Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Jar of Garlic

This coming week marks a two year anniversary with moving to Missoula. The story of how and even why I moved here is either too long or too simple to tell. Frankly, I can sum it up in just one word: hope. But I must clarify. I cannot say I moved West with the idealized hope of finding gold, wealth or even the antiquated idea of homesteading. Nor did I have the kind of simple hope in greeting cards such as, "Hope you are feeling better" with a picture of a fluffy cat wearing a beret. I would like to think I didn't move with a suitcase full of naive intent thinking life is always better somewhere else. Nor would I say I was searching for a different version of hope that was once lodged in a jar, Pandora's Jar, and circled out along with the other abstracts such as destruction and grief. The darker side of hope was surely not my intention either. The hope that I was chasing was simple, a hope to start again in my mid-thirties in a town I liked the sound of. Simply, Missoula has a high concentration of both writers and mountains and all I wanted to do or hoped to do was write a lot and ski a lot.

For most people, hope seems to fall to the positive side if life, offering one last chance in a mired of desperate feelings or a state of chancelessness. It can be that undeniable glimpse or fraction of light that can surprise even the darkest of hours--when even stars betray you and seem like just some other light for someone else to wish on. Yet hope strikes us when we least expect it and when we fundamentally need it the most. Now, I am not going to take this into a metaphysical realm, not completely, nor will I start bringing in religion either, but the complexity of hope fascinates me.

Perhaps my first sense of the difficulty with hope came from one of my ninth grade students, Maggie MacAlpine. Maggie spoke with a slight lisp and carried herself with an awkward stance of confidence. She always caught every error I made on any of her Greek Mythology quizzes and had the maturity of a thirty year old trapped in a young and awkward preteen body. During one of our readings of Epimetheus, the one who ignored the warnings not to take any gifts from Zeus, blindly took the gift of a woman who also came with a rather questionable jar. Now, I have to pause here to say how difficult it is to really teach Greek Mythology to ninth graders without having to go into polygamy, sodomy, rape or try to explain wife swapping? Basically with Greek Mythology you are teaching unedited sex education. Seriously, try to teach anything about Zeus PG-13.

Luckily I was teaching in Rome where billboards are unrated and mythology still makes sense in understanding Italian laws of attraction. There might not be a Zeus, but there are labels like Prada, Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana or controlling Italian nonas and mamas that wield some power over the city's men. So mythology was more like teaching sociology and Maggie MacAlpine was a quick study. After we had read how Epimetheus blindly doted over his mail ordered bride (via Zeus the all knowing post master), Epimetheus was more than smitten and basically let Pandora do anything, such as release all the evils of the world from her jar. So watching the new world that he and his brother, Prometheus, had so carefully made fall apart with the simple opening of a jar, Epimetheus finally realized the meaning of his name, "after thought." Concluding the fact that he was an idiot.

It was tempting at times to say, "okay kids, so what did we really learn from this myth?" Hoping to hear something along the lines of "Well, Ms. Walter, this myth clearly shows the problem with power dynamics between men and women and how you want to be sure not to be controlled by another person's motives especially if you are persuaded by superficial aspects like beauty and charm." This was a challenge. They were fourteen. They didn't even really like the opposite sex yet. Luckily though, I was in Italy and these were budding clones of fashion and sexual impression. I'd glance in the teacher's edition for the "right" answer and find something like, "Epi means after and this story clearly illustrates the power of afterthought or hindsight." What? This is so dumb, these kids read 10 pages for this answer, I thought to myself. What good would this answer really do for these kids in life? Do I tell something like, "Basically kids, you can tell yourself that your heart was broken and that you were mislead by this person whom you trusted for basically, linguistic reasons. Be sure to know the Greek root of your name and remember kids, It's called hindsight." Or maybe I could say, "Basically kids, never trust people with jars." No, they needed something more and Maggie MacAlpine was going to help us.

Maggie raised her hand and said, "Mthss Walther, thes is odd. If Pandthora released all the evilths in the world, then why was hope in there? I thought hopthe was good?" I paused. Looked out the window and smiled. I didn't want to interject or release my own dark side for these desk-seated, freshly-washed pink cheeked fourteen year olds. So I asked, "What do you think of Maggie's question, is hope a positive or negative feeling?" Looking around at blank and nervous faces, I said, "Or is it both?" "Have you ever felt "tricked" by hope?"

