Thursday, June 24, 2010

Eat Here refresher course with a side of potato salad

Kind veteran readers, forgive me the re-telling of this old tale (or skip over it completely, if you like). New readers, this is by way of explaining why a blog so often centered on beaches, whales, turtles nesting and changing tidelines takes its name from something that might be culinary, or perhaps a pretentious literary device. Either way, it's why Eat Here is called Eat Here.

There are restaurants in the mythology of our town and our circle, real and imagined, really good and really ordinary. There are the legendary: Malaga Street Depot and its offspring and cousins, including The Zanzibar and Gypsy Cab Company, and even The Cafe Alcazar. Each is its own intriguing story. The Depot and the Zanzibar really are the stuff of legend. Gypsy has its lengendary status, but also dwells in the present day; you can go there are check it for yourself. The Alcazar straddles the line a bit for me, but you can, I hear, go there, too.

And there was a local blue collar lunch joint years ago called Helen's Eatery, which eventually became Stephanie's. When it was Helen's, someone had painted "Eat here" above the "Helen's Eatery" on the sign. This mild silliness was a quiet family joke long after Helen's was forgotten and Stephanie ran the place. She served breakfast and lunch, and I had a vague fantasy of taking over the place for the evenings, maybe just on weekends, and serving a limited menu of real, simple, honest food; the kinds of things people would cook themselves if they had time. I'm a good cook in that sense. In our family shorthand, we called it Eat Here, and when I cooked something that was well-liked, Mac or Dylan or Rodney would say, This should be on the Eat Here menu.

To my endless delight, thanks to the wonder of the blog and the mixed community of reality and imagination it makes possible, they ARE on the Eat Here menu today. Things like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, fried chicken with cream gravy, the marvelous cream biscuits adapted from a James Beard recipe, and Dylan's beloved macaroni and cheese are on the menu. Some have even been lovingly adapted, as in the case of the mac and cheese, elevated to a matter of culinary interest by dear Lorie with the addition of fresh spinach and mushrooms. If you want the recipe to something on the Eat Here menu and can't find it, just email me.

I have a summer pasta salad recipe, but I'd like to hear yours. With the abundance of summer yours probably changes, as mine does, depending on the yield of the garden or the farmer's market. But you probably have a favorite and I'd love to know about it. Another favorite with us is potato salad, and the standard is one commonly credited to Elvis. (No, not that Elvis; Rodney's brother married a woman named Elvis. I'd guess her to be in her mid-60s, and she was born in the Memphis area. Apparently it was a fairly common name, bestowed without consideration of gender.) This recipe made appearances at family gatherings regardless of time of year, but it evokes summer for us, matching well with anything off the grill. It's shown in the photo with burgers, sliced onions and the green foundation of a salad, yet unmade.

Peel (or scrub) and chop about 8 mid-sized potatoes. Red potatoes are fine, especially if you prefer them unpeeled, but thin-skinned new white potatoes are ideal for their texture when boiled. Boil these in salted water (I use about a teaspoon of kosher salt) until they're fork-tender but not overcooked. Meanwhile, boil some eggs. Because hard-boiled eggs are nice to have on hand, I usually cook about 6 at a time, though you only need 2 for this recipe.

I learned this trick along the way for boiling eggs: put them into an appropriate-sized pot, cover with cold water, bring the water to boiling and let the eggs cook for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot with a lid, and let the eggs stand for 20 minutes or so. Perfectly boiled eggs every time. Oh, one more thing: very fresh eggs are very difficult to peel after you boil them in my experience.

While the eggs and potatoes are cooking, finely chop about 1/4 cup each of white or sweet onion, celery and kosher dill pickle. Chop 2 hard-boiled eggs to about the same dice when cool enough to handle. Drain the potatoes and while they're still warm, add the chopped eggs, onion, celery and pickle. Salt and pepper to taste, using a light hand.

Mix together about a cup of fresh homemade or very high quality mayonnaise, 2-3 Tablespoons of mustard, and about 1/4 cup of juice from the kosher dill pickle jar. Blend this together lightly with a fork, pour over the potato salad and toss. Taste and correct for salt if needed, again using a light hand. Sprinkle the top with sweet Hungarian paprika and ground cayenne pepper. Cover tightly and refrigerate for half an hour or so. The goal isn't to chill the salad, really, but to allow the flavors to marry. When you taste it after this half hour's rest, you'll be able to do one final correction for seasoning. Serve immediately, or chill to serve later.

