Monday, November 22, 2010

The shortcuts you can live with

You might be chopping onions or celery, or making pie crusts or wondering how to keep this in-law from boring that distant cousin or carefully selecting apples or thinking about table linens or any of a million pre-holiday things at your house. Or you may be thinking about picking things up at Publix. Or thinking, This holiday thing is bullshit: why am I worrying about this? Or getting ready to travel, or...there are as many possibilities as there are each of us. Inspired, as so many of us are, by Ms. Moon, here are some thoughts about how it works for me, along with love and hopes that the whole holiday/family/expectations thing works out well for you, too.

Africa is the starting point this year, or more accurately, returns from Africa. Having Katie home for the holidays took on a whole new importance when she was NOT home for them last year. But as big as that was, it was unexpectedly small by comparison. If you have a child of your own you know the simple pleasure and occasional heart-bursting, breathtaking, profound JOY of homecomings. We are missing one fine son for this year's feast but welcome the other home with exactly that breathtaking joy. You may have caught glimpses of him now and then, working hard just offstage to keep embarrassing typos and subtle inaccuracies out of Eat Here Eatery. He's home. In local parlance, The Baby Is Home from Africa. We have lots to be thankful for, but nothing touches this. Nothing comes close. The fuschia-bright basket of "Christmas" cactus on our back deck sings our happiness for us and connects us to the family of my dear old person, whose mother tended the ancestor of this cactus in her own garden. Dylan is home, and his grandmother's seasonal reminder of love is in bloom.

Job One for Dylan has been helping us figure out the menu, that list of dishes upon which the success of the Thanksgiving meal depends. And that list depends greatly on a delicate equation balancing what we want for Thanksgiving dinner against the shortcuts I can find a way to live with in order to get all those things on the table for one meal. If we must have pumpkin pie, what shortcuts can I take? I could make the whole thing from scratch (too time-consuming). I could cheat with a pre-made pie crust (not as good, not as good for us but work-reducing). I could cheat with a pie made by the nice ladies at Publix (not quite as good, certainly not as good for us, but opening enough time in my day to allow something else - perhaps homemade Meyer lemon meringue pie?) So: how discriminating ARE we? Can we tell the difference? If we have homemade whipped cream, will we really notice that it's a store-bought pie? And then the whole complex formula has to be applied to the other menu items. Each has its own variables. The solution to each equation is different, and each changes from one year to the next.

This year, the equation will work out something like this. The pumpkin pie will come from Publix; the lemon meringue will be made by hand down to the smallest detail, including juice and zest from lemons grown right in our own yard. The turkey and gravy will be strictly homemade. So will the stuffing. But the yeast rolls? Frozen. I have tasted Ms. Moon's Angel Biscuits and there is NO substitute. But if expectations are adjusted, no one is expecting the Angel Biscuits. Everyone will wait in reverential anticipation until the next time we're all together, when things are less hectic and the Angel Biscuits can be made without stress or heartache. (Don't tell my family, but this probably means the next time we share the table with Ms. Moon, whose hands hold the magic, here.) The macaroni and cheese will be made from scratch, but assembled on Wednesday evening. No one will mind if the pasta is just slightly overcooked. It's worth it.

And so it goes. The shortcuts I can live with as a cook whose ego is slightly overblown in the kitchen are the ones that make some downtime possible. The downtime looks a bit like watching the reflections of blue skies and drifting clouds in the shining sand on a beach where a man, a woman and a dog walk in peace, quietly savoring the joy. The Baby is home from Africa, and there is much for which to give thanks.

This may not be the last Eat Here post of Thanksgiving week, but just in case, love and blessings and thanks to all of you. I am more thankful than I can possibly put into words for the enduring generosity of each of you. Taking time to read each post, sometimes even spending more of your valuable time to share comments, opening your hearts to me this year: all these kindnesses have wrought gentle changes for me. I'm setting a place for all of you at the table this year. You're always welcome. Eat Here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Have you eaten?

There are leftovers on the stove, as there often are at Eat Here. Tonight's are good enough to write home about, except as I'm already home, I thought I'd just write to you instead. Vegetarian friends, I love you dearly but you may want to skip this menu and its associated how-to.

The center of the plate is a variation on a recipe for Boeuf Bourguinonne. I'd always avoided this dish because it was Difficult. Julia Child said so. But I read the recipe and as usual adapted it to my own skill level and intuition, and this is more or less how I made it.

I am the very proud owner of a vintage cast iron Dutch oven, given to me by my menfolk (see how smart they are?) several years ago as a Christmas present. I considered this amazing piece of cookware carefully while opening the first bottle of the season's beaujolais nouveau. Full stop, to allow for the wine tasting. This is always an interesting taste for me because I am NOBODY's wine connoisseur. Some years I think it's a pretty good tasting wine, immature even to my decidedly undiscriminating palate. Some years I think it's too awful to drink. This year, I thought it was good. So I dove in. To the recipe, I mean, not the wine. Well, okay. To both.

I had a bit more than a pound of round steak, and 6 slices of good quality bacon. Cook the bacon to the delightful crispy but not overdone texture you know it should have, then remove it from the pan and add about 2 tablespoons of oil. Contrary to direction, I used XVOO. While the bacon is cooking, cut the round steak (or London broil or whatever cut of lean braising beef you're using) into 1-inch pieces. Dredge in flour seasoned with salt and pepper (I added some ground cayenne and dried thyme to the flour, too). After the bacon is set aside and the oil you added is hot enough, quickly brown the floured beef in batches small enough to maintain an even temperature in your pan. Set this all aside as each batch is done - it took me 3 batches to cook the 1-1/2 pounds of beef. Add about 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan. The traditional recipe seems to ask for a dozen or so small pearl onions but I didn't have any. I quartered a red onion and half a sweet onion instead.

Toss the onions into the cast iron Dutch oven (or whatever pan you're using) and cook them slowly until they're softened. Add some finely minced garlic (I used about 2 tablespoons, but I'm a bit Emeril Lagasse on this topic - use your own instincts for this). Cook for a few minutes until the garlic is nicely browning but not close to burning, which can happen pretty quickly. Deglaze the pan with red wine (this year's beaujolais nouveau isn't a bad choice at all, but you can use any red wine you wouldn't be afraid to drink, I think). From here, I added about 2 cups more of the wine and another 2 or 3 cups of beef broth. Add the beef back to the pan along with any juices that have collected. Chop the bacon into a very fine dice (or crumble it with your fingers) and add that, too. I used 2 small bay leaves, dried marjoram and dried thyme. The recipes seem to call for the fresh versions of the herbs but I didn't have them on hand and they were really expensive at Publix. Dried herbs can be our friends. I added a bit of kosher salt and some pepper but not too much on the theory that I had time to correct the seasoning later. And here again, the recipe calls for sauteed mushrooms, but since my people just pick them out I skipped this. Julia Child calls for tomato paste, but I left that out, too. Cover the cast iron pot with a tight-fitting lid and bake at about 325F for...well, for awhile.

I put a couple of sweet potatoes into the oven at the same time, having scrubbed them and poked them lightly. After all, a roasted sweet potato, as we've discussed here, is just flat good for you and needs very little help to be ready to eat. So. Easy. And I had fresh green beans so those went on the stovetop to simmer with a couple of peeled, quartered potatoes and one of the extra slices of bacon, to make the peeps happy. Seasoned with a little kosher salt and a lot of pepper, these pretty much cooked themselves. I keep a blend of basmati and brown rices on hand always, because the basmati has that lovely popcorn fragrance as it cooks and the brown rice lends a warm, slightly nutty flavor. After the meat had been cooking for about an hour, a big handful of baby carrots when into the gravy to simmer and I put the rice on to cook. Dylan finished the meal with a few rolls - they were frozen (Alexia focaccia rolls) but pretty damn good. The final plate is what you see above.

There's the heart of Eat Here Eatery, my loves: had we a real restaurant, this is what we'd have plated up for you tonight. We'd have had a vegetarian option, and perhaps a non-red-meat option, but this would have been the blue plate special, as it were. But don't worry: there are leftovers on the stove and it's early, yet.

Pre-season greetings from the MadriGalz

Have I mentioned The MadriGalz to you at all? Stop me if you've heard this. Oh. You have? Of course you've heard it. And for what's not likely to be the last time this holiday season I beg your indulgence once again so I can share our December performance schedule.

We're excited to begin the holiday season in downtown St. Augustine at At Journey's End Bed & Breakfast for the 17th Annual Holiday Bed & Breakfast Tour. (I'm including more links than usual so you can see more about the places and events for yourself.) We'll be caroling for visitors to At Journey's End from 2-5 pm on Saturday, Dec. 11.

That same evening we're honored to sing in for the second year in the comfortable dining rooms of a true local favorite, Saltwater Cowboy's, where we'll be caroling from room to room from about 5:30 until about 9:30. If you can't join us on December 12, we'll also be at Cowboy's on December 17 for the dinner hour.

