Wednesday, December 15, 2010
The winter of 1999 in Europe came in epic proportions of cold, snow and relentless storms. I was living in Kielce, Poland just over an hour north of Krakow in the rolling dales which claim to have the cleanest air in the country as well as being coined the "knife city." Luckily, I rarely saw anything more than men crying in public and pissing while they walked in circles in snowed parks. But what I vividly recall that winter were the women bundled in multiple head scarves, slowly walking from their homes to the city center where a large vat of cold water kept a collection of carp. Not your typical lobster tank with glass, rather more like a large metal garbage container with a step ladder. A man stood with a shovel and a large net, to break the occasional ice that would form a film above the sleepy slow carp, to scoop for pointing bare-fingered babcias.
Most days like others in the city, I walked to work. That week before Christmas it was like a repeated scene, a woman pointing, a man breaking some ice and scooping out a slow fat carp, weighing it and then wrapping it in plastic. The women would lug their wriggling fish back to their home for their annual Christmas Eve clubbing and then eating a celebration of fried fish.
As I confessed, I never had Christmas carp. I went home to Michigan that Christmas. But that last week of school, I finally broke down and asked my students, "so why carp?" They looked at me, all of them from the six to 17 year-olds, as if I had asked them Why Santa? Now, you have to remember, one must be very careful in asking about traditions in a foreign country for you might be asked to defend your own publicly noted "tradtions". Take for instance our gun laws and obesity. All of my students said with blank faces, carp is for luck. "Emilika, fried carp is neeca, really. Ees looki. You know, good fortune. Happy days. Luck in the future."
Now, don't get me wrong I have seen a lot of carp in my days. But nothing that seemed festive or even edible. The carp of my youth were alien fish in the bottom of Lake Michigan gorging on garbage and too often surfaced showing odd bulbous tumors. They seemed like the last fish, perhaps more like a dare really to ingest and perhaps not anything to celebrate, rather to feel sorry for. But really, how would you defend the Thanksgiving turkey when for all that we all know the poor Pilgrims really ate shellfish and nut meats. Hell, maybe they even ate carp?
I've been lucky to have lived in many different countries over the holidays from eating what seems a bit easier to ingest, panatone in Italy, fried cheese in Slovakia and even recall, shrimp on a barbie in Australia. But it is truly the time I spent in Poland, I cherish the most. Because the carp just seem like a metaphor. To search out a carp, kill it in your bathtub and serve it for family and friends seems more about having some kind of faith. Some faith in appreciating what you already might have and not what you hope to get.
So this holiday I tried to make goodies with what I already had around the house. Here's a recipe for Bourbon Pecans. They could be considered a holiday treat. However, when you try these you will be inventing your own private holiday to make more. This recipe is from the Los Angeles Times and feel free to spice it up some more for your own taste.
1/2 cup top-quality bourbon
1 pound pecan halves
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon angostura bitters
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Simmer the bourbon in a small saucepan over medium heat until it's reduced by a quarter, just a few minutes.
3. Blanch the pecans in boiling water for one minute, then drain.
4. Combine the bourbon, oil, Worcestershire, bitters and sugar in a large bowl.
5. Add the hot pecans and toss. Let stand for ten minutes.
6. Spread the pecans in a single layer on a large baking sheet.
7. Bake until the nuts are crisp and the liquid has evaporated, 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every ten minutes.
8. Turn the nuts into a clean large bowl.
9. Combine the cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
10. Toss with the nuts and serve.
YIELDS: about 4 1/2 cups
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
People often assume I went to culinary school since I run a cooking school. It's a logical assumption and one that I quite often feel shy about clarifying. I tell people I have my M.F.A in poetry, but while working on a manuscript in Northern Michigan, I decided a way to curb my loneliness would be to spend my nights cooking. If you feed people, they are more likely to come over and fill your sparse apartment. Plus I missed food. I missed food I had had while traveling and living abroad and in Marquette, Michigan your options are limited for ethnic cuisine. Not unless you consider midwestern food such as Friday night fish fry, ethnic or even cuisine. So I cooked, fed others and learned some very elementary culinary skills.
This past month, I had a rare opportunity to share some of these skills. I was asked by a quiet spoken social worker if I would teach some cooking classes to veterans in a local group home. I went to visit the facility and the men had a garden, a communal kitchen and plenty of frozen entrees in their freezer to last through another recession. So for two Wednesday evenings, I went and taught a group of men how to make butternut squash soup with a riata, seasonal green salad with a quick ginger vinaigrette and fish tacos with an apple pico de gallo.
Picture this. Four men wearing ill-fitting plastic gloves de-veining shrimp and talking about their most memorable meal. Each of them had one. No one said they couldn't remember. One man had a memory of a salmon he had caught in the rivers of his childhood, another fondly thought of fresh marlin cooked in the Keys of Florida and another revered a bowl of oatmeal. It was amazing how quickly these men shared with me without having to go through all the social worked steps of getting people to "open up."
This happens so often around a table. People easily share their food memories without a sense of judgment and often without hesitation. And telling stories? It's a way to create collective intimacy. In a few short hours, I learned a lot about these men from injuries to ex-wives and of course, their fondness for food. And maybe this is why teaching cooking is as rewarding as teaching poetry, you get to show people the beauty in being able to feed yourself. Either your stomach or your soul. And maybe on rare occasions, you get to teach people how to feed both.
I'm not sure if I changed any of these guy's cooking habits or interests, but that's okay. It doesn't matter. What matters to me is that for a few hours these guys laughed, told stories, learned how to de-vein shrimp and how to hold a knife and mince an onion. But most importantly, these guys got to feed themselves. And without referencing any crochet quotes about teaching a man to fish or being too cliche about helping others so they can help themselves, really, it's just real. It seems far more realistic for a group of people to sit around and eat together and chat than to sit in folding chairs around a circle in some basement and confess fears and frustrations. Sometimes it's good to get everyone involved. Maybe this is why Jesus brought food to all his gatherings and shared it. Just think if he had brought fish tacos.