Chopped green onions can be used instead of the white or sweet onions. This changes the flavor, but adds interest and color. Fresh, finely diced garlic also adds interest. Rodney's favorite variation is the addition of finely diced crisp bacon; not good for you, of course, but sort of the ultimate kiss of the Southern kitchen. Finally if you prefer to avoid mayonnaise or simply don't like it, you can use 1/2 - 3/4 cup of olive oil, whisking in the mustard and pickle juice as you might to emulsify a salad dressing.

Art, my loves, and just a touch of science: such are the best summer salads, and such is so much else in life. Drizzle that watermelon with a touch of balsamic vinegar, and pass the bowl this way.

"Deep", by Elisabeth Williamson: a view from another window

When something is precious to you, it's possible to lose your perspective on it. This makes the thing no less precious, of course, but you may not be sure whether its value is apparent to others. The view from your own window may be absolutely invisible to others, even if they're looking out the same window.

This blog is a precious act of love for me, for instance. Had I no commentary from others, I'd have no way to know whether it had value to anyone else. I'm fortunate in that some of you, my dears, are kind enough to write, to encourage, to question. I've even gotten phone calls: "I read your blog last night and had to call and tell you..." It's an interesting mix in this metier, because some of you are friends I see often and have loved for years, while others are connected only through the virtual atmosphere we share. Either way, I am comforted to know there are people listening, and people who take pleasure in my voice.

This is true when I sing. All the years with Judy and Tracy and Jo, all those years of love and learning with SPE...each moment is a memory to be savored, for there are few things as profoundly physical and joyful as singing close harmonies with your whole heart.
The MadriGals, as most of you know, is a simple source of practically giddy joy. What could be more fun than singing Christmas carols with trusted best friends of many years' standing, right into the ears of more trusted and beloved friends? It's more fun than I can begin to tell you. And you know this: you've been reading here about Sister Patricia (and that story's just BEGUN, my loves) and Miss Judy and Miss Tracy and Miss Jo, and in the incarnation of the MadriGals, Miss Lis.

So, Miss Lis. Since I was sneaking into the Trade Winds to hear Gamble Rogers, I've been listening to Lis sing. I remember telling Sister about her, about that voice, about the bluegrass, such a departure from the classical vocal technique she was teaching me. She said, "You will learn something from absolutely every musical experience. Listen! Sing! Learn!" And at varying distances over the years, I have listened and learned, even been blessed to sing with, and mostly LOVED Lis, and her music in all its settings and arrangments. If you read Ms. Moon's blog, you probably already have a sense of the marvel of Lis and Lon, and all their delicious, humble, irresistible orbit. And if you read either of our blogs you've been gently and affectionately harangued into listening to "Deep", a collection of original songs Lis wrote and finally released on New Year's Eve in the form of what the ears of love can only call a beautiful and breathtaking CD. We all loved it. More than half the people who read this blog can tell you that they watched it born, if only present for a split-second of the labor. The songs would appear gently in the regular appearances of The Driftwoods at Creekside Dinery, and you might think, "That's a pretty...wait a minute. What IS that?", only to find it was a new song Lis had written.

Until Creekside hosted an unforgettable CD release party, we dressed up and celebrated New Year's Eve on a true blue moon with a thousand of the people we loved best (Ms. and Mr. Moon came all the way from Lloyd, and countless others, countless miles) and we LOVED it. Ms. Moon has written eloquently of it, many of you have heard it, I hope you are downloading it now. My photos were all blurred and teary, though I did catch one especially demonstrative of the love and open arms with which Lis generally greets life, loved ones and the universe. Forgive, if you will, the terrible quality and look into the heart of it. Perhaps it will help you see how well and truly Darius has captured that heart in his review of Deep.

So now: the view from the window of Oliver di Place. An objective look, thoughtful and interestingly insightful. Are you reading Darius yet? Are you downloading the CD yet?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nest 51

Turtle season is in full swing at Guana. I did make an ill-advised promise not to bore the readers of Eat Here with this detail, and am still avoiding writing about The Spill. I can't help myself, though: this week, we noted a nest labeled "N 51". It was there Tuesday of this week, when we went to the beach as we always do for peace and comfort. It had not been there Sunday.