Last but especially dear to our hearts, we'll be caroling twice this year at Creekside Dinery, on Sunday, December 12 and finally on Sunday, December 19, from about 5 pm until 9. If you've been to Creekside, you'll know about the delightful fire pit out on the deck overlooking the water, complete with marshmallows for toasting. And if it's too chilly for outside dining, we'll sing from room to room and bring a touch of The Season of Light right to your table. And if you haven't been to Creekside...well, come see for yourself.

If you're not separated by too many miles or other social obligations we would love to welcome you. If you are, we hope you'll be able to support live music this season in your own locale, where you probably have a talented local group performing The Messiah or The Nutcracker. Maybe it will be a group of kids singing The Dreidel Song, or perhaps something completely different but just as wonderful. From the hearts of the MadriGalz to the hearts of you, may the music and traditions of the season bring you peace.

Monday, November 15, 2010

P.S. Roasted sweet potatoes

'Tis the season: all sorts of expectations and window-dressings will be suggested or applied to one of our most perfect foods: the sweet potato. For the holiday meals, you gotta do what you gotta do (or what your mother did, or his mother did, or grandma get it)

Before (and after) the holidays, sweet potatoes are easy to cook, amazingly good for you, and about as easy to dress up as runway models, though admittedly not as glamorous on the outside. The easy part: choose 2 or 4 sweet potatoes of roughly similar size and shape. Scrub them clean and puncture in a couple of places as you would for baking potatoes. Place in a glass pie plate or baking dish or on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Oven roast until tender (usually about an hour).

While the potatoes roast, focus on toasting sliced or chopped almonds or chopped pecans. Pecans have a great flavor, but they're higher in fat. Almonds are one of those perfect foods, defying reason, nutritionally speaking. Toasting really brings out the flavor of nuts, so whether almonds, pecans or walnuts (or any other variation) you'll want to to toast them in the oven, or on the stovetop in a cast iron skillet. For the latter, use a clean skillet. Toast the nuts carefully over low heat. Nuts have lots of oil in them, which is why toasting is a good idea, but it also puts them at risk for burning so you have to watch carefully. The good news? You can use less almonds, pecans, walnuts or whatever, because toasting dramatically enhances the flavor. Toast until you have very lightly browned nuts, with much deeper flavor. Set these aside to cool.

When the potatoes are done, remove from the oven and allow to cool slowly. Meanwhile, whisk together in a small bowl 2 tablespoons of softened butter, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, ground cinnamon to taste and ground ginger to taste. When you're ready to serve (and these along with a nice green salad CAN constitute dinner) split the potatoes. Top with the butter mixture, and garnish (sort of; you're actually going to eat this garnish) with toasted nuts. Finish with a drizzle of maple syrup OR tupelo honey. And on this last touch, seriously: do not skimp. Pay the breathtaking $10 for good maple syrup at your local grocery, or the same amount for your local honey. I'm not sure you can get tupelo honey in say, France, but you have to get the local equivalent. And of course maple syrup is preferred. It's a food group of its own, almost, and is the perfect companion to those plain and prosaic sweet potatoes.

Which really won't be plain OR prosaic when you serve them. Let me know how you like them. Do you have a better way of serving them between the holidays, avoiding the de rigeur things like tiny marshamallows? I know, I know: I have to do those things, too: they're Expected. But you guys are completely UNexpected. So do share. Love, love.

Celebration, understated

When your age changes from XLVIII to XLIX, you take notice. After all, you're looking at L. You gotta take stock, think it over; reflect. Dress up, go out, have a party?

Or maybe your XLIX isn't the kind that comes with a tux or a suit, or fancy reservations. Maybe you mark the ultimate or penultimate mileposts in your own way, and I hope you do, whether or not fancy dress is involved. Here's my Dear Old Person, marking XLIX in an unforgiving 15-knot northeast wind, his face turned into the blue Atlantic. He's wrapped in layers of cotton tee shirts and fleece, carrying a rough picnic lunch courtesy of the Publix deli in his backpack. Despite the chilly wind, he's looking into the stunning blue of the sky, watching beyond the breaking waves for any sign of early-arriving whales and giving thanks without fanfare for the anniversary of November 13.

The cycle of high and low tides didn't match neatly to the warmest part of the day, but we found the mark of the most recent high tide to have left fascinating fingerprints. Where only a few days before the dunes undulated gently between the shoreline with its persistent breakers, and the higher, more permanent dunes, anchored by beach grasses and sea oats, the Great Mother showed a wholly different face on Rod's birthday. Overnight, the relentless tide carved out sharp cliffs standing in relief against the level of the ocean itself. Some of them were 4 or 5 feet tall. Some were even taller. Just out of perfect focus, any of them might have passed for images of the Grand Canyon, right down to the striations and layers of rock and sediment which in this case were likely composed of a visible layer representing each tidal passing. In this photo, the high point at the far right is about 6 feet above the breaking waves below. And those white bundles on the sand are sea foam, further illustration of the water's astonishing energy, churning each wave into beautiful clusters of bubbles, each casting itself into the windward motion, disappearing on the wind.

(A note about sea foam and Boxers, or maybe Dogs Generally, without regard to breed: our Meg finds chasing sea foam almost as satisfactory as chasing birds, which is forbidden to her. April, a foster dog much beloved of us who is now happily beloved in her Forever Family despite issues with breast cancer, had more fun chasing sea foam on the beach than I can put into words. Take your dog to the beach in a northeast wind if you can. And if you can't, curl up together and tell her stories about the beach. If you're telling stories you can even tell her about chasing birds. I'll never tell.)

The shoreline drew us onward, as it always does. We walked up to the northernmost edge of Guana's beach-facing Eastern border. At the very edge of the protected land just south of the sign marking the border we spotted several turkey buzzards; some were in flight and others seemed to be rotating in and out of a certain spot. When we got close enough, we could see what had attracted them. A mature loggerhead turtle, dead, had washed near the high tide line and was nestled against the sheared-off dune line. The shell was easily 2 feet from the back of the turtle's head to the posterior edge. How old was this turtle, we wondered? How did this turtle compare to the tiny baby hatchlings from this year, whose small bodies would fit neatly into the palm of your hand? I'm not sure, but I can tell you I'll be asking the Turtle Superhero guys for their insights; stay tuned. The edges of his shell were carefully covered by Rod to protect the body from encroachment by the buzzards - we called in the find and were hopeful someone would be able to analyze the remains for useful information.

So: how old was this beautiful old turtle? Female loggerheads begin to reproduce, I think, when they're about 15 years old. They are long-lived as a species and as ancient amphibious denizens of the planet. Perhaps this one had long passed his or her L birthday; perhaps the sighting was a kindness from the Great Mother of the ocean. Happy birthday, Rodney: thank you for helping as a steward of the planet. Take joy in every moment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Turtle Superheroes

See that guy? She (or he) is a large gopher tortoise, living la vida loca at Guana Reserve, which you know perfectly well by now to be one of our most favorite places. Saturday afternoon we went for a beach walk in what had turned into a very warm late October day. It was also, of course, Florida-Georgia football Saturday, a day when most folks here are at the game, at a party, or home in front of the TV. (It's never blacked out, of course, because not only does it sell out every year, I think somebody has to die for you to inherit tickets.)

So it was quiet at the beach, relatively speaking. There were a few surfers, scanning the horizon hopelessly, and one guy walking along the beach carrying some odd-looking radio equipment. This last guy disappeared up into the dunes, which troubled Rodney a bit: the dunes constitute a discrete, delicately fragile eco-system of their own, and are protected from humans, for the most part. Since Rodney and I were guilty of much violation of this kind of protection in our misspent youths, we're watchful now, perhaps hoping no one will remember our families spending whole weekends in the 1950s and '60s, gleefully driving through these same dunes, wreaking ecological havoc out of pure ignorance and human thoughtlessness. The guy didn't reappear on the beach. "Maybe he had to pee," I said, but I thought Rodney was making a mental note about it.

As we walked toward home around 4 in the afternoon, we spotted movement in the grass around the burrow Rodney'd identified that morning. Warmed by the sun, the large tortoise moved with surprising speed to take shelter in the cool burrow. We got some photos, but they weren't great. Still, we had the pleasure of watching her eat some wildflowers and grass, sun herself, and finally move toward home, even catching sight of flying sand as she either opened or closed her burrow entrance.