Here's a simple pico de gallo recipe with apples that's great with fish tacos this time of year.
Apple & Avocado Pico
1 apple, cored & minced (Gala or Fuji work well and even Honey Crisp)
1 avocado, sliced
1/2 red onion, minced
1 lime, juiced
1/2 bunch cilantro
Dash or two of hot sauce
Salt, to taste
1. In a bowl, combine ingredients and salt to taste.
Here are a few tricks. Cut an avocado in half. Lay cut side down on cutting board. Slice avocado in half again. Peel off skin with your fingers. Slice avocado to desired size. It's easier to slice an avocado outside of it's skin. Also, with cilantro, hold bunch of cilantro in the opposite hand you hold your knife. Shave cilantro leaves with you sharp knife. Yes, shave cilantro. It's much easier to shave herbs like cilantro and parsley since you can eat the stems than it is with picking each individual leaves.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Trees surprise you. Across the street two maples, which I must have noticed in the three years I have lived here, yet perhaps ignored, suddenly glow. Golden, misted amber leaves with a hint of harvest grape green stand quietly behind my neighbors fence. So vibrant on this day of gray. Trees change, fields dull to muted shades, summer blossoms wilt and even my indoor furry friends get a bit furrier. Autumn arrives in medias res, to begin in the middle, in the middle of change.
Yet what about the chicken? What changes do they rely on to understand the coming cold, what harbingers of this season do they have? For example, this fine photo of our very own Polish Hen, whom I refer to as the Wandering Pole, knows nothing of winter to come. Sprouted this spring, her fellow layers and sister, Queen Louise the 15th, also know nothing of days kept indoors, hours of white on windows and the wind that doesn't stop for the domesticated. Chickens continue to lay, cluck and roll in now colder dirt, doing their chicken duties and doing them well.
We have six chickens and this past weekend while raking leaves and then putting them in their coop, the chickens acted grateful. They continued on with their chickening without any fear of cold winds from the north. We who have cultivated this animal for the past 10,000 years all for our own needs have failed to inform them or give them something to note the change in seasons. Perhaps knitting chicken sweaters is about as publicly insane as walking your cat in a sweater while on a leash. Sure we give chickens heat lamps as their own private sun during cold nights, but really, the poor bird is quite literally left in the dark.
Recently, I watched a documentary on the history of the chicken, which really could have been called "the stupid things humans do to forget they are animals". One such chicken lover in Maine gave her frozen hen left for dead mouth to well, beak resuscitation and brought her favored fowl back to it's chicken life. Another woman in Miami bathed her hen daily and believed her chicken was her soul mate, dare I say fowl mate. Regardless of the absurdity and extreme in chicken ownership, I do think about these little beings despite their bead of a brain need a bit more credit.
For regardless of an occasional molt, chickens are incredibly trustworthy and reliable creatures. Perhaps even loyal to their duties in producing eggs. Roosters have long been more than useful in time management and what could be more bucolic than a pasture with a few hens scratching in the background. From the practical to the artful, hens surely have their place. This place is usually side lined or in the back drop unless you have lived your life as Gonzo from the Muppets who was not shy or bashful for his love of chickens.
And so, it is the middle of the week and at the end of autumn that I want to pay homage to the spirited bird, which lives without expecting to fly. The underdog without even practicing a song. Chickens, you are the falcon of humble acceptance. Enjoy the poem.
September crowns each crest of larch with gold,
geese mold the sky and maple, with their hands
wave to the sun, waning the horizon red.
And the hen cares not for falling leaves.
Their bodies preen slow knitted winter
warmth as feather sweater. While your cider
skin, no longer bare, demands covering.
You try to hold the passing of your longing,
try to keep August as your private yolk
to feed off February fates. But you, more chicken
than god, season your days in dirt and grass.
You learn to quiet yourself by raking leaves,
your fallen heart, you cannot keep green.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
I've started a new habit which involves Carl Sagan. After countless searches for small tidbits of daily aspirations, I found videos mostly from the early 80's of Carl Sagan. Sure, we usually associate this parka and turtleneck wearing scientist with earnest and larger ideas like the cosmos. But I started to dig a bit deeper into his lesser known clips on whale communication for example. I started listening more to his well enunciated speech and found moments of unabashed poetry. I even started to find myself mimicking his words in my head. But really, it's his enthusiasm for the unknown which struck me as something worth noting, something worthy. Something fresh in a world of handing out digitized facts.
But there will always be facts. The facts are, October is here. Here in Missoula, we have a few trees changing, enough for a midwesterner to feel a sense of the familiar. I often joke that I wonder where in the world is it autumn all year long? For the colors, the paling sun, the occasional warmth that feels so welcoming and really a gift before all the coming gray. We've had one of the nicest Octobers with a lot of warm days, so many that my cosmos (pictured first) stayed open and vibrant up until two days ago. Up until two days ago, we hadn't had a frost. The other photo shows how green our late summer into fall remained with all the August rain. And what does autumn have to do with Carl Sagan?
Carl Sagan seemed to have a desire for more questions, didn't quit with just facts. It's like his mind was an autumning of questions. A limbo of transition and wonderment. So often I flip through information like I am sure so many of us do only to land in a sea of facts on weight loss, facts on happiness, facts on better communication, facts on deals, facts on more facts. So much information to drown in instead of swim or even just a casual float with a view of stars. The internet can really drag someone down with web-entangled searches only to have spent an hour lost to the universe, lost to the god of wasted mental space.