Judging by the tracks, we surmised the female turtle had made the long, slow, danger-frought trek Monday night during the high tide. By the time of our visit the tide had fallen way out, and the evidence of her determined incursion to the very beach, perhaps, of her own birth could be seen a long way out. I was standing at the low tide line when I took this. It's a phone camera so the quality isn't great, but you get the idea; if you look closely you can see the nest, marked that very morning by the Turtle Patrol. It's a long way from where I was standing. When I got close enough I could see a spot where it looked like she might have rested. "Oh, surely she did," Rodney said, "If you've ever seen a turtle walk up from the water and dig her nest...they look like the need to rest." And this raised another topic, one from the history we share as members of families and communities where conservation and the protection of natural resources were notions seldom considered, and when they were the tone ranged from humor to skepticism to outright sarcasm. Here's a photo found in Rodney's family archives (read: shoebox) taken in 1968 of a just-laid clutch of eggs in a turtle nest. You can't see it in this faded old second-generation photo, but they are definitely speckled, perhaps even leatherback turtle eggs. He remembers clearly seeing, more than once, turtles coming up onto the beach in the South Ponte Vedra/North Vilano area, and recalls the casual indifference of his parents and their friends as the parties carried on into the night, while the turtles fulfilled their destiny, unchanged by millennia.
Fast-forwarding to the current century (this week), this photo show the imprints of the turtle's flippers on the sand and coquina, marking her deliberate progress. I hope she laid a hundred eggs that night, and I hope those eggs beat the odds. I know I've written about it already. I know I promised not to be boring on the topic, and most of all, I know I vowed not to write about The Spill, and I won't, directly, mostly because the thought weighs too heavily for my heart to bear without wild unbounded grief: an outward and visible sign, as may resonate with you if you went to Catholic school as a kid, of our inward and spiritual positive and absolute heartbreak. But I can give you the turtles, people. I can tell you that this week saw the marking of Nest 51. Here it is, finally, right where you can walk to beach and see it yourself (with apologies to my far-away friends and readers). Rodney and I are told that the Guana Turtle patrol has marked one leatherback nest so far, and more loggerhead nests than I have numbers for. Say your best and most honest prayers to the Great Mother or God or Yahweh or the Great Spirit, or to whatever language frames and constitutes the Holiest of Holies when you lay down your head at night. Pray for the tiny, brand new and ancient beings dwelling in the small shells, nestled in the warm white sand, cradled in Nest 51, wrapped in the summer solstice.

Eat Here offers its sincere thanks to Jake, Linda, John, Scott and all the other people - employees and volunteers - who keep Guana safe for all manner of wild things, including unhatched baby turtles and people.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Birthdays are for cake, and sometimes for home

Father's Day and Dylan's birthday sometimes coincide, which can be a good thing if they're both fans of whatever kind of cake Dylan's picked that year. As I've doubtless mentioned, Eat Here is proud of its homey, comforting culinary style, which sometimes reaches new heights when cakes are baked. (Regrettably we don't make the same sorts of guarantees about the outward beauty of our cakes, for We Are Not Lis, and Don't We Know It.) But they are damned good to eat. This one is the famed Chcolate Buttermilk cake of Susan Purdy, the Second Goddess of Cakes at Eat Here, with Lis reigning unchallenged as First. You can - and should - get yourself a copy of A Piece of Cake, and I can tell you in less formal terms how to make this one, if you like. Suffice it for now to say that it doesn't come out of a box, has a touch of nutmeg and is the all-time favorite at-home chocolate cake at Eat Here.

Kisses are favored by both honorees also, in this case the birthday kiss being featured, but best friends who live most of the year in Africa and spend the rest of the year working so much you seldom see them any more frequently when they're home, do not have their kisses taken lightly. And the bestower of kisses could only be Katie, of course. This was before we settled down to the requested dinner. In our family it has long been the prerogative of the birthday person to choose the menu and the cake. By process of repetition I've learned to predict with pretty reliable accuracy what each of them will request. Mac usually asks for That Chicken (or as Suldog fondly recalls it, "Thai Chicken". Rodney always wants something that results in milk gravy over mashed potatoes. Dylan tends to change up the game a bit, but I'm never surprised when he wants tilapia a la meuniere, as he did this year, and neither is anyone else.