Because the tide was low in the morning, we headed back in the cool of the early Sunday for a wordless worship I find immeasurably soothing, and walked up the beach. Whatever your own religious beliefs or internal language of spirituality, there can surely be no more glorious sight than this one, or the one Nature offers you wherever you live. When we arrived, there was the gopher tortoise, her neck stretched into the bright sunshine, her body perfectly still as she warmed for her daily constitutional. Perhaps she had a vague sense of pleasure, as we did, in the lingering warmth of the autumn days. We photographed her quietly and moved on. The water is still warm enough for me to walk in the shallows, bait fish skittering out ahead of me and diamonds of light dancing on the surface. Near the northern boundary of the beach, we ran into our Sea Turtle Superhero, Scott Eastman, and a helper, who seemed to be clearing away the land markers of one of the last sea turtle nests of the year. (In case I've forgotten to mention this, the number of nests this year, for reasons that are not yet understood, are nearly TRIPLE the annual average. Have I already told you this? ;))

Scott stopped for a quick word, and I told him the location of the gopher tortoise. He's the sea turtle guy, of course, and not the land reptile guy, but he said, "There's a University of Florida biologist out here, noting the nesting locations..." and about that time, my dear old person said, "Would he be carrying radio equipment?" Scott nodded, "That's him." He's marked about 20 gopher tortoise burrow sites, and of course this explained why he'd disappeared into the dunes and not returned to the beach: He's a Turtle Superhero. As, of course, is Scott, and as are all those folks like our friend Louise and many others, who get up REALLY early, take long walks looking our for the turtles, and who take stewardship of the glorious, beautiful earth and its denizens to heart. Thanks, Scott. Thanks, Louise. Thanks, U of F Biology Guy. And thanks to the daughter of my friend Jack, who takes time to observe and notice the most prosaic details about turtles and the world around her, which is slowly settling into her hands, and those of her peers, in hopes their stewardship will far exceed our own.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wedding gift recollection, a propos of nothing

This story might almost fit into my "St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place" series (thank you, Just Eat It, for the inspiration on THAT) or into other serial recollections of mine, but it's probably at home in any "wonderful things/small towns" category. However catalogued, here's a small, bright recollection that came to me this evening in such vivid color and immediacy that I couldn't put it into words past unexpected tears. It seems like a bridge between the now-archaic and the ever-changing present, and between a generation nearly gone and one still finding its identity.

I must have blabbed to everyone in the WORLD, all those years ago, about our wedding plans. In hindsight more people than I could have imagined were breathtakingly generous and kind to us, and we didn't expect it. In fact it was one of the reasons we chose to marry in a quiet, non-traditional way (we had lived together, we had un-traditional families, we had ye olde religious differences, etc. We didn't send wedding invitations because I didn't want people to feel compelled to give gifts. What an idiot I was, and how stupid about the grace with which humans bless each other, but never mind that, for now.) Invitations or no, people knew we were getting married and were kind beyond measure. In some cases we were overwhelmed by the kindness right up front but some things matured into beauty like wines preserved a century in careful cellars.

Eileen Ronan was a someone who turned up now and then at the Booksmith, and attended Mass at the Cathedral. I knew her peripherally. I thought of her as a nice lady. I had no idea she took any interest in my getting married, especially since I wasn't being married in a traditional way at the Cathderal where I sang every week. She must have been in her late 70s when I knew her and her mind was still like the edge of a knife. By her voice and her manners, I knew to be a non-native Southerner, though my guess was she'd lived in St. Augustine for a long number of years. I had the idea she'd been married to a diplomat; she made reference to having traveled in the course of her husband's work. By the time I knew her, it was clear he'd been dead for some time. It was equally clear that she loved him no less and would love him no less as long as she drew breath.

About a month before our wedding, she left a gift for us at the Booksmith. It was a copy of Southern Sideboards, a cookbook produced by the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. The gift of a cookbook wasn't surprising, but I did work in a bookstore, and this was NOT a book that could be bought in our store; she had gone to some trouble to acquire this gift. Since then, I've bought the same book as a wedding gift, passing along the kindness and gentle magic. But brides mostly haven't had any context for the gift beyond the convention - however passe it might be - of a cookbook as a fine gift for a new bride. (And sometimes the more practical gift of a check has been an alternative.) In some cases, I have tried to include an inscription more or less capturing Mrs. Ronan's sensibilities, almost certainly without success.

Tonight my dear old person and I were in the kitchen together and I happened to pull the book into our midst. I read aloud to him, and now share with you, the words Mrs. Ronan typed - with a typewriter! - and included with her gift. The typewritten page is folded into a plan white envelope and has been kept in the cookbook these long, happy years. This is what it says.

"Dear Angie & Rodney,

I wish you all the joys of a lifelong friendship and love and I know you will have them.

I know Angie is probably a splendid cook but I could only make chocolate cake and fudge when I was married. 'No problem,' I thought -- ' I'll just get a cookbook and follow the recipes.' But the cookbook doesn't tell you all the little nuances.

And of course I had to pick out the hardest recipe-- chicken cacciatore to start with. The recipe book said "Heat the oil' and I heated it to smoking. Then it told me to put in the garlic and of course it splattered all over the kitchen and me. 'Boil the chicken.' I boiled it fast and furiously and the more I boiled it the tougher it got.

But my dear husband insisted on eating it and pronounced it 'not bad'. That's true love.

Love and prayers,

As mentioned, I found myself unable to read the words out loud without tears breaking my voice. I hope "all the little nuances" touch your heart. As I consider the thing from the distance 20 years or more can provide, Eat Here would never have come into being without Mrs. Ronan and her gift and gracious willingness to bare her limitations as a cook and her clear-eyed passion for communications. In the understated style of the time she didn't say much about her husband, but in conversation her face lit from within when she spoke of him. So does the carefully typewritten page dwell inside the pages of my battered copy of Southern Sideboards.

What are your stories of unexpected kindness and open hearts? Do tell.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The barred owls of October

Owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence in literature and history. In T.H. White's The Once and Future King, one of the young King Arthur's most influential tutors was Merlin's companion, the owl Archimedes. And we can hardly do better than to follow the path of Pooh and Piglet, whose faith in Owl's brilliance was unwavering, awed as they were by Owl's ability spell his own name: W-O-L.

Last night The Golden Hour lay around us like a soft blanket. We sat on the deck, lingering in the light, when a sudden whoosh of wings burst around us and two barred owls flew past, one landing in the trees beyond our yard, and the other landing mercilessly on a mourning dove. We watched and listened as the two owls vocalized to each other, and before the light faded completely the younger owl swept back across the trees and more or less posed for this picture. I'm able to share it with you thanks to the tireless efforts of my dear old person, who took pity on the terrible photos I've been taking with my phone and bought me a small, miraculous camera, which I must confess I have only the vaguest idea how to use. This explains the appearance of midday, despite the fact that photo was taken at sunset.

Barred owls have been with us since we moved here. Generations of owl babies have doubtless been fed on hapless doves and frogs and snakes hunted and caught in our grass. Years ago, when my dear person worked at night, he actually recorded the bizarre sound he heard in one midnight lunch hour; neither of us had any idea what could possibly make such a sound, but it was clearly in the treetop canopy and clearly bore no resemblance to the "Who? Whooo? Who cooks for you?" owl voices we knew. Now we know firsthand what our National Geographic Complete Birds tells us: this familiar sound is sometimes preceded by "an ascending, agitated barking". The "barking" was the sound Rod recorded. In the years between then and now, the sound has become familiar to our family as we've watched - and heard - those generations of owls.

In the silence left by the departed barred owl family, we grilled brats and roasted potatoes on the grill. This isn't exactly how I made them last night, but this is my latest idea about October roasted potatoes. I'm trying it this weekend, so stay tuned for opinions, but this - a variation on my usual theme - is my plan.

Wash and peel one large white baking potato and one large sweet potato; cut into cubes. Whisk together olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, mustard and maple syrup with the herbs you prefer. (I know. I wish I COULD give you measurements, but I just can't. It's just not how I cook, except when baking or candy-making. I ordered them so that you can see decreasing proportions of each, because you know what happens if you introduce too much of something, like maple syrup, which will tend to burn as sugar does...well, you know how to cook. I trust you. Do it by trial-end-error. Cooking is messy.) Toss the olive oil mixture and potatoes together and place in cast iron skillet. Cook over indirect heat on your gas grill for an hour or until the potatoes are done. (You could also put the potatoes on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven for an hour or so. I prefer the grill because I always prefer cast iron.)

Let me know if you try it, or if you roast potatoes, or what you're eating as fall wraps its arms around us all.

One final note: I cannot say much about this due to the secrecy considerations of the holiday season, but I CAN tell you that my order arrived this week from UltraCuteCrochet. If you haven't looked at her stuff, do it now. If you need presents for loved ones in cold climes, or warm climes if your loved ones, like my dear old person, tend to be cold no matter the temperature. I've ordered from Erin more than once and always been thrilled with the quality of work, the speed of delivery and the amazing joy of a handcrafted, customized work of wearable art. Check it out for yourself.

Eat Here Eatery Disclaimer: Every writer knows the challenge inherent in proofing one's own work. In my case, since The Baby Went to Africa, I have no proofreader. All mistakes are my own. Until he gets back, of course.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A wedding in waiting

We walked on the beach in the late afternoon today at our beautiful and oft-mentioned Guana. Because of the new moon, the low tide was VERY low, which gave us a beautiful wide white beach with long stretches of the red shell coquina where the ancient fossilized shark teeth hide. And clearly there was a human interest story brewing, as we could see chairs being set up for an evening wedding on the beach.

We walked around the preparations, but I thought about a reminder from Jayne yesterday: it is a new moon. Time for planting, time for putting embryonic concepts up for The Universe's consideration, time for petitioning God or the gods or the Godesss, depending on your own language for these concepts, your personal spiritual vernacular. Time for asking a blessing, as it were. It seemed a perfect time for a wedding to me. I remembered our own wedding: my dear old person illuminated by the pearl of the moon's fullness. We were not married on a new moon but on a luminous moon, as Jayne and Pablo recall very well. Has this blessed us in a different way? Have we been in the business of harvesting for our whole married life? In some ways it seems we have. Never mind: I considered the new moon and this couple, whoever they might be, and watched from a distance as folding chairs were set up so that their families and loved ones could have some comfort in the face of mother ocean, taking their part in the exchanging of vows.