But I must say, I am grateful for all the clips of Carl on the web. Watching Carl clips feels like reading a good poem. Sure, we know stars and the word galaxy or whale, but with Carl at the helm, it's usually a safe and surreal sail. So I want to share with you a great clip of Carl doing a whale song. http://youtu.be/elw-459P8kE The vulnerability seems present, but purposeful. I love it. Just Carl against the wind and the mast with his song of whales. It's like some ancient bard coming up from some sea to give us a hint of what is going on below. And maybe that's just it. Carl gives us a look into something we have known since birth, the moon, stars, seasons and the once report each of us gave on Pluto in front of our first grade class. We cut out planets and paper rings of Saturn, but it was during a time when we were open to wonderment. With so many facts, we can lose our wonderment, our openness, our body as atrium to what it beyond our computer screen. Enjoy the clip. Enjoy the poem.
I stopped believing in birds for awhile.
A nun said my heart was broken, before
I even started dating. A parrot
in an unlocked cage waits to start singing.
To mimic off-key is song, but not song
of yourself. Before the cross of Romans,
men followed the flight of swallows to build
temples as nests for their gods. But I can’t
live in city gardens, more poppy
along train tracks in Poland. I’ve learned
to field myself in countries, to rejoice
the potato is to see the pigeon
as dove. Divorce yourself from the body
as burden. You’re an atrium of love.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Summer somehow didn't find it's way to Montana this year. Perhaps the weather gods decided to give the good people of the Western Rockies a taste of why many of us moved here, for the snow. Snow in June, snow for July and even snow on Labor Day eve. Yes, the white behind me is indeed freshly fallen, but I feel I should give this peak a chance. It's Trapper Peak, which stands slightly over 10,000 feet beaconing the Bitterroot valley just south of Missoula.
I've heard more conversations about the weather this summer than I can ever recall. Even more than than the summer when the temperatures never crested over 60 degrees along the shores of Lake Superior. The summer of 2004 in Marquette, Michigan when I wore turtlenecks to teach in and napped under heavy blankets while I stubbornly slept on rocks yearning for some warmth. But Midwesterners, if they complain at all, would say something about how it could have been worse that summer Lake Superior had ice during July. "We could have had 100% humidity, black flies, feral mosquitoes and tornadoes," to convince ourselves we were somehow better off with gray skies and cold winds.
But out here in the west, people don't exactly cry in public, but they do complain...openly. I don't have any Slavic or Nordic ancestry, but when people get heated up about lousy weather while standing around a fire at a potluck, I quietly stare at my shoes, obviously too cold for sandals. My midwest inner nasaled voice thinks, you people are whining, aren't you embarrassed? I still cannot believe someone can openly complain and actually not feel guilty about it. It's just a mind twist for me. Isn't anybody going to say, "well at least it hasn't snowed in the Missoula valley this year?" But they don't. Nor did I. I just kept quietly talking to my internal midwest voice while focusing on my boots.
And really even during the wettest day of August this year, I didn't complain. Mostly because I was too busy exploring the Western Rockies to be bemoaning. Luckily, I had some visitors to take up hiking in Glacier, some mountain bike riding in Sun Valley, a too quick trip home for swimming in Lake Michigan and even wet suited river days down the Alberton Gorge. Summer happened, but it just didn't look like what the good people of Missoula wanted or more specifically, what people expected. And so with this cursor as my witness, I can write, I've been really happy this summer. Mostly because I didn't really have any expectations. Maybe I am turning more Danish than just a midwest transplant. Or maybe I'm just learning how to climb the hill of content(ment).
Let me explain. If you'd like a far better explanation, then watch this video. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4181996n&tag=related;photovideo. Or listen online at http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2010/01/podcast_the_awesomest_economy.html. NPR's podcast about the study of not just money, but happiness. According to numerous studies by both economists and psychologists, Denmark is considered the happiest nation. Yes, these herring hungry blonds are surrounded by healthier Swedes and richer Norwegians but they are actually happier. Why? When their weather is pretty glum and their greatest claim to fame Dane after Hans Christen Anderson would be the prince of doom and gloom, Hamlet. So what really makes Danes so happy? (just in case you don't have time to read or listen to either story, let me sum it up for you.) Danes have a sense of contentment because they have realistic expectations. And furthermore, contentment is not a weakness in their culture. It's a goal.
But where in American culture is contentment valued? Where is the glory in being happy with what you have? What are we to do with the American Dream now that we've worked so hard to never be satisfied? Take it from me, someone who has spent more time believing and working at life is elsewhere and probably better. Contentment is really more of a mind twist for me too than complaining about the weather in public. What's my back to school essay, "what I learned this summer?"
Let's start with the greatest albeit fictitious Dane, Hamlet for a starting point. To be or not to be? To be or not to be, happy? Sure, go into any college library and you'll find more criticism about this clause than probably any other in the English language. It's existentially dense. And I would imagine a clause we ask ourselves in some form or another, everyday. True or not, but what is fascinating is that the most crowded class at Harvard is taught by a psychologist titled, the positive psychology of happiness. Students might be skeptical of all these self-help books, but they are certainly signing up in droves for some answers.
Today as I write this, it's gray and cold. Today, I look out over our front lawn and I see our white mini-van. A car I laughed at when my husband brought it home earlier this spring. There's nothing mini about this van, but it's everything modest. It's a great metaphor for contentment or in being happy enough with what you can afford. And frankly, I drove the mini van to Trapper Peak and it was great. And the weather at 10,000 feet, was better than I had expected. Here's a poem about modest expectations of happiness and as you might guess, mountains and mini vans. Enjoy.
At first he picked me up in what his wife
left him. My fate to fall for a man who
drives a mini-van. At least he didn’t chew
his words, smell of olives like the last guy.