Consider, then: his menu.
Shot in too-little light with a camera phone, you can only glimpse its glory, but trust me: there is the tilapia with it beautifully browned, delicate crust and simple topping of browned butter. There are cheese grits, not the quick ones you do on the stove in 5 minutes and throw cheese on, but the ones you finish slowly in the oven (or truthfully: the crock pot) with carefully grated cheese, Teaxs Pete and a beaten egg, simmered for a couple of hours and topped with bright beautiful cayenne pepper. There are roasted potatoes because in their hearts my menfolk have a yearning for something with ketchup on it at just about every meal. And there was a decadent salad. Katie put fresh cilantro in and chopped fresh avocado, plums, mango and apricots and the most lovely goat cheese I've ever tasted, one that had a kiss of honey elevating it to mysticism. And of course, we put Tahini Dressing over the whole thing, though we had a backup plan in the form of a bottle of Annie's Goddess dressing which would have done nicely in a pinch. And those are gardenias off to the side, sweetening the savory scent of the room with their magic.

As the evening spun out like threads of gold, with laughter, friends, food and finally candles and cake, here is the ham we didn't eat, but which we enjoyed quite as much. I'd brought my exquisite Mon Amie Ribbonerie hat to show Katie. Looking as perfectly gorgeous as ever, it became a stage prop to the Dylan's Birthday Gents of the Back Deck Vaudeville Review.*

And at last, the best present of all, and the least expected: a brief visit from the only older blood brother with whom he has always marked the passing of time. Perhaps I will take my sentimental self into the kitchen tonight and make them stand still to be marked again, though they are both taller than their dad or me. Passing 6 feet, passing 6 feet and 2, maybe this year touching on 6 feet and 3 or so. No matter. I will sleep well tonight. As Ms. Moon reminds us, seldom do we sleep so well as when those babies, grown to men (or women) sleep in their childhood beds, Winkin and Blinkin and Nod. Love, everyone.

*Photo credits
Last photo but one, from left: Rodney, Luke, Dylan and Evan (all but Rodney products of the St. Johns County Center for the Arts at Murray Middle School and St. Augustine High School, with MANY THANKS to Mrs. Nance and Mr. Dodd!!)

Hat available from Mon Amie Ribbonerie (Remember, these are handmade and therefore no two are alike!)

Last photo, from left: Mac, A Gargoyle, played by Meg, and Dylan
Photos mostly taken by Angie
P.S. I think because I started drafting this last night it carries the 6/20 date. For the record, I'm actually publishing on 6/21, accounting for the belated note in Mac's appearance today.

Father's Day, birthday: simple graces

Here is my person, my dear old love. We have been married since 1988 and together since 1985, which adds up, astonishingly, to 25 years. Imagine that. Long relationships can be their own reward; such is this one. It's not always easy; it's not always perfect, but it is always its own blessing.

We have two very tall sons, of whom we are very proud, and a long history of dog children, often including fostered Boxers. This a kind of charitable work I couldn't do without Rodney's support and more: he is often the most important factor in changing a dog's life. Some dogs don't take much notice. Others are changed forever, and given the best days of their lives in the too-brief time they spend with us. Here's how Meg feels about it.

Some days are fine enough for a walk and a swing, some are by necessity quiet and subdued, passed in reading, old movies, resting. Each, we remind ourselves, is a gift; each is unique to itself, and creates a memory for us.

We spend days together walking on the beach, worrying about our kids, playing with our dogs, indulging our shared sporting obsessions, laughing with each other, finishing sentences and anticipating phrases for one another, figuring out how to get through things together. Some days the chronic pain of neuropathy makes this harder than others, but we manage to laugh and to cling to each other for strength and courage, each believing that the other is the brave one, the other is the strong one. Some days are bright, some are overcast but this is true in every long relationship and ours is typical in this way.

On this particular Father's Day, we will bake a cake and cook a special dinner for our Dylan, who celebrates his 19th birthday today. Mac will call, Katie will come to celebrate with us. And I'll post some pictures. Because the simple graces are the sweetest in life, and should be shared.
Dylan: Happy Birthday, sweet boy. We love you so.

Rodney: Happy Father's Day, dear old love. I love you now and always, and am grateful every day to have found you, and to share my life with you, still laughing, and still crazy, after all these years.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Time to make the lasagne

Here's one of Rodney's sago palms, lover of the sun that it is, opening its bizarre flower. It's amazing to watch. The leaves open as beautiful, nearly perfect circles, more or less once a year. When these luxuriant green rings are open and the flowers spread themselves into our view, the hurricane season is upon us and anything could happen.

The days are long and hot now, as we settle into the deep heart of summer. REALLY hot. The temperatures are running in the upper 90s. Factor in the humidity and we're touching 105 most days. It's too hot to put anything in the oven, but people are still hungry. My workaround involves the grill. And we haven't had any food at Eat Here for awhile lately. It's been all sea turtles or beaches or figs. So: time to think of friends coming to visit (maybe Katie? maybe Sunday?) Time to set the table. Time to make the lasagne.