We walked on, and suddenly Rodney pointed out at the water. Following the line of his arm I could see movement in the water. Puzzled, we closed the distance between ourselves to consult: had we seen a shark? Porpoises? A school of big fish, chased by predators? Something launched out of the water and rolled, falling backward, something BIG. A hundred yards to the north something else jumped from the water. For a few minutes it reminded me of the old days at Marineland, when porpoises danced on their tails and jumped through rings and did passable imitations of Flipper, who was On Television. There were porpoises dancing through the water in pods of three or four or more, sometimes visible together in groups in the breaking waves, like surfers sharing the tube. It was gorgeous, close to magic. We walked on, talking now and then of this and that, both of us thinking, perhaps, of the coming wedding.

This time of year is so breathtaking here in northeast Florida that you can be doubly frustrated by Things That Make Being Outside Uncomfortable. Mosquitos, for instance: we can be wrapped in the joy of the beautiful golden hour under our live oaks, and then be forced to say, "Yep, that's it. We're going in," because the mosquitos are suddenly out and we don't feel like spraying ourselves top to toe. A similar feeling comes to us this time of year at the beach, as the universe shifts and the sun's placement is different, and the shadows lengthen and darken on the sand. Glances are exchanged. The glances say, Yep, that's it.
So we head off the beach, grateful for the day, hopeful for the wedding party, whoever they may be, happy to welcome the weekend, the weather, the time together.

We cross the boardwalk, casting glances backward at the beach. It's so beautiful, people. If you've never been, this is the time of year to come down and walk along the beach with us. If you live here but you haven't been to this stunning beach in years, go. Go this weekend. If you go all the time, if you're one of the people we wave at every weekend...well, I love you, but I'm not talking to you. So we walk across and look backward, and there's the welcome for the wedding couple.

Leticia & Dale: whoever you are, may the New Moon bless you, may our Great Mother Ocean welcome you, may God look down on you from His heaven and kiss you with blessings. For our part, the writers, contributors and readers at Eat Here send you Love and Light, and a reminder that "the philosophy is kindness"* is a pretty good way to start a long life together. Mazel tov!

*This is from my most favorite recent quote from the Dalai Lama. If you need the entire reference let me know.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The MadriGalz: A Short History

If I'm to make an honest start I have to tell you that's a lie: there is either no short version of the MadriGalz, or (and this is much more likely) I'm constitutionally incapable of telling a short story. Oh, and there's shameless self-promotion. The MagriGalz made a CD and we'd love for you to buy it. But either way, get a glass of wine and settle in. It's a good story, although in fairness, most of you probably know it already.

The photo at the top was taken looking from one end of the Cafe Alcazar to the other end, where (the teeny tiny black figures of) the MadriGalz (Judy - short; Lis - tall and elegant; me - bossy and probably laughing) usually stand when we sing our Christmas carols at a certain time of year when we perform at the Alcazar. If you don't know the history of the buiding, it was an elegant, luxurious vacation destination if you were in the John D. Rockefeller set in about the 1880s. This room was the swimming pool. It had (and has) three stories of a view, and the space occupied in this shot by our friends and family was filled with water. The Cafe Alcazar sits in what was the deep end of the pool all those years ago. If you visit you can feel the coquina/tabby floor sloping away under your feet and it's easy to hear the echoing voices of another century. My dear old person has a million shots of the space but it's late and I can't find them, so you'll have to trust me. Also lining the walls along what would have been the floor of the pool are several charming antique shops, where you can find precious jewels, paintings, linens and other delicious antiquities; I've sometimes done all my holiday shopping right then and there.

If you fast forward to about 2005, and up to the present day, you find a simple a capella trio, marking the holidays with close-sung harmonies. Funny, because we crossed paths again and again and again, and St. Augustine being what it is, we eventually found each other. I've told you pieces of this story before, but here's the backbone of it.

Sometime in the late 70s I was sneaked into The Tradewinds (the bar that shared a wall with The Booksmith) to hear Gamble Rogers and by some accident of booking or timing or whatever, the band on stage was Rose Tattoo. Lis was the singer, and I was lost. My dream? To meet her, to know her, to be her friend, to - dare I write it? - sing with her. It didn't happen like that, although I did move on the outskirts of her social circle, but we didn't begin a friendship. Not then, at least. Years slid past.

A few years later I began a long connection with the music ministry at the Cathedral of St. Augustine, and met Judy. Far from my own notice, Sister Patricia had a careful eye on Judy. Nothing happened with the speed of fairy tale magic, but eventually I found out some key things about Judy - and so did SPE, who might have been talent searching like Major League baseball scout. Judy was smart; she could read music (I'd been faking the ability for years!) and her vocal range gradually revealed itself. She played an instrument and not just ANY instrument; she played the oboe, which is one of the most difficult voices in the orchestra. And vocally, though this wasn't recognized at the time, there was very little she could NOT do: I think it took SPE some length of time to realize that Judy had a vocal range apporaching 5 octaves. She didn't have absolute pitch, as it's sometimes called, but her ear for harmonies was pitch-perfect. We studied together and separately with our much-loved Sister Patricia, and there was no moment spent in Judy's company during which I thought myself worthy to be called anything but a HOPELESS DORK, with (oh by the way) NO talent. Judy never sought the spotlight (if anything, the very opposite) but she could be in the light and if you were with her, your vocal performance was a no-brainer.

More YEARS went by, years in which my path crossed the paths of both Lis and Judy intermittently. Judy and I sang in different configurations of vocal groups, some brightened by people like Joan Taylor (whose voice is positively golden and unchanged by teaching) and Tracy Webb (whose voice transcends golden and has the unspeakable grace of making every other voice singing with her sound, simply, more beautiful). And St. Augustine being what it is, Judy and I also found ourselves in a madrigal ensemble Sister Patricia cooked up, called The Madrigal Singers. This group of about a dozen voices was often hired out during the holidays and the proceeds donated to the Music Ministry. I became one of 3 or 4 altos, wearing a costume kindly made for me by others, and loved it. Maybe because I cannot remember a time, even in earliest childhood, in which I couldn't hear 3- or 4- part harmonies in my head, I felt as if I'd come to the finishing school of my dreams. I did not dare tell this to SPE, though I did tell it to Judy after some years, and I'm sure I told it to Lis as well.

At some point, Judy and I were singing Christmas carols with Lori Pellicer, whose voice was like silver windchimes. She was married to Judy's brother, and a conflict loomed: Jonny and Lori were the principals of a venerated local performance group oriented to country and bluegrass music, The Red River Band. The pull of that slice of family performance won out. And Tracy moved away. Another alto we loved to sing with Theresa, also relocated with her family, And so it was just me and Judy, and we let it sit for some quiet years, made noisy by other things. We worked at our day jobs. We raised kids.

My job took me into contact with Lis. (Are you kidding? It's her? But I've always loved her!) I kept all my starstruck hysteria under wraps as long as I could but eventually the day came and we talked about it, and Lis actually wanted to sing Christmas carols and hymns and would be THRILLED to sing with Judy and me (neither of whom she could possibly have known at all) and somehow we were all sitting around the table at Lis's house in St. Augustine, talking about music, listening to music, trying out harmonies, putting voice to voice as though we were fabrics needing matching...and there was no looking back.

Some dear friends opened the door to the Cafe Acalzar, a delightful restaurant to which we were all connected in one way or another. The Alcazar is that small, delectable bistro in the deep end of the pool and thanks to physics and the tastes of the Flaglers and Rockefellers, it creates an astonishing environment for live music. This was what we wanted to take into the MadriGalz CD. And our dear Buttercups of "you don't have to pay me right this minute but those clams gonna sure come in handy" (Lon, Rocky, Rick - you guys know who you are, and how much we still owe you) helped us make this recording into a reality. Let us be the first to say that the recording is full of live-performance flaws and sloppiness we could have polished out. If you listen closely, you'll hear them. But while we sometimes did more than one take, there is no correction of pitch, no pretence: if you'd been with us at Gatorbone Studios at that magic recording session, you'd hear the same thing on the CD that you'd have heard with headphones on, listening. You'd hear three singers who trust each other enormously, working to match for pitch and blend. You'd hear one recording engineer and producer (Lon Williamson) resisting any temptation to guide the MadriGalz into a sound not true to themselves. The only thing you'll miss if you listen to this CD is constant giggling (I know; it's shocking) and the profound gratitude the artists have for the people who made it possible.