He arrived right on time, but when he tried
to unlock my door, it stuck. He swore
it was already funny when he drove
up looking like a carpet cleaner, tired
but shaven. And sometimes it’s that easy,
the awkward sexy moment when a man
offers his gloves in a hail storm, you fall
for him, his ill fitting sweater, uneasy
pause before speaking, the way one person
sees you like the capital of Nepal.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
If I had any idea how much fun it is to have an albeit tiny and modest garden, I think I would had started one in my college dorm room. Well, maybe not quite. But seriously, let's talk about lettuce. Let's talk about arugula, mache, endive and mixed baby greens. Let's talk about how one day I planted seeds and now I stand in front of these little leaves and think, "oh my, you're growing so big and green, but we've only just met."
But really, now is the time to spend more time with your favorite greens. Last month, my boss and I team taught a vegetarian grilling class. I did a simple Caesar salad with grilled romaine which started off the season with what I would like to say, well, expanded my green horizons.
And it's what I love about the entire large and flavorful family of greens, it's a template to use for seasonal veggies and yes, even the roasted sweet potato in the cold hours of February finds itself on a momentary summery bed. A respite from being blanketed by all the packed dirt and snow. Whereas now in the heat of July, everyone wins with watermelon, cantaloupe, grilled peaches or fresh baked salmon all floating over shades of seasonal summery green beds in a bowl.
I recently made this salad I want to share with you for a Raw Foods potluck. I was looking for something simple, obviously raw (no pork in any form found its way to that party) and something with a bit of a kick. I am by far more of a vinaigrette gal over heavy dressing, so I wanted something light but not shy in flavor. I like my salads bold in taste and above all, I like to think of salads as aesthetic pursuits--the closest form of still life painting I will probably ever get close to.
I must admit that I have made this salad a few times this summer season and it has been devoured before any photos were taken. The best version of this came with the gift of greens from my cousin, Eric Wittenbach and his lovely green-thumbed wife, Cameron Green (I am sure you can understand by her name it is just one of the many reasons I feel so close to her). We were visiting their amazing homestead in the Methow Valley, the banana belt on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains in Washington in early June. My father came out to visit us in Montana and we rallied to Washington to help in their garden, float down the mighty Methow and have some good ole family fun. The morning we left, Eric ran out and cut some of their early greens and we stored them in our cooler which we drove over the flat plains of eastern Washington, over two mountain passes in Idaho and finally they made it happily to our crisper in the valley of Missoula.
If you don't have any cousins who are amazing gardeners or little shoots of your own, please find someone else's cousin at a farmer's market selling greens, a local produce stand or barter some cherries in your back field for a bag or head. I'd like to think of greens as the sun's greatest currency. The bright reminders of rain or maybe just a really easy and great way to get some fiber in your diet.
And finally, one more long winded reason why I adore this signature salad: watercress. I mean, how can you not adore something that grows wild in Ireland along streams and creeks and with a name like watercress, it sounds more like a verb. Part water, part plant this green finds itself in salads all shy in appearance, but then in flavor, it fills your mouth with a tangy pepper pop. Seriously. Make this salad with or without mint, but please not without some watercress. And not without the watermelon. Maybe you could send me some photos of the salad you make and call it still life with summer greens. Or not. Just make it to beat the heat and lose the fear of your kitchen on days with rising temperatures. Or just enjoy cracking open a melon all green with a hidden heart of red and please support your local farmers (I know this sounds as annoying as some bumper sticker, but really, it's true). The farmer you get your greens from is someone's cousin, brother, dad or some kid you used to baby sit for while his mother weeded her garden.
Watermelon Salad with Watercress
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled & minced
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lime peel
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups watermelon, 1/2" pieces
1 bunch watercress, thick stems trimmed about 1 1/2 to 2 cups packed
2 cups mixed baby greens
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded & cut into 1/2" pieces
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
1. Whisk vinegar, oil, ginger, lime peel, and garlic in large bowl to blend.
2. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Add watermelon, green onions and cucumber to bowl of vinegar and let marinate for about three to five minutes.
4. In a large salad bowl, add greens and fresh herbs. Toss greens and then add watermelon mixture and toss to coat.
5. If you are going to take this on a picnic or not eat it right away, then I would not add the watermelon until right before you serve it or you can place the greens on individual plates and top with watermelon mixture.
This recipe originally came from Bon Appetit in June 2002, but I have made a few adjustments.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
My father is an architect. I've enjoyed being able to say this for many reasons. As a child, I didn't have to explain anything, translate acronyms or find other verbs for what he does. He designs. Simply, he designs homes, churches, schools, banks, wineries and even prisons. But really, if I had to say what my dad taught me about architecture, it would be the importance of, what he calls, the sequence of time and space. Space isn't only the physical world around you, but your experience in that world that defines how you feel about that space. "Architecture is about 90% psychology and 10% math," he'd say. And I believe him.
I believe him because I used to go to work with him. I literally used to tag along with my dad some days while he went to meetings, helped tie ribbons on trees that needed to be cut down and sat in his office playing darts while the onion skin paper would pile on the floor. But mostly, I adored watching him draw. Even later in life when we'd have lunch and I'd be rambling about what to do as a career, my dad would pull out a yellow legal pad of paper and make notes of points I took way too long to make and take something as abstract as my aspirations and make them into concrete images. He never told me what to do, but what he found helpful and purposeful in having a job that forces you to do something for others. If I were to say, I feel lucky. It would be an understatement.
What I can say is that I have a long list of Robert Frost quotes and poems in my head, ice-fishing jokes as well as a need to not just nest where I live, but to get out and experience some place on a daily basis that feeds me. These photos above are taken from a place I try to go daily and the sequence of these shots goes from the beginning to the point where I usually turn around and head back. To my father, these photos would be a series to show a sequence of time experience--from the start of the dirt road that is flat and rising to the view of Lolo Peak that stands over this valleyed city I currently call home.