And I must say, what followed will go down in my mental history as some of the most fascinating discussions of metaphysical dilemmas posed. Yes by 14 year olds. Seriously these kids understood dilemmas and the temptation of hope that can blind them. Sure, they referenced buying video games they thought were going to be cool and ended up being lame, but at least they started to understand the importance of cause and effect of their actions brought on by the slippery duality and temptation of hope. No, I wasn't trying to form small jaded skeptics in my classroom. Rather, I wanted them to think through the repercussions of their actions especially if they were using naive or shallow reasonings. What were the results they were creating by their actions? Basically, I wanted them to learn accountability. I wanted them to think through what they were being tempted by and if they were willing to accept the possible results. Or so I hoped.

And so, even out of the classroom, hope finds me yet again today in this place that I feel grateful to not have been lead by shallow or simple reasons. This place is Missoula, but more importantly or metaphysically speaking this place is my heart for while I was driving into the darkness over mountain passes and along rivers lit by moon and October stars, I found myself falling into a city where I would also fall in love. Luckily, I wasn't led by own blindness brought on by superficial reasonings nor by shallow intentions. Not this time. Happily, I can say in these two years of living here, I've had to deal with both the darker and lighter side of hope and thankfully I've had to learn and keep learning my own answer I finely gave to my class in regards to Pandora's box: Each of us posses the power to choose how we want our gifts to be used, for positive and creative means or for negative and destructive results. We might not choose correctly all the time, but remember we aren't the gods and that makes us lucky: We get to choose which hope we want to live.

Cold Storage

Most days are either beef or wildflowers,
brief moments of sustenance or sun
filling the gardens of my mind with nothing
but garlic, whole heads posing
as papery fists that never bloom or hit
the surface without the hint taste
of swollen rain and tart onions. Even
when neglected, my heart, the bulb
of my body never rots, no matter
how hard I try. Forget about farmers'
almanacs, French techniques or thinking
the sky of soil pearls just you a private moon.
Your heart, bitter onion of your being, roots
in the basement of your neglect. Your savored weed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Loyalty of Recipes

So you're at a pot luck and you notice the chard and kale torte you bring seems to be one of those dishes that could so easily arrive and act happy as just the supporting side dish, passively sitting by the louder Mexican or Italian dishes. But it's not. People find themselves coming back and less publicly polite with their second time around portions. You notice the first timers took gracious sizes perhaps apprehensive of limp greens blanketed in goat cheese. The second and some third timers cannot help themselves, both in the amount and in their compliments. Someone finally turns to ask you, "Did you make this?"

This brings up one of my favorite moments in cooking, no, not the ego in saying, "why yes, I did actually make that fontina and goat cheese torte you seem to be stuffing in your face," feeling as if you won some ribbon for best hot dish. No, I am not that Midwestern, but hopefully Midwesternly modest. Rather, I enjoy continuing the statement with, "It's my mother's recipe, do you want it, I'd be happy to e-mail it to you." And so the physics of loyalty in cooking lives on. The sharing of recipes that were once written out on small note cards with stenciled wagon wheels or creeping lilies of the valley as a header and most likely written in an archaic and illegible handwriting that included the line: Recipe from: Ester or Judy.

The other favorite part of this interaction is how giving credit to someone else who most likely lives far away offers some validation or even a whiff of lineage and secrecy to the most basic chocolate chip cookie. But really the question is, how long must you claim your prized peanut brittle as laying honors to someone else? Until just when does it become yours? When do you have to stop claiming a dish as being inherited by your aunt in Houston, your mother in Michigan or your grandma, who bless her soul has passed on long before you wield her sweet Christmas buns each December. When are they really your sweet buns? When does the loyalty of invention seem to rest on your laurals?

This question of loyalty recently came to head when I was given what seemed at first as a just a bag of home made caramel corn. I must admit I do not have a compulsive sweet tooth that I need to keep in check, but what I was most taken by with this bag of salty sweet was how perfectly each kernel was coated. I examined the bag, put it up into the light and gently turned each piece to see any variation or trace of some blemished or burnt marks. But none were found. These observations occurred all before I had even opened the bag. And when I did, seriously, this could be claimed as Pandora's treat. I gently untied the ribbon and to find at first just a faint hint of sugar, enough as if to say, "just eat one, a sample per say." I ate one. And another. And as if I had been possessed but some sugar sultan, I couldn't stop. It was embarrassing. I was at work. And I was stuffing my face and probably making a lot of noise in the process. Soon I was not looking at each kernel as much as how much I could try to hold in my palm and stuff in my face without looking like I was a refugee displaced at a boulangerie.