So it's early for the holidays, as we all say every year at about this time. But maybe this year you'll be listening to this recording, and maybe it will help brighten the flame of the joy with which you honor the Miracle of Light, Christmas, or the return of the sun to bless our crops. Or maybe you'll be with us at a performance: you can call Creekside Dinery for a reservation, since we know we'll be singing there in December. Maybe you'll be singing with us at a house party or concert thi year. Most of all, we hope you'll be celebrating your old and cherished connections to one another during the coming holiday season, as the MadriGalz do every year.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Breakfast with chickadees

It's time to eat here at Eat Here, where I haven't fed you breakfast in a long while. Like all the cooking I've done lately, it's a balancing act wherein I try not to change the fundamentals of favorite dishes while avoiding my natural inclination to cook for 25. Not that cooking for 25 is a problem, of course, when your house is full of gigantic teenagers who are able to eat with superhuman dedication. But when they go away to pursue their own adventures, efforts must be made to cook for, well, you know, 5 or 6. My dear old person and I are still working this out, and I must admit that recently our dinner plans have been along the lines of, "How do you feel about an egg sandwich?", or "Cheese toast, dear?"

This morning has filled the Spanish moss with golden light and lit the resurrection ferns and the busy birds with bright halos like saints or sacred icons. And so: breakfast. Fresh locally made orange juice, perfectly scrambled eggs, crisp, pointed slices of starfruit and potato pancakes. It's not a breakfast you can get in most restaurants, though of course it's always on the menu at Eat Here. The part you have to make yourself is the potato pancakes.

Start with a cup or so of leftover mashed potatoes. Add one egg, some finely minced onion and, if you like, some equally finely minced garlic. Put in about a quarter cup of flour and whisk the whole thing together with a fork; season with a little salt and bless the whole thing with a few dashes of hot sauce (Texas Pete is the house version). Whisk once more. Using a teaspoon, drop onto your frying surface. For me this is a very well-seasoned cast iron skillet heated to medium high with a bit of olive oil. When the pancaked are nicely browned, turn once and brown the other side. Set on a cake rack, if you have one, while you cook the rest.

Take your plate and that big glass of orange juice out on the back porch, and eat quietly while the chickadees whistle around you and the blue, blue sky peeps out between the waving live oaks, moved by a freshening breeze with the tiniest suggestion of fall. It's always wonderful to have you with us at Eat Here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, Opus 3

This was my grandmother's china. To my knowledge, my grandmother never saw St. Augustine, but her china came to live here and the story is in some ways quintessentially St. Augustinian. Connections, connections...

In the year of our marriage, I worked at the Booksmith (of blessed memory). We had an honored regular customer (the sort of person we thought of as a sort of Friend of the Store) named Marilyn, a smart, funny woman who valued fine writing and good books, and was an active patron of the arts community in St. Augustine. She'd been widowed fairly recently, though her husband had been an invalid for some years and I had the impression she'd been much younger than he was. I also had the impression that whether through his means or her own she lived comfortably after he died, as though money wasn't something she worried about. That seemed luxurious to me but I didn't give it much thought. Marilyn wasn't the kind of person to make you think about distinctions of class or money: she was warm and open and unafraid, with a ready laugh, rich enough to pull you into its circle. She was drawn, physically, on generous lines and dressed in bold, vivid colors, set against the brightest lipsticks. I liked her on sight and never changed my mind.

The summer of our wedding drew on toward the September date. We were an untraditional wedding couple in many ways. We were both long gone forth from the homes of our parents, and we'd lived together for several years. Neither of us had living mothers to create the framework (or hysteria) of some weddings. So our wedding, as I have mentioned here, was planned and executed by our own ingenuity and the breathtaking generosity of our families and friends. We were registered nowhere; there was no list of desired small appliances, no selected patterns of silver or china. In any case the only china I wanted was the simple pattern of my childhood - the cheery pink roses of my grandmother's Franciscanware. But my grandmother was gone and I had no connection with my father, and in any case, there were bigger fish to fry. My friend Tracey was making my dress; my aunt would make the lovely wedding cake. Rodney's brother would pay for the beer, and his oldest childhood friend furnish the limo. You know all this; I've told you the tale before. And it was pretty much all I talked about, as brides do, and there on the corner of Charlotte Street and Cathedral Place, I talked about it with all the Booksmith regulars. They listened, told their own wedding stories, wished us well, and bought their books.

In northeast Florida August steamed its way toward what I'd hoped would be a cooler late September. On one of those August afternoons, a stately burgundy-colored Cadillac passed through our neighborhood, the dust of the dirt road settling lightly on the polished paint of the car. It circled by once, and then approached again slowly, the driver clearly trying to locate a specific address in those days before GPS systems and in-car navigation. Suddenly it was in our driveway, and to my complete astonishment, Marilyn was getting out. And she was unloading packages, waving off my bewilderment: just dropping these off for you, dear, I know you're getting married, estate sale, great bargain, couldn't pass it up, wedding and all...

"But, but, wait," I babbled, "how did you know? How did you find our house? How..."

"Oh, you mentioned something about the china pattern, you know, and Diana gave me directions. It was such a great deal, I could hardly pass it up, and after all, you ARE getting married, and I hope you'll be VERY happy..." and in a cloud of dust and kindness she was gone. I stood in the doorway, looking around me at plates and platters and teacups, all bearing the small pink roses and green leaves of my grandmother's every day dishes. Here they were. Here they were, found, bought and delivered to me out of nothing more than kindness. It would have been lovely to have the actual dishes from Grandmother's cupboards. But I wasn't sure it wasn't somehow even more wonderful to have these pieces, conjured out of kindness.

After the wedding we spent a week in western North Carolina, where Rodney's Uncle Sam had what the family charmingly called a "cabin". (It was actually a modest but comfortable A-frame house, equipped with every amenity right down to a dishwasher.) On one of the days of that week, we drove over to east Tennessee to visit my Aunt Beverly, my father's sister. Like my father, Aunt Bev-o is gentle and sweet by nature and Rodney and I spent several lovely hours with her. And when we drove back to Crossnore, we carried a couple of boxes of Franciscanware across the mountains with us. Aunt Bev-o had been saving Grandmother's dishes and she gifted them to us. Close examination reveals the hand of my beloved little cousin, Aunt Bev-o's daughter, in the making of this arrangement. The beautiful pieces Marilyn had given me were united with the ones that had been taken for granted in Grandmother's kitchen. They've been in daily use ever since, but the story doesn't end there.

Fast forward about 10 years, and I am on a long, driving business trip with a colleague and friend, Miss Inga. With miles to cover and a long-standing easiness between us, we talk the hours away with gossip and jokes and confidences. I ask her about how she came to live in St. Augustine, her marriage to a respected local musician, her family, all in very general terms. She tells me that she came to St. Augustine because her beloved father owned a condo here. (He is a story all on his own, but not my tale to tell.) When Miss Inga was extricating herself from a bad marriage, and dealing with her father's death more or less at the same time, she came to St. Augustine and lived in the condo. She felt comfortable here. She'd visited before and in fact had a treasured friend here, a woman who'd been a friend of Miss Inga's father for many years, going back into Miss Inga's childhood. A woman who had been almost a mother-figure to Miss Inga, herself. A woman named Marilyn.

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, huh? Everything comes round again on itself. Does this happen where you live?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What the eye don't see

There's an old Southern expression that runs along the lines of, "What the eye don't see, the heart don't need to grieve after," or words to that effect. It means that if you don't know about it, you needn't worry about it too much, and it dances through my mind now and then. You may know it. If you have ever taken a piece of otherwise perfectly lovely cheese out of your fridge, found and removed a spot of mold and then sliced and served the rest of it without a word to your family, it may seem a familiar refrain to you. The old Southern form of the words may be new, but they fit the melody.

But then there's what the eye DO see.

Tonight I have no photo for you with this post because I have the negative image in mind, which is all about what the eye does see, and how impossible it is for me to capture it as an image. The weather has cleared after several days of gloomy rain and begins to promise cool evenings and the dazzling bright blue skies of October. Tomorrow is likely to be gorgeous. Tonight the blue black velvet sky is rolled out like and endless furl of antique French silk ribbon, winking with tiny, perfect diamonds that shimmer across the great expanse. Above our little house, those diamonds wink and glitter coquettishly through the yards of Spanish moss, now visible, now gone, tempting and just beyond reach: impossible to photograph. But, oh, the eye can see them, my loves. The eye can see them with a perfection that no words can approach.

I hope your sky is clear and inky black and glitters with distant suns, however far from home or closely nestled under your eaves you may be. Good night, my dears.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Counting by candelight

It's probably fair to say that most of your friends will not celebrate their wedding anniversaries with a trip to an exhibit of invertebrate fossils. (Yes, we are still celebrating.) An even smaller subset are likely to have made this trip without considering that the museum housing that exhibit is located in the middle of the University of Florida campus, in Gainesville, on a home game Saturday afternoon. This is SEC FOOTBALL, baby. What were we thinking? I know. I know. But this photo was its own reward. And then the ride home, from Gainesville to St. Augustine, happens to pass by the front door (practically) of Gatorbone Studios.