Currently, this trail that I run, bike and sometimes just walk has taken on a new experience. I'd love to say it is because with all this rain there are more wildflowers in the meadows than ever before or the watery song of the meadow lark seems even clearer this year, but really it is the view of Lolo Peak that has shifted for me. I know it has shifted for many Missoulians. Over three weeks ago, a dear friend of ours died in a wet slide avalanche while skiing a couloir down Lolo Peak. He was a very dear friend to many. Someone whom you feel lucky to know, someone who teaches you a lot about time and space sequence in how he lived his life. Someone who never told you what to do, but asked a lot of questions. Someone who loved this world, struggled with darkness, but I'd like to say knew there was always light, somewhere.
Chris Spurgeon was a wild and beautiful man. The first time I met him was briefly at a bar. It was the first weekend I had moved to Missoula and I asked my now-husband. "Who was that?" I asked because I thought I had just seen someone suited for a 18th century French film, someone rugged and worn with refined features. Someone quiet with most likely a lot to say.
"That man," Greg said, "rides his motorcycle 200 miles to run a 50 mile trail race. Wins the race and gets back on his motorcycle and rides back to Missoula and closes Charlie B's. That man is Chris Spurgeon and he's legendary."
And he is, legendary in so many ways--in so many ways that you cannot take a picture of. Someone's spirit has yet to be photographed I believe. But we take photos of views and vistas. Mountains and childhood friends. Moments we know we cannot take hold of, really. But we try. Today, Lolo peak isn't a monument as much as I see it as a reminder. Chris was someone who took his time--I mean took time to nap, read books, took long runs, needed a lot of time alone and thought it silly to kill dandelions. Aren't they flowers too as much as weeds? And so this view, this peak that stands and will stand longer than I know any of us will be standing is more of a reminder. It's a physical and beautiful reminder of how much time it really takes to get where you want to go. To say life is a sequence of events sounds all too easy and vague, but really maybe Wallace Stevens said it the best, "Death is the mother of all beauty."
Death is not the point where you turn around or even an end as much as it might just be part of the time and space sequence my father speaks so clearly about in design. This point or destination that lies beyond us is only speculation. We just don't have any pictures of this place. We don't know what lies after meadows, mountain peaks and buildings we call home. But we get sunrises, elephants, fathers who teach us and give us immeasurable gifts and if we're lucky, friends who live their lives as John Muir and hopefully maybe too, time to revise even ourselves.
Last year, I had an art show of poetry and photographs of natural landscapes of Western Montana with my friend Kelly. Chris Spurgeon with the only one of my husband's friends to come. I recall watching Chris quietly read every poem, lean in to every photograph and really look. Really take his time. Later he walked up to me and wanted to talk. He had a lot to say about poetry. I listened. He asked for a poem from that show and I want to share it. But I want to tell you is that I have been revising the poem. I have been revising it with Chris in mind, with Chris as a reason. So often we write from images or brief moments that might not make any sense at first. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, or even years or some event to help guide meaning into the poem. Or so I hope. As Robert Frost said, " A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom." I can only hope someday to be as wise as Chris. For now, I will focus on delight. For now, I will write and revise.
Behind fences in the noon sun, they look tired
from all the work they haven't done,
left alone too long from boys who only fall
in love with women sixteen feet tall,
screened lips that flicker red. Even in Montana,
horses look silly in cities, slowing traffic down
to parade some past. A Pow Wow bridled
on a college campus. Up river, children learn to hide
without the long shadow of barns, spend nights
with the sky of parking lots instead of fruit
orchards to feed Appaloosas. The west,
harnessed by a lone billboard, preaches
the burnt word from a church's shot gun,
held in the hands of someone's twelve year old
son. But horses, even in their shoes,
find fields open to be alone. Alone to run.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Now don't get me wrong, I didn't take his words so seriously as to want to coin myself as the dead pet poet, but the idea of pets and their emotional place in our lives- the sentimental or naive to the vulnerable and human-has been a topic of much thought. And really, let's be frank about it, some pets--perhaps like the hermit crab, gerbil and snake might be the ultimate challenge to write about since they are neither cute nor cuddly. But regardless of what kind of animal we've had, pets are markers of our life's events--they are the living penciled lines on a door frame of our emotional growth. The dog that lived in our childhood home, the cat who stayed after a divorce or the pet who out lives a spouse. Perhaps pets are too poetry worthy. And maybe because they don't talk, we get to look at them and remember what we want from our past. But in poems or not, pets are the valiant and important bystanders to our human experience. Or maybe they are our personal soothsayers dressed in fur suits.
This past Sunday, my husband and I and some friends went out skiing in the Pintler Mountains. We drove on dirt roads to the base of Warren Peak, just outside of Phillipsburg, Montana and while parking our car at the trail head, a dog came running up dragging a leash attached to his collar. No tags or name known, this black and tan hound dog whom we called Beufort, we assumed was lost. Before we began our hike to ski, my husband tied Beufort to the trail head. As we started to walk away, the dog just howled. We were at least four miles into our hike when Beufort showed up, wiggling his body and only having on his tagless collar. He stayed close the entire 14 hour day. He summited. He kept up. Even when it was post holing through rotten deep snow. He seemed happy and as if he couldn't imagine being anywhere else.
When we returned to the car, we had expected some note, some sign from Beufort's owners looking for him. There was nothing. And the leash that had been used to tie Beufort to the trail head was gone. It was dusk, we were exhausted and so we put Beufort in the back of the car and headed back to Missoula--over an hour drive home.
The next day we called every Humane Society in a three county radius. While on the phone with a woman from Butte's Humane Society, she told my husband, "sounds like someone was dumpin' a dog." It had never occurred to me that Beufort might have been intentionally left. Left to be found or left for wolves? I couldn't understand either. Our local Humane Society was closed on Mondays, so Beufort stayed another day with us. A day where we had to take him everywhere, even in the car to get groceries for he just howled and howled if left alone.
On Tuesday, I took Beufort to the good people at the Missoula Humane Society and I won't lie, it was hard. I felt conflicted as if I wanted to keep Beufort but knew in our tiny house without fields for him to run, he'd be miserable. Or so I told myself. Sure, I had read Where the Red Fern Grows to know hound dogs just want to hunt or really, they just need to run. And so I left Beufort with the hopes of a home.