As I noticed half of the bag was emptied in less than ten minutes, I turned to see if some whiff of cold air had come into the room and if I was going to be visited by something or someone who would demand I make some sort of life decision like keep eating the caramel corn or give up my first imaginary born child. It was at this point, I knew I had to do two things. One, share the rest of the "treat" with someone else and two, find out how to make it. Obviously, the first task was easy to do, but finding out the recipe was a bit more a challenge. The caramel corn was made by my boss, Cheryl. Now, I work at a non-profit natural health food store and frankly my boss is so modest that I am not sure she would even like to be called "my boss." She was once claimed (jokingly of course) as being "the ceasar of the grocery store", but that seems a bit totalitarian. I like to think of where I work as being a mini Sweden. Here, in our Sweden people are treated equally and fairly, most of the higher positions are run by women and even the furniture in the deli is a higher quality but similar Ikea design. My boss is a tall and willowed blond, who is fair and humane, so she's more like a prime minister if Sweden or The Good Food store were to have one.

I peered in Cheryl's office to see if she was busy and if I could get her recipe. Little did I know, that this caramel corn was usually made for the holidays and no, there was no amount of begging or flattering that was going to give me the recipe. Now you need to understand that I didn't leave the room and go back to scheduling cooking classes and hope whom I had shared the caramel corn with had more restraint than myself and might have left a few kernels. I stayed in Cheryl's office because I was incredibly curious about this recipe's history and more importantly, Cheryl's loyalty and her calm refusal to give me or anyone for that matter the recipe. Ever.

Cheryl told me her sister, Marsha, brought this recipe to her house one Christmas to make together as a sisterly gesture. For years after, Cheryl continued to make the caramel corn and claimed the fame and fabulousness to "Marsha in Helena". As the compliments came, Cheryl started to wonder, when is this Cheryl's caramel corn? Cheryl decided the logical step was to ask Marsha the time frame of recipe acknowledgment. The answer, simply Marsha stated, was three years. So as I sat in Cheryl's office still a bit rushed from sugar and curiosity, Cheryl in her sturdy and deliberate tone said, "Emily, people have even threatened to break into my house when they know I am not home to try and steal the recipe." I just nodded and said "whoa, that's serious." Yet in my mind, I could see someone dressed in black, searching through a drawer of recipes and a furrowed brow under a black hat change with intense relief in finally finding a fix to what may seem on the surface as just caramel corn. But really, it's caramel crack.

And so, you may have guessed it, I won't be including Cheryl of Missoula's caramel corn, but maybe for some of you the loyalty of recipes only needing three years will free you this coming holiday season. No longer will you feel entangled with explanations or the obligatory need to write long titles on your jars of coveted homemade pear butter first made by your Aunt Rita. Remember, if it has been longer than three years you can take claim, sit with pride, watch how that sweet potato and cumin side dish is yours and answer, "why yes, I did make this. Would you like my recipe?"

Today I give you a recipe that I have been working on for some time and I think I may be close to wanting to lay claim as mine. I am on the pursuit of crafting a tangy, but home-style mac and cheese and I think I found the combination. Of course, I first adapted it from Bon Appetit, but was mostly inspired by memories of eating something similar back in Portland, Oregon at Montage. I tell myself, I only have three years before I can change the title to Aunt Amelia's mac n cheese. Until then, I will lay claim to someone else, keep cooking and remain modest with this hot dish. Enjoy.