We could probably have gone home. There were lazy dogs, waiting for their supper. There was certainly laundry to do and things to clean, the beach to walk or any number of favorite places for eating out. Hell, there was even the Gator game on TV. But we went to Gatorbone Studios (having called ahead, of course) and positively basked in the Golden Hour of beloved friends. There were martinis. There was wisdom and laughter, music to remember for a lifetime and a hanky or two might have come in handy. There was a lovely dinner, a dessert of mangoes and fresh raspberry sauce over vanilla ice cream. And there was a LOT of talk about gratitude. We talked about some other much-loved friends and their wisdom, about the beauty of the elders and youngsters of the tribe and the bewilderment of we who are in between. After all, Lon said, "Isn't that what the tribe is for?"

It surely is. And, though Rod has laughed and said anniversaries are like birthdays for me (meaning they generally last a week or so, at least; you will have noted I said we were still celebrating) there surely was no better way to mark the occasion, to count the precious years, for us. I do promise to move along to a new topic, but for tonight: Thank you, dear and treasured friends.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Simple gifts

The sea turtle nesting season is nearly over and most of the nests located in the northern section of Guana have already hatched. The babies who are going to survive have probably already made their treacherous trip from nest to water, past the challenge of the breaking surf and into the arms of the ocean. This little guy was perfectly still, and had flowing green algae like a mermaid's hair growing from his shell. Rod and I, celebrating our wedding anniversary with a visit to one of our most beloved places, were thinking in unison as the long-married do and said over each other, "He's not dead!" when his tiny eyes opened. I called the Guana folks: Best thing is probably to put him back in the water, the nice woman said, and that she would call the turtle guy to let him know. I walked back to the breakers to stand watch with Rod, for of course we'd already put him in the water. The small turtle paddled frantically, every now and then raising his nose for a breath, and resuming the paddling. But the incoming tide was fueled by the power of the waxing moon, nearly full: an astronomical tide. He would not make his way past the breaking waves. We did all we could to help, knowing the odds weren't in his favor. I can't remember the ratio but I think it's something like one baby sea turtle in a thousand survives. Helping one in a small way was in keeping with the occasion for us.

So: the occasion. We were married* 22 years ago, standing alongside the St. Johns River, and the moon was full then, too, and perfectly gorgeous. Sometime I'll tell you the story of our wedding, my loves, for it was made magic by the people who loved us and were kindest to us. We had lived together for three years before we married and had only one active birth parent between us so there was no talk of the groom's family paying for this, or the bride's for that; we did things ourselves and had them done for us at the price of simple love, no more. I will tell you the story, but until then it'll tide you over to know that David Hackney played and Miss Jo sang, "Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come 'round where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in that place just right we will be in the valley of love and delight", and that is the heart of that story.

This year we honored the memories, walking and talking about our blessings, our children, our families, our friends. And we talked about the people we know who've been married as long as we have. Among our closest friends are several who've been married longer; Pablo, who shot the video at our wedding, is among them. Funny thing: on that ancient (giant!) VHS tape are captured many details of sight and sound, laughter and singing, stories and gifts and blessings, including an alligator gently swimming upriver past the wedding guests, virtually unnoticed by anyone but Pablo, and a shot of the moon reflecting on the wide sparkle of the St. Johns that may be a treatise on videographic terminal punctuation.

If we widen the circle by a generation, we find a couple who have been married longer than I've been alive. Gracious, simple, lovely people, they have spent more than 60 years seeing after one another, and in some way or another, seeing after every life they touch. They are older now, and things get harder but it seems to me their reward comes to them every day. They are together, their children and extended family love them, and they are (though I'm not sure they know this) venerated elders of the tribe. They have lived through the good and the bad, and if you've been married for a time, you know what I mean. Or if you don't, this is what I mean: When you are married to a person, no matter how much you love them, there are days when you want to shove them off the planet into deep space and I mean DEEP space. Where there is NO OXYGEN. Or something like that. If your marriage survives those times, you are likely brave, strong, devoted, tempered with humor and you are absolutely purely lucky. Sometimes it doesn't survive; it can't survive: the odds are surely not in its favor. But if it does, what a gift it is.

I was gossiping once with a friend over some rumored or true infidelity on the part of a mutual acquaintance. The details of the gossip are fuzzy but her commentary is as vivid a memory as any I have. She shook her head, genuinely puzzled. "I don't know," she said, "I don't get it. I guess I'm just a very married person." She was. She still is. She has in play all those pieces I mentioned as well as tenacity and patience, and undeniably, that good luck. But the blessing of a long marriage has been passed down to her from the likes of the 60-year-married couple I mentioned. I do hope those blessings pass from them to me to you, whatever your road, however long- or short-married you are, or were or will be. Perhaps the secret ingredient, the most magical thing I've not been able to put into words, is in the words of the Dalai Lama, who said, "This is my simple Religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart, is the temple; the philosophy is kindness."

*I use the term "marriage" for the convenience of a commonly-understood concept, but without intent to exclude anyone. I assume each and every definition of marriage to be valid according to the beliefs and customs by which you abide. And I believe that when two people love each other they should be able to marry if they choose. Period.

P.S. Dylan, it is very difficult for me to proof my work without you. I miss you and love you very much. The good news? You are too far away to prevent me writing about you. MuWAhahahah! Stay tuned.

Monday, September 20, 2010

In memoriam: September 21, 2009

I may be one of the most blessed of women when my blessings are counted in sisters. If you read here now and then, you probably know this already; you know that through pure good fortune and kindness my adult life has been to sisters what Willie Wonka's place is to candy. There are marvels everywhere.

By birth I am gifted with three half-sisters, all younger; two daughters of my mother, and one of my father. As an adult I have cordial but distant, intermittent connections to the daughters of my mother; sadly no more contact than one ancient, bitter letter from the daughter of my father. There's much archaeology of family here to be sifted and considered but mostly it comes down to this: we have no shared memories. Because of circumstances, we were thrown together and pulled apart like celestial objects with unpredictable orbits throughout most of our childhoods. The result is we don't understand each other very well. My extended family, however, gave me Daisy, a cousin near my own age, who began by brightening some of the long, sweet days of summers when we were young and who has been as close and connected in my thoughts these last years as she has been faraway in miles and lifetimes.

You probably know someone a little like Daisy; you may have your own sister of family or choosing who is as dear to you. She's very brainy, to begin with, and funny, and as open with her heart as a songbird with his morning love song. This is no real stretch for there's a good bit of the songbird in Daisy; it is one of the gifts of our family that most of us have music in us, as we have breathing. She is an empath by nature: that person everyone wants to tell everything to, partly for her lack of judgement, partly for her understanding and unpretentious humor and perhaps most of all, for that feeling of finding yourself and your confidences to be the most important thing in the world to her as she listens to you. But lest I paint a silly picture of some sainted being with wings and halo...well, Daisy is as human as everybody. She has issues with her own natal family, professional challenges and road-forks, she has fallen into and out of love, or thought herself in love only to find she'd married someone she hadn't really chosen for herself. In other words, Daisy is special and marvelous and prosaic and not that different from anyone else.

Last August I was caught up in the familial melodrama of Pop's death. It was a blessing, releasing him as it did from the sadness of Alzheimers and all that meant for him and the whole family. Bitterness was rekindled for me, as he had lived that long, long life, the final 15 years or so lost to the tangle of the disease. A few short years before he died, my dear old friend O'Hare had been lost to breast cancer. She was 45 years old, her youngest son only 5 years old when she died. Pop had to be buried and the sad chores of probate undertaken, and I'd been out of touch with Daisy for some while. This worried me not at all, for with Daisy I have the shared memories that knit us together for always. We would talk at the holidays, I thought, and went back to the work at hand. But it turns out that Daisy spent last August tangled in her own love and grief.

Lily had been a presence in Daisy's life for some years. They lived in a city large enough for all the amenities, but small enough for people in smaller circles to know one another. Not unlike St. Augustine, which you'll know from reading here, it's a city where, for instance, most of the people singing classical music attend one or another church or synagogue because regardless of their commitment to a given dogma, the best music directors can often be found there. And there are other smaller circles, as there are everywhere. Daisy knew Lily peripherally. They had common friends, knew of one another, finally were introduced casually at a dinner. In its aftermath, Daisy seems to recall nothing but Lily. Laughing, talking, laughing more: it seems to have been one of those moments in which, in movies, all the other characters and sounds fade to distance so that there are only the two people, falling in love. People talked, Daisy says: people looked at other people, after the dinner, and said, "What about Lily and Daisy? They barely spoke to anyone else..."

No surprises, so far: Daisy wrote in one of her brief-but-always-remembered birthday greetings of her dear friend Lily, and then later that Lily had had a recurrence of breast cancer, and later still that while Lily was sick, Daisy was helping care for her, and was herself content. No surprises, but of course, I missed it. I missed all the small mentions and the clues until after the fact. I missed that Lily was Daisy's Person. Here was the love Daisy had waited for. Here was the love we all wait for, the love some of us are actually fortunate enough to find in our lifetimes. To my dear cousin, one of the dearest sisters of my heart, my little much-loved Daisy, Love had come.