As I got back into the car, I placed his makeshift leash on the passenger seat and drove to work. I tried to tell myself that I wasn't being melodramatic or indulgent, as I teared up. I was still shocked that someone thought it okay to just take a dog out to the wild for mountain lions or happenstance. I cried and told myself to be grateful for being part of Beufort's happenstance.
I'm also grateful for the sentimentality I felt for this lost or left dog. I'm grateful that logic and rational thinking hasn't plagued me of emotions or moments of pure and unabashed sentimentality. As Richard Hugo stated in his essay, "Writing off the Subject" in the Triggering Town, "If you are not risking sentimentality you are not close to your inner self." And really, that's what I believe my professor was really saying is the hardest place to write from and even harder to write well. But really where else can you write from? To write from your inner self--the place that holds memory, childhood, fears--is a place that we all have in us. It is nameless and without an address in this world. I believe it is the place we must go to when we want to write not for ourselves but for the Beuforts in this world. And really at some time in our lives we are all like Beaufort, dropped into this place to run and find a home. May we all risk howling to be found.
Here's the only shot of Beufort I have from the day on the lost and found mountain. I also give you this poem that I wrote long before I lived in Montana. It is also my only pet dying poem as of yet. But really I'd like to think it is more about living and being found than getting lost and dying.
You drove me out of the dog dish
of Missoula and into the country
where we got lost in the threading
of our voices with the windows open.
Everything was open then. We talked
about the winged man in Brazil,
your cat Lulu, my dog in Michigan,
and ignored the Bitterroot River.
The dirt roads kept us from lunch.
We sat on a rock wanting to undress
each other down to the skin
we would later learn
to sink into. And when we stood
on top of the butte, I stared
at your hair, dark like a stone too heavy
to move. As a child I collected agates,
smooth and black. Tadpoles
in a desert pool. I thought I could take the darkness
out of water. Today, I sweep up hair
from my dying black lab and I cannot stop
thinking of you. I cannot stop
the cancer chasing her while she dreams
of squirrels. Dogs are smart.
Or not. Either way, they don’t look back.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
What impresses me the most with ear usage are people who can hear perfect pitch. My grandmother, Anita, could be sitting at least 50 yards away while I was practicing the piano (as quietly as I could mind you for fear of her) and yell out if I was flat or sharp. I think it was her savant trait that she was never too shy to show off, well maybe not show off as much as make sure you were aware of it. Sure enough, she'd be listening to a radio program and tell you when someone was off, correct them by humming it correctly and then go back to listening. Just like that. Correct it and move on.
I cannot say I inherited anything remotely close to Anita's skill, but I 'd like to think in the handing down of genes, I share Anita's short stature and at least her attention to sound, minus the savant category. Musically, I never really showed much promise, I think Moonlight Sonata was my peak at the piano and for the clarinet, I think that peaked in eighth grade along with my interest in playing it at all. Despite my stint as the lead singer for a band, "Beige is the Color of Love" yes, that was in the 90's where we'd play songs like "My Mother's Broken Vase" I cannot say I've ever remotely excelled in music.
Despite all these attempts, I would like to think I could get myself out of a real sonnet bind if I needed too, Italian or Shakespearean. And like having the ability to hear perfect pitch, it's a skill rarely used for anything employable other than teaching. But really, let's face it, sonnet binds are quite rare if at all real. As you might imagine, I am completely making up "sonnet binds" in order to give myself some kind of credit for something.
What I do know is I can look at pictures of the Trevi Fountain, but it is the sound of an Italian ambulance or the scent of chestnuts even people yelling over each other in Italian, water running on concrete and falling onto cobblestones at night that make me miss Rome. You have to experience the sounds of a place to gather details that have an intimate connection to memory. And smells, well, that just takes you further into the black hole of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is something I associate with sounds as much as scent. This past week my mother, who recently purchased two goats, was talking to me on the phone and in the back ground I could hear her little baby kids talking back to her. It was all it took and suddenly I could smell the acid scent of their hair, see their beady black eyes and suddenly, I was back at the goat ranch.
Like my short stint as a lead singer, I once milked goats for a short period of time. Just one summer on a ranch in Southern Oregon. The plot isn't important behind the story of why I was there as much as how much I learned about goats. From milking them, to feeding baby goats with bottles to even learning their sounds and personalities. Goats are not pets. They are people dressed in fur suits with big ears. Yes, as you might imagine it, I was fascinated with their ears and with their sounds.
I will refrain from tangents or stories about the ranch at this moment. But what I do want to share is a poem. I know it is not a sonnet, but at least it is a poem about goats, for my mother, who's listened to my endless stories and rants and would bring home stethoscopes from work so I could practice listening. Enjoy.
Growing Up with Goats
The summer I chased a ghost out in a field
of cornflower blue, I learned to milk
a goat. No machine to rely on, just hands
finally not too small. And the ghost, or boy
more suited to Steinbeck, is nothing
but a backdrop to a barn full of ears
alert to all the wind sounds of goats.
Rough purr munching chip up to sky,
a rush of waves in a full stomach
giving all they have made in a day
back to hands above a glass jar.
When empty, goats want nothing to do
with you. They don't even want to look
at you, which is when I started to think
of my mother, when I started to be grateful
for my mother who has given all she has made
back, even when I just ate and left.
Sitting alone in a barn on the Oregon coast
with night shutting down sounds. Ghosts
silenced. The goats just keep eating. Stars turn up
their lights and the milky moon smiles
back with blue eyes, like you. You, so full.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Last night's picnic is today's rain. But I'd like to think of rain as the back story of spring. Behind all the blooms of cherries and scents of lilac are gray days of pressed clouds. Without days like today, our green would not be as vibrant. Thus is true for the beet or beetroot (to hopefully broaden our audience here) who sit long under ground and then rise to be unearthed in muted tones and once roasted--bleed all over your plate and fingers. The phoenixed root vegetable.
