds of lives people live in their kitchens. I still thought my grandmother’s skills were untouchable—she cooked without measurement, by texture and scent, and those skills cannot be easily taught. But I possessed the recipe for homemade Wheat Thins, and if that recipe could be mastered, who knew what else I could learn? If blueberries really can be found, for free, under the leaves of low shrubs in July, and stonecrop makes an excellent salad, and honeysuckle nectar can be sipped, what else does the world hold for the person with eyes to see and ears to hear?

I woke up to the world, to every good thing. I woke up to myself.

Monday, October 11, 2010

wear armor

The finished essay takes on a different tone than this snippet. But it's fun to re-enter the writing fury of my early drafts. 

Driving over the bridge toward Cape Ann, you should cover your heart or wear some sort of armor. Do not be deceived—it’s a dangerous place. You will likely be assaulted by some corner of your heart you never noticed before. The sea will call you. The waves will not let you sleep. The gulls will charm you with their constant voices. The smell of salt is not for inlanders—perhaps you should pinch your nose and not let the air in. But you can’t prevent it. Within minutes of arriving you will no longer be satisfied to be near  the Atlantic, if you could be close enough to see it with your own eyes.
    Do not adjust. Remain firm. Do not swoon.
    It’s hopeless, isn’t it? We come here from suburbs and dry places, brown places, conquered flatlands with orderly grids of roads. This place is madness, full of siren song and rough granite. Lash yourself to the masts and plug your ears with wax.

How do I say what I didn’t know? I was a 28-year-old series of Chinese boxes. I’d never paid rent, never shopped for an apartment, never paid an electric bill. I came from the Midwest, a flatlander easily lost. I owned a car with stickers from Erie, Pennsylvania and license plates from Washington state. I’d never been A Neighbor—I’d been THE Neighbor, running college dorms for six years, and managing a small conference center over the winter. I’d been living in one sort of Christian community or another for ten years.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

youth group

I am searching my files for stories to workshop, and as I search I find the most interesting little fragments, like this one. I wish it wasn't so hard to tell stories of churches and leadership without the modern-day shadows. I found my way into a good church, truly good, though made of sinners like every church.

As a teenager I followed rumors of a new preacher in town, a man with long hair and bell-bottom jeans, a man who played guitar on the church lawn and played loud music from the parsonage. A cute boy named Dale could sometimes be found at that church, so I showed up, sat down, sang for an hour before I remembered Dale—he didn’t come. But I didn’t leave. I wore bell-bottomed jeans. I had long hair, too. And I loved to sing. Adults spoke to me as if I was interesting, as if they knew nothing of the long history of my family in this small town. Adults cared about me, even though they were not my school teachers or my relatives. I stayed. The place felt miraculous.

I didn’t say a sinner’s prayer or make a public conversion. I’d attended local Vacation Bible School and the children’s Good News Club, and I liked this Jesus character as long as the church members actually loved, instead of hating people who go to movies or wear makeup, like the Baptist church down the road.
I was testing this new group of people, to see if they believed for real.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

a possible plan for my blog

Dear Reader,

I have grown into a slothful blogger, and the more I focus on writing for publication, the more I neglect my faithful following here on this blog. It seems WRONG, doesn't it? To shortchange you, worthy reader?

At the same time, my files are so full of little fragments, false-starts but interesting ones I could follow up later. Today I'm thinking I'll post some fragment of writing every few days, and perhaps you can think of it as a prompt for your own memory, or a writing prompt. God forbid that anyone important should stumble onto a blog of unfinished thoughts and think that's all I can manage.

But then, that's kind of what blog posts are, no? Thoughts in progress? 

Tell me what you think of my idea.


growing up to food

A piece of my cooking writing was just published, and I'm musing over the irony. A fragment found in my files:

I didn’t learn to cook as a child because cooking was too big for mere mortals, and a person needed to be legendary to don the apron and set her hand to the rolling pin. The people of my household ripped open bags of chips, served with chilled glasses of CocaCola, and when hearty food was needed my mother crafted biscuits and a skillet of sausage gravy. She liked breakfast foods. She liked to fry chicken. She liked to make potato salad—and that was about it. That was the short list of what my mother liked to cook. My father liked to cook popcorn—that was his short list. Everything else came in a package or a box, or was topped with Velveeta. 

I hope to launch a website with links to my writing, very soon, and it will boast my full name. Soon!