Fast forward, Spring 2010: Daisy came to Florida on business and we met for a drink and a talk; just a few hours to share between flights, but so much to say, to cover and no longer the talk of children or teenages beseet by angst or the serious intellectual talk of students. Now the hearts we opened to each other were those of grownups. Professional lives, aging parents - Rodney's father, her mother, and our common aunts and uncles, kids growing up - my near-grown sons, her growing nephews- her music, mine, our common friends and then at last: Lily. Daisy, whose empathetic nature always brought an open, affectionate expression; whose clear-headed professionalism would bring the same openness lit with bright intelligence, always warm but seldom sentimental or even demonstrative, suddenly looked up with eyes brimming and a tight expression as she struggled for control. "My dear friend," she said, her voice full as she spoke of Lily; her dear friend. Lily died. September 21, 2009. "Time," Daisy said, with quiet finality. "Time is all that really matters."

Daisy recalled Lily softly for me. Lily was one of those people everyone wants to be around, she said, one of those people everyone wants as a friend, one of those people others find themselves honored to serve. Her native generosity came back to her many times over, and as she confronted the accelerated process of dying, was surrounded by people willing to help with the burdens. They were perhaps people whose grief took a practical turn, or who loved Lily differently. Daisy surely found her way to offer Lily every comfort, but there was also this: she was frozen in a grief so profound it may have taken even her by surprise. It was difficult, so unspeakably, terribly difficult to consider life without Lily. And yet Lily herself whispered, "You know this will be fast, don't you?, and you know I want it to be fast, yes?" Daisy could only nod and agree. And it went quickly, and one year ago, Lily was gone.

I have used an image of The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt, for obvious reasons, and also because it dovetails in history with the writings of Rainier Maria Rilke. As I was driving in the car Sunday, listening to public radio, I heard a brief piece of an interview with a woman whose expertise is Rilke. I'd been thinking about Daisy and Lily as the date approached, and I kept hearing the echo of Daisy's voice, saying, Time is all that matters. Time is all there is.

And then I heard the words of Rilke, and thought I could not possibly write words of my own that would more more beautifully capture the sense of what I wanted to say here, how I wanted to remember Lily, how I wanted to honor the very human holiness of Daisy's love. And so I finish, with love to both of them and to all of you who have loved and grieved, lost and found:

"Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?"
-Rainier Maria Rilke (12.4.1875 - 12.29.1926)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The return of The Golden Hour

The worst of the 90s (er, temps, not nostalia for) may be over for this year. For the first time since, I don't know, May? - we felt the golden hour spill over the treetops at about 85 degrees. Perhaps, I thought wistfully, we've put the 90s behind us for this year.

Rodney and I walked back to the creek with the dogs. They have absolutely no appreciation for curling silver wisps of Spanish moss, nor bright small branches of resurrection fern, nor glimpses of sky as blue as precious turquoise. But they like the clear air, the lightening of humidity; perhaps they sense my projection of hopeful anticipation of autumn. And certainly they like the view of the creek, shown here with a glimpse of rope swing (for those of you like Friend of the Blog Suldog, who share a fondness for ziplines and rope swings). And of course like most dogs, ours find the allure of mud irresistible. Dogs. Sheesh.

We carried cameras in the potential service of our own irresistible artistic needs. We took photos. And yet...these are such delicate hints of coming change, such finely drawn foreshadowing of the inevitable turning of the year they're virtually impossible to capture in images. How can I photograph the nearly imperceptible movement of the sun, the ever-so-slight moderation in temperature and the almost immeasurable decrease in humidity? The shine of the golden sun, descending through air more clear than that of June or July; the freshening color of the sky, suddenly showing true azure, veritable robin's egg blue, and oh, my dears, the cautious, hopeful longing for the changes of fall: I am far from gifted enough to catch these in images, though I see them well enough, and often tell my family that if I'd a choice of an artistic gift I would call for Edward Hopper's. If I had this, perhaps it would be in my two hands to capture the light, the change: the hope.

But it comes along, despite my ineptitude. The fall will come, The Baby will leave for Africa, the brilliance of fall will bloom in the persistent purple thunbergia Miss Inga gave me so many years ago. It will bloom in the pale pink trumpet flowers transplanted from Katie's garden. The wedelia brought from Jayne's garden will recede under the changing conditions. And the familiar will turn and turn until we can once again see the sun returning through our own carefully constructed versions of Stonehenge. And however inept I feel, I will continue to take the pictures, continue to share them here, continue to hope you take your own pleasure in the changing of the seasons and the immutability of our old world.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Together: 25 years of holidays

The first Christmas my dear old person and I shared was marked by the gift of a Christmas ornament given to us by my friend Pat. Despite her worries about the viability of the relationship, or whether it was really the best thing for me, or any other concerns she may have had, she gave us a sweet oval-shaped ornmanent into which was inscribed, "First Christmas Together - 1985". It's graced our Christmas tree every year from that to this. I mention it because 2010 will mark our 25th Christmas together. Imagine that.

Northeast Florida is still usually hot and sweaty this time of year; this year is no exception. Nevertheless, it's about the time of year I begin to think about the holidays. I look forward to them for several reasons, cooler weather by no means the least of them. We approach the holiday season here with meteorological fits and starts. There are stretches of days without respite from summer: hot, muggy, trying - with the feeling that a hurricane might be brewing, might still happen. There are breathtaking days of brilliant blue skies and fresh, cool air to make you think of mountains and leaves and temperate climes in general. And those days, those cool days and actually chilly evenings, make me think of putting Santa on the roof. Yes, yes, I KNOW how tacky it is. But I have the fat plastic Santa and every year the boys replace the bulb inside it and perch it on the roof, and every year I have a quiet smile when I get home from work in those early-darkening evenings and can see Santa glowing gently on our roof...silly, I know, but there it is.

Regardless of the various perspectives of my friends, guided by religion or instinct, the coming winter solstice sustains care and anticipation. Simply put, the light returns. After the winter solstice the days ever-so-gradually begin to grow longer and the earth is coaxed once more into fertility by the returning sun. For our friends who are Jews, the miraculous light is remembered: despite the impossible, the light is not extinguished. For our friends who are Christians, the light comes to the word in the form of a saviour born. And regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, our lives are measured according to the rhythms of the natural world. In darkest winter the promise of spring is conceived, and this is subtly visible in the lengthening days and the retreat of darkness.

There's so much to look forward to: kids coming home, gifts as small as oranges in the toes of stockings (or Christmas crackers - see Mac wearing the paper crown from his last year?) and as large as unexpected kindnesses, impossible to put into works but vast as the Atlantic, friends gathering, great food, warm hugs, MadriGalz craziness...did I mention Santa on the roof?

There are profound lessons to be put into practice. For me, one of these is the challenge of accepting "More blessed to give than to receive", which was completely undone by our experience of Pop and Alzheimers. The truth, we learned, is that it is much EASIER to give than to receive. To be open to and receive kindness, one must fully embrace humility; this is far more easy to say than to do practically and is a beautiful lesson for the holiday season. I may not always be able to put the perfect gift under the tree for my sons. I may have to sit back quietly and accept the timely perfection of their gifts to me and their father, whether these are presents wrapped with bows or nothing more sentimental than their very presence. And blah, blah, blah: no matter what, there will be turkey or ham and I'll have the joy of the cooking, the very fine joy of making things like rich gravy, sweet potatoes and eggnog pies. Really. Sometimes there are unexpected food pleasures like making potato latkes one Christmas, when the First Night of Hannukah was around December 21 or 22, and one mother we knew was hospitalized in grave condition...but this is another story, my loves.

For this evening, I only wanted to tell you that I hear the music of autumn in the air, or at least the thing we call autumn in the deepest south. And this takes me to the holidays in my heart, where All of Us Together is the true music of my heart. For now I'm walking in our woods, looking for promising cedar boughs and branches that will be heavy with red berries. One of the dogs will walk with me, patiently watching for snakes and reminding me with glances that we are a bit too early. But we'll be ready. As the berries turn red and the fragrances of pine and cedar meet the air, we'll be ready.

And for dinner...

...grilled chicken, a grated potato pancake made on the grill in a cast iron skillet (I'll tell you how to make it one of these days, my loves) and salad topped with garden-fresh-and-I-mean-never-seen-the-inside-of-a-refrigerator tomatoes, fresh honeydew and watermelon. You can just drizzle balsamic vinegar right over the tomatoes and melon, or you can make it fancy. Like this.

Put about 3 or 4 tablespoons of brown sugar in a nice big glass measuring cup, and drizzle the sugar with good quality balsamic vinegar until the sugar is absorbed. Let this sit while the vinegar and sugar fall in love with each other, get married, and begin to waltz toward a large family. This will take about 30 minutes. Add about 1/4 cup of reduced-fat (trust me) sour cream and whisk together. Drizzle THIS over the fruit on your salad (or use as a dip with a fruit tray). For a true salad dressing, use more balsamic vinegar and explore other flavor options. As culinary blank canvases go, it's respectable.

Love, love, my dears.

The Booksmith and September 11

This is Guana State Park, St. Augustine, Florida, on September 11, 2010, forming the blue-washed backdrop of my reflections.