Beta vulgaris, the common beet, has an interesting history or back story as I like to imagine it. The first recorded history found beets along the Mediterranean in Europe and Northern Africa. And like most food, it spread thanks to violence, riots and a rise in popularity during war when roads were shut and people had to eat what grew in the ground--wild in their backyard. Yes, even our cozy chestnut folks, we can give thanks to Alexander's army storing them and throwing out their shells as a trail to mark their conquests. The beet, as you might imagine, have a far less glamorous past or story.
The Romans were the first to eat the actual root. Previously, just the greens were eaten by the Greeks and used for medicinal purposes--digestive benefits mostly. Conquering Europe was just part of the Romans claim to fame really as much as it was spreading the notion that the common beet root was edible. But perhaps my favorite back story lies in a wanna be Roman, Napoleon, who opened a school directly for the study and uses of beets--mainly for its sugar. And as you might have guessed it, the Napoleonic Wars helped for beet notoriety when sugar cane was no longer being shipped to France via England, something needed to be done.
Yet some could argue that beets have another history, quieter and with even less pomp. The common beet grew in monasteries and in peasant farms all across Europe and thrived in sandy soiled Poland where is grew wild. Borscht has kept Poles and Russian warm and fed since the 14th century. Somehow I see the beet living more in the flat fields of Poland then the gardens of Babylon.
Regardless of which back story you want to believe, beets certainly leave an impression even if it is the day after--as my plate above shows. Their modest shy appearance somewhat bulbous-ugly become poppy-pretty on a plate. Please don't limit your love for beets as a mere winter vegetable roasted in a pot pie. Think winter's white is summer's bloomed red. So in honor of the Romans who weren't too proud to eat the bulbs, here's a salad maybe even Napoleon would have eaten somewhere taking a break from conquering half of Europe. Enjoy.
Roasted Beets & Orange Caprese
6 beets, washed, roasted & sliced 1/4"-thick
2 oranges, supreme
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/4"-thick
3 tablespoons fresh mint, chiffonade
Salt, to taste
Olive oil, drizzled
Balsamic Vinaigrette, drizzled
1 tablespoon orange zest
1. Wash and trim beet greens. Wrap in foil, individually, and roast in the oven at 400 for one hour.
2. Let beets cool for ten minutes, then peel and slice them. Reserve.
3. Supreme an orange is really just cutting the peel and pith with a knife and then segmenting each section.
4. Chiffonade the mint, here's to pay homage to Napoleon. Chiffonade simple means ribbons. Remove the mint leaves from stem. Lay each leaf on top of one another, roll like a cigar and then with an knife or scissors, cut into thin ribbon-like pieces.
5. Arrange on a plate: first beet slice, orange supreme, mint.
6. This also looks good as a tower, as my friend-chef Benjamin Freemole, who will soon be famous (trust me), tells me, "the higher the tower, the more expensive it will look."
7. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette and end with a garnish of orange zest.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
There seems to be few things in this world that you can title without tripping on metaphor. It might be why I like how children decide on names. For example, a friend of mine has a son who is two and named their four chickens, grandma, snake, pumpkin and river. As if all that he knew, either good or bad, could be explained in those birds--which too often as adults we don't even see as birds, but eggs, pastoral, a Sunday meal, soup stock, compost.
Most days my head wakes long before my body, but I try to sometimes remind myself to name what I see, to catalog the concrete-wood floor, robe, teeth, water and peppermint. I feel lucky currently because this naming game is easy with what I see each morning from my window--elephant, tulip and chickens. The elephant I unearthed out of the Tiber, the tulip was picked by my husband and the chickens are a strange but playful reminder of daily living. A trilogy of sorts. But here I am getting metaphorical. Let's go back to naming things and being present.
Presently, I am approaching another birthday. I tend to be, if possible, more contemplative around birthdays as if they are some personal "new year" or time for resolution and reflection. So in times like these, I do what any almost sane person would do to avoid the usual malaise of aging, I make chocolate mousse.
See, here I am being grateful for having chickens because good eggs make good mousse. Mousse interestingly enough translates as froth or foam in French and if you have fresh farm eggs, your frothed chocolate might even be French worthy. Maybe.
Thankfully, I have both chickens and a simple recipe , which only has five ingredients. Thanks to my mother via the Grand Rapid Press, I'd love to think this recipe came from some dutiful Dutch lady diligent in not just her perfectly placed blond bobbed hair, but also in making a perfectly bouffanted mousse. But what I like even more about this mousse is the fact that my mother would make this dessert at random, if she had extra egg whites or just because she wanted to use her fancy green glasses. I recall opening the fridge as a child and looking for some snack say after school on a Tuesday and there I would see five green glasses filled with a shadowy richness. I recall just staring at them and naming each glass slowly: chocolate mousse.
And maybe that's why I have wanted to make this treat, not for showmanship, but some dessert during a weekday night to pause a moment. It is another reason I love this mousse, served in a tiny bowl or glass, each person just stares and I think hopes each spoonful doesn't disappear as if naming the experience with their spoon: delicious.
This chocolate mousse is certainly birthday worthy, but I like to carry on the tradition of the modest cook, who just happens to have too many egg whites? Enjoy.
The Modest Chocolate Mousse
6 ounces chocolate (I like to use a mix of dark and semi-sweet)
3 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 eggs, separated
1. In a double boiler, melt chocolate. (Be sure to not get any boiling water into your chocolate)
2. Using a wooden spoon, stir chocolate until smooth.
3. Add cold water and blend well, then add sugar and incorporate until smooth.
4. Remove chocolate off boiling water and add vanilla. Be sure to blend well and let chocolate mixture cool slightly, about three minutes.