Northern Italian Macaroni and Cheese

6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 unbleached all purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 cups Fontal, finely grated ( Fontal is like an elegant Monterey Jack as my good friend Cicelia says)
2 cups goat cheese, crumbled
2 cups Parmesan, grated
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds Rainbow Chard
12 ounces macaroni
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1. Melt three tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat.
2. Add onions and saute until translucent, about five minutes.
3. Stir in garlic, then flour and stir constantly for one minute.
4. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook whisking occasionally, until mixture begins to boil, about five minutes.
5. Add cheeses and stir until cheese melt, about two minutes.
6. Stir in cayenne and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.
7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 13x9x2 inch baking dish.
8. Cook chard in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about one minute.
9. Remove chard with slotted spoon and place in a colander and let chard cool.
10. Reserve pot with water and let it come to a boil and add macaroni.
11. Meanwhile squeeze water from chard and finely chop.
12. Cook macaroni until al dente, drain and stir macaroni in to warm cheese sauce.
13. Place half of macaroni in dish, smooth and layer chard.
14. Top with rest of macaroni and spread evenly.
15. Melt three tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan and then drizzle over panko and mix well.
16. Spread breadcrumbs on top of macaroni and bake for 40 minutes.
17. Let stand for ten minutes and serve.

Yields: I would say at least six hunger people who can take a lot of cheese

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Autumn Garden

Cool mornings with frost and afternoons with slow sun have always meant one thing for me: sweater weather. Contrary to poetical history, autumn is not a season of melancholy for me. Quite the opposite for I find myself more awake and more capable of sitting at my desk for longer periods of time. Maybe I don't feel sadden by this season for the mere fact that unlike during the era of Yeats and Rilke, I have central heating and can throw a sweater on with the faintest hint of a chill and get to writing. Writing seems to make more sense this time of year for when the sun is shinning and warming the rivers, I feel guilty taping out my fingers to syllables in my head instead of swimming and putting my face to the sun.

Plus, I think it is too expected to be melancholy during the fall. If you only see the shades of trees rising like some phoenix to only fall in order to die, then perhaps your life may feel like you are walking in some battle field, some lone survivor on a sidewalk crowned by maple and oak. Yet this seems rather Victorian and indulgent. What if the leaves were reminding us more to merely let go? What if sugar maples find pride in their dark red October hues and wait until winds lets them move on, or leave (no pun intended).

Growing up surrounded by birch and maple forests, I had certain favorite fall trees. Trees that during the spring and summer seemed to just meld themselves into the mass of woods, but once autumn came the slow sense of change reminded me to take notice of each individual tree, as if each species offers a slightly different shade to the whole horizon. I like to watch time unfold itself in colors. As if slow moving waves reach their crest and then fall into sand, each tree peaks and then fades into just bare bark and limbs. Winter ready.

I haven't been to a more autumnal place than Poland. It wasn't the contrasts of color as much as it was the shades of gold that seemed to rise out of all the fields and cobblestone city gardens. Gold against brick or warn out grey blocked houses, gold in forests outlining smoke choked cities, gold in a single tree outside my class room window. And at night, the shades of rich yellow under lights illuminated streets and lightened shadows. It was a time of such light in what has been to easily seen as such a grey country.

The golden autumn of Poland wasn't just a time for trees, but also lovers. I recall public gardens being a common meeting place for dates. Some man wearing what sadly seemed like his dead uncle's suit with a long stemmed rose, would pace and run his thumbs under each fingers' nail, walking off nerves and anticipation. You see, when you live at your house (which often consisted of three rooms including the bathroom) with your entire family; physical space is an issue. So public gardens were open spaces waiting to be filled with couples entangled on park benches. PDA or public displays of affection in this context probably felt more private than stealing kisses over the kitchen table with your grandmother staring at you over a plate of boiled potatoes.

And so this poem I include today may not have autumn shades, but the autumnal flavor of rising from some fall. My favorite kind of love poem. Enjoy the leaves, the small reminders of learning to let go, and to embrace the season of sweater love.

In the Public Garden

Every gym class, Stevie Flowers pissed
his corduroys. He hated dodge ball,
stood in the corner or hid
from the bigger boys who broke
anything or anyone small.

He read Make Way For Ducklings
sat on his knees with Buddha's
slow smile. I knew even then
he would be the one who loved me.

I still remember the metallic
taste of the bat that summer
we played softball. He cupped my face
while my nose bled, told me later
he'd tape my glasses.

But later it was others who stood
outside my window, holding
a book of Yeats, fly open
with a half-drunk grin.
It's always a simple request
at first.

In the Boston Commons, I pause
at the ducklings in bronze, still
like the boy who read to me.
Somewhere there's a man
I'd never think to run from.