One fine morning many years ago, I was scheduled to open The Booksmith, the small independent bookstore of beloved memory in St. Augustine. Though more than 20 years have passed I remember it quite clearly. It was the day we were scheduled to place Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses on the shelves for sale. Shop owner and dear friend Diana was out of town, but I remember a serious, thoughtful phone conversation in which we worried together about the possibilities. Threats had been made on Rushdie's life and on the lives of those who dared to sell the book. I was surprised to find that I was actually afraid, a little, though St. Augustine's Muslim population at that time was certainly very small, and no less peaceful than anyone else. Diana left the decision to me: if I didn't feel secure enough, I should just go home and not open that day. She'd call me later to check in.

As I hung the sign out, the very same sign I'd been hanging up the day Peter Bogdanovich shouted at me to get off the street, I looked around at the quiet Plaza and down the street toward the Bridge of Lions and the outline of Anastasia Island, then up the street toward St. George Street and Flagler College. I remember the feeling, if not the actual physical gesture, of shrugging my shoulders. How could I not open the store? How could allow I myself to be scared enough to even consider not selling books? Why had I been foolish enough to allow the threats of bullies to make me hesitate?

None of this, of course, was viewed through the lens of the events of September 11, 2001. And certainly none of us had yet considered the position of a lunatic who would, 9 years after that, threaten to burn a sacred book in order to make some sort of deranged statement. But how much distance can there be between a Muslim religious leader declaring Rushdie's book forbidden and invoking the threat of violence against its author and those who might put the book into the hands of prospective readers, and a Christian religious leader threatening to burn copies the Qur'an?

Before the book burning was called off late this week, I heard several callers to a discussion on public radio suggest the idea of purchasing copies of the Qur'an in protest. I stand with these people. While I have no more genuine interest in curling up with the Qur'an than I do with the Bible as relaxing reading in the next few months, it's high time for me to read The Satanic Verses. I'm no religious scholar, but no one knows better than I do that reading lies at the heart of education, and I believe education lies at the heart of tolerance and compassion. Christian or Muslim, Jew, pagan, atheist: surely tolerance and compassion are the real lessons in which we should be schooling ourselves in the wake that dreadful day in 2001. Read the Qur'an, read the Bible, read War and Peace, read anything you like But read on, everybody.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dragonfly memories

Dragonflies stalk the beaches of Guana in elegantly deadly pursuit of mosquitos and possibly the beginning or end of their reproductive cycles, which are, I think, much more closely tied to their life cycles than we may imagine. Today this one was caught in a fatal tangle of waves and sand. I lifted it up with care, awed by the brilliant turquoise color of its body and the beautiful bright green of its head - colors that had spilled across my lap only last night as I worked on a warm woolen scarf for Dylan. I was able to capture the electrifying colors of its body, perhaps less so the shimmering bronze and copper-bright wings that moved delicately in the wind, in a photo: one brief moment of memory, and then it was gone.

But memory: I've been thinking about that. We talk about it often, my dear old person and I, for the obvious reason that we've lived through Alzheimer's with Pop, where the erosion of memory is the raw and never-healing edge of encroaching disease. We talk about it because pain management is a balancing act of pharmacology and surrender, resistance and retreat; memory is a wild card. In Alzheimer's, the most common memory loss is short-term. According to our dear friend David, a clinical psychologist whose illustrative description helped us envision the thing, memory loss in Alzheimer's typically happens from the outside, in. Imagine the brain is an apple: those memories you created 5 minutes ago, or yesterday, are the skin of the fruit. Memories created 5 or 10 years ago are the apple's flesh. And the things you learned before you can remember learning them (washing your face, going to the bathroom on your own, combing your hair): these are the seeds at the center of the apple. They are closely held and the last things to leave you.

What if you don't have a dementia in which memory is lost? Is your memory perfect? What DO you remember, after all? I cannot remember a time, reaching back past those snapshot recollections I have from being 2 or 3 years old, in which I could not hear musical harmonies in my mind. I could hear harmonies before I knew what to call them, how to label them, that they even had names. In memory I have always heard thirds and fifths against melodies. Melodies, in my memory, always seem to be of secondary interest; it was always harmonies I loved most. So: I do not remember the time before I heard music in dimensions.

Rodney doesn't remember a time when he did not know what the ocean was. He was born close by, he was taken to the beach as a tiny baby and the scent, the breath, the warmth and rhythm of the ocean are part of his heartbeat. (Like many who were not born on at the coast, I have a crystalline recollection of seeing the ocean for the first time: I was 7 years old and it was life-changing.) Dylan doesn't remember a childhood without Sheba, our dear old nanny-Boxer. He was 2 or so when we got her, but his childhood memories are shadowed by her presence. Mac, of course, doesn't remember a time without Dylan. He was 20 months old when Dylan was born, but in his recollections, Dylan has always been there.

Still, memory is a weird thing. It is as though a virtual video recoder is running all the time, for all of us. Our brains purr along, capturing everything, storing it all up for future retrieval. This seems self-evident; how else would we be able to call up memories of electrifying accuracy? How else would things we might in all honestly prefer to forget push themselves to high-definition recollection, front and center? And why does the film seem to break, now and then, so that review of our memories shows not a smooth, frame-by-frame view, but rather a halting clunky series of images like disjointed still images? Trauma? I was 11 when my mother died, and when I look back on those memories some of them stream along like film strips; some move with the jerky awkward flow of single images strung together. I can see clearly the scene in the darkness of evening in which my stepfather woke me to tell me she was dead. With an ache that has lasted these many years, I recall her funeral, despite being given a solid dose of paregoric to stop me vomiting that morning. I remember who gave me the medicine; I recall the glass from which I drank it. But there is so much more I have lost, or forgotten, or cannot bear to let myself recall.

Are our brains and their attendant memories and images wrinkled and changed forever by trauma, and perhaps compromised in their abilities to reliably deliver memories in their wake? Do the carefully recorded movies, those high frame-rate recordings, degrade under trauma so that the recording consists only of stop-motion still images with a different kind of power?

What do you remember, my loves, and what have you forgotten?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The face of the Sacred

Endlessly delightful: flowers that bravely square themselves off, resolutely point themselves toward scorching sun and withering salt, and bloom with such equanimity you might think them at home in an English garden. These are the faces of delicate white morning glories, looking into the overcast skies of the southern Atlantic this morning. They are a fit metaphor for a person facing chronic pain armed with a good combination of stoicism and pharmacology, though the metaphor breaks down as the person walks determinedly into the northeast wind. His is not to simply survive, as morning glories must; his is to set aside pain and keep walking, keep walking, keep walking. His is to find joy at every turn, as often as he can.

Have you ever been in a hospital on some occasion of pain or worry or fear or uncertainty? If you have, you may also have found yourself in the L&D "baby gallery", looking at tiny miracles brought to life by people you don't even know, moved to a smile or perhaps that tightness behind your eyes where tears dwell. For here is hope. Here is the future. This morning is not so different, as you dear, patient readers have heard from me so often this summer; it is not so different here this year, as turtles nest in breathtaking numbers. There is no glass-walled nursery into which we can peer for comfort, but hope prevails: here is the future.

My old teacher (she of honored memory in this blog, Sister Patricia Eileen) used to remind us that the face of Christ is to be seen in every person we meet. The "Christ" part is a matter of spiritual or theological nomenclature, in my opinion: one might refer to the face of the Buddha, the face of the Goddess, the face of the Great the end it all means the same thing, which is that we look into that which is Sacred when we look into the faces of our sisters and brothers. This is not always easy. It is seldom uncomplicated. But it's there. My dear old person shows me the face of that which is holy every day, and some days I am actually able to see it.

For today, it was enough to walk along the beach, taking note of the still-increasing numbers of sea turtle nests (we saw N 143 today), watching the clouds rolling out of the dark sky to the northeast, grateful for the glimpses of that which is Sacred in the sea, the wind and the small cold drops of rain that found our faces now and then.

At home, a meal came together.
If you have a gas grill here's how to make nice tender baby back ribs. (If you're a serious cook, or heaven forbid, a serious Grill Cook, you can skip this part as it will only make you laugh.) Unless you have lots of time to slow-cook ribs, this always works. Season them with salt and pepper and cook in a slow oven over a pan of water. If you have a nice gas grill you can use like an oven, do it there. Tonight I put two racks of ribs on the grill with no direct heat, cooking over a pan of water. After about 2 hours, perhaps less, put the ribs over direct heat to finish them with a nice crisping. If you have a sauce everyone agrees on, you can baste the ribs with it throughout the cooking process and certainly at the end of the process. If not, finish the ribs in individual servings to taste.

We made mashed potates in the usual way. Dylan is a master of this art, but he asked me to consult when he was nearly done: they tasted flat to him; I tasted and agreed. I tossed in a half teaspoon of kosher salt, a dash of good old Texas Pete and a big tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese. Dylan whipped them up and we all agreed that mashed potato-ness really can be next to godliness. We have tasted it for ourselves.

A simple salad finished things off, fresh garden greens, toasted almonds or pecans, golden raisins and virtually no salad dressing. The fridge died earlier this week and was beautifully and sadly cleaned out. Beloved jars of things like tahini dressing and the dregs of pickled okra were among the victims. Still, it managed to be, as one Friend of the Blog would say, "Fit to eat". And so we are grateful, my dears.