5. Beat in egg yolks, one at at time, into chocolate mixture. After you add each yolk, stir chocolate until smooth.
6. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites into chocolate. Be sure to do this in batches to not have any streaks of white.
7. Place in ramekins, champagne glasses or heck, even jelly jars would do in the fridge for at least two hours.
8. Serve with fresh whipped cream, fruit, mint leaves or just plain.
Yields about five to six champagne glasses
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
I used to be much more politically driven, now, I'd rather work on my garden. I'd like to think that the quiet movement of making a tiny plot and home in this world more green is a political stance. My stance is my body bent over pulling weeds and planting arugula, nasturtiums and basil. As if my flag is nothing but the leaves on my sage bush that outlasted a gray Missoula winter. My country is filled with people who consider themselves hardy perennials in a world that wants plastics and perfection. We the hardy, we the greened are imperfect in our becoming. Because that's what nature gives you, it gives you metaphors of becoming. The pear tree outside your window now in bloom will be fruit, the blue birds building a nest will bring flight and the trilliums on the forest floor are now spring's perfect white to summer's green. All become something.
But now I am getting too metaphysical, so let's turn to the poetry of Robert Frost instead. "Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold." The gold of spring forsythia cannot stay gold but will be the green of summer shade. Maybe even our political shouts of our youth will be our quiet acts of gardening as adults. Maybe most character traits you develop as a young adult, seem to just shift to some other place as you age. So my once political nature to save anything that looked cute and mammalian, has turned into a different focus. Now, I am pro-bike and I pedal.
Really, there are few things in this world that move me like libraries, post offices and public transportation. It's as if regardless of any ism a country holds at least they can all agree on these three. I cannot say our country has a grand example of public transportation systems, yet in our small town of Missoula we do have Bike, Walk, Bus Week. This week, thanks to the good people at The Way to Go Club or http://missoulainmotion.com/ we are a city that cycles, commutes and carpools, or tries to all year long.
Even as I sit here at my desk watching the cool rains of late April, I will ride my bike. I will join the democracy of bicycles and quietly pedal to work. Really, I don't do it for any political purpose as much as I do it to have some quiet before the business and noise. It gives me twenty minutes to breath and pedal to a rhythm to remind myself I am not in a box, that I am becoming something too. Viva La Bicycle!
Enjoy the poem.
I wear my seatbelt when I like myself,
my hands at ten and two like the cuckoo
clock in my kitchen which I won’t let coo
or chime since the elf hen inside started
saying shoes. I wanted to shelve it away
with the pencils or ship it to Caracas,
but clocks are endangered there.
I leave my house before the sun finds
the alarm, ride my bike to work and flirt
with cars to nudge me into curbs, alleys or dirt,
so I can start my day face first to the morning
light and ignore people moving in boxes
of metal. I turn up the wren housed in my heart
who warbles from its perch on my desk
and sings with each tick of my pencil.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
With this said, I feel shy to post a recent poem I've been working on, yet perhaps under the tall balding shadow of Bob Hicok the Michigander, I too can try to be a poetic voice for Michigan. Maybe someday, Bob and I could bring back the ever popular campaign our home state had so aptly titled, "Say Yes, to Michigan!" Frankly, I am not sure what we were suppose to be saying yes to? Say yes to the Great Lakes, sure. Say yes to Vernors, double sure. Say yes to the U.P. yup. Say yes to unemployment and shadowed Detroit, not so sure.
You see, my feelings of poetry are very similar to how I feel about Michigan. I am loyal, stubbornly loyal to writing poetry and to the state where I was born, raised and educated in. Yet I find myself not fully able to "Say Yes, to Michigan" and well to say yes to poetry, all the time. For now, in Montana with a lot of flat grass and rock between me and Michigan, I long for lakes and the light of spring in thick birch-oak forests and the smell of wet earth unfolding. But sometimes you just have to write a lot of bad poems to work at one good line of poetry just like maybe you have to live a lot of places to work at your loyalty to where you were born. As I live far from Michigan and write poems about my home, I find myself finally being able to adore the state.
I've never been one for watching sports and I truly don't understand rooting for teams on television, but it is how I feel when I hear of any positive news about Michigan. As if I am cheering from the sidelines for this state that seems to be making headlines as Hicok has said as, "the poster child for our recession." And maybe it has been, with a 24% unemployment rate and a long list of disappointments in the auto industry, Michigan could be photographed on your milk carton. But in the Michigan of my mind, it is beautiful, broad in changing landscapes and there is always water, a "water winter wonderland" ( another more poetic campaign slogan).
And so, I give you this poem, Michigan. I am sure there will be plenty more, I hope. And maybe this is just a clumsy poem to hopefully get closer to writing a good one someday. But I give this to you as a token for all the time I spent staring at your water and dreaming of myself as coming from another state, somewhere not so in the middle. But I thank you, Michigan, for teaching me to accept what we are. We are middleWest. And even if we see ourselves as walruses, may we be beautiful in our seal suits.
(Please note: there aren't any walruses in the Great Lakes. Despite the questions I used to field from tourists who would ask, "Are these shrimp fresh from Lake Michigan?" Sorry, just lakes of fresh water.)
Enjoy the poem.
The Walrus in Us
Winter houses gulp people whole
like a broad mouthed whale, curtained teeth
and chimneyed tails, beached in drifts of snow
and stale forced air. Most days, not even mail
brings relief, just pages of catalog-fresh strangers
smiling barefoot on a distant shore. You forget
your feet on sand, now slippered fins you walk
as horse whale. Your body, walrused in months
of winter, sinks in the ocean of your youth.
So you build a raft from scraps of summer,
where you want to live as winged instead
of pinniped. No longer couched to routine, you float
and crest over waves of middle age, sprouting
grey hair, until you hear a choir barking
in tune and find yourself comfortable in a seal suit
looking zoo cute, even with long whiskers.