We do a lot of grilling. Mostly we grill the same things everyone else does: hot dogs, burgers, veggies, chicken. But we're lucky to have one of those ridiculously large gas grills. This piece of hardware has allowed me to test the outer limits of The Grill: what can you do? what can you NOT do? Beyond the limits of the classic barbecued and grilled standards another possibility beckoned after we got the grill and it didn't take me too long to learn how to turn the back porch into a semblance of a summer kitchen. I've used the grill for everything from ham to pineapple upside-down cake; because you can control the temperature pretty reliably it's easy to do. If you don't have this luxury you can still make the dish in your oven.

This recipe is in no small part the result of a revolutionary idea from my friend Sue: You Don't Have to Cook the Pasta First. (Thanks, Sue!) Begin with a tomato sauce you love, whether it's homemade or from a jar. If you need a recipe for sauce, there's a fine one in the Moosewood cookbook, and I'll tell you how I make mine at the end of the recipe. I start with a vegetarian sauce for its versatility and because it lets the other flavors shine through. Because my family people aren't vegetarians I also usually make meatballs, but that's a recipe for another evening, my dears. Short version: start with a tomato sauce* you love, and plan to have plenty of it on hand. This is the secret to not pre-cooking the pasta: you gotta have moisture from the sauce.

In addition to your excellent sauce, prep the veggies you want to include. I usually use things like squash, zucchini and broccoli, usually chop into something like a small dice, and usually steam them to bright colors of yellow and green. But use whatever you have in the abundance of your own garden. If you don't have a garden this year (and I don't) use whatever you like or have on hand. This is one of those dishes made for gathering around. The contents aren't as important as the company.

The cheese mixture is another crucial component. I use an 8-ounce container of low-fat ricotta, about a cup of grated mozzarella, and a quarter-cup of Parmesan. Mix this together in a bowl with 1 or 2 eggs (if they're small I use 2); season with salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg. I also include finely chopped fresh parsley, about a quarter of a cup, but that's optional.

Cover the bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking dish with sauce and add a layer of noodles. Add a layer of cheese and the veggies you have ready; top with sauce. Repeat this until the pan is full, then cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake. (Aluminum foil tip: spray the downward-facing side with Pam or something like it. This will allow the foil to release without sticking.)

To do this on the grill I preheat with all the burners on, looking for a steady temp of about 350 degrees. When the whole thing is assembled I turn off the burner directly under the pan, turn the others on low, close the lid and monitor closely, letting the indirect burners create even heat, as in an oven. It takes about an hour and a half to cook through, but that timing is variable and depends on your own grill or oven. Either way, about 15 minutes before I think it's done I take the foil off and top with grated cheese. The only recurring challenge is the size of the pan: it never seems big enough and I usually end up making a second pan. Good luck with that part.

Almost certainly you have your own lasagne recipe. It's probably better than this one, so please share it.

*Tomato Sauce
Saute finely diced onion, green pepper and garlic in a bit of olive oil until softened and almost transparent. Deglaze the pan with a touch of red wine. Add 1 large can of tomato puree, a large can of whole or crushed tomatoes and a can of tomato soup (I know, I know). Season this mixture. (I usually use a LOT of fresh basil and a LITTLE fresh or dried rosemary - again, consult your own garden.) You'll need fresh or dried basil, rosemary, oregano and marjoram. I use a touch of kosher salt and one of sugar, but this is up to you. I also use ground red pepper, but if you like a milder sauce you can use black pepper to taste. Simmer the whole thing for an hour or so, then taste and correct for seasoning. Or open a jar. :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Booksmith Recollection III: The OED

In the image at the top here, you can see the 1880s view of the intersection of Cathedral Place and Charlotte Street, where the Booksmith stood a little more than a hundred years later. What used to be called by locals "the slave market", though slaves were never sold there, is visible in the foreground, where it stands today at the eastern end of the Plaza de la Constitucion. (The bottom image is of the Cathedral itself, after the fire of 1887. The Cathedral was rebuilt after this fire. In a corollary blog I've been telling the story of Sister Patricia Eileen, who worked tirelessly to see a pipe organ added to that re-contruction, also just about a hundred years later. It's a funny little town, as I may have mentioned.) I believe these are antique stereopticons, common at the turn of the last century and viewed with a device kind of like the ones Boomers remember as View Masters.

There's the intersection of Cathedral and Charlotte. The Booksmith stood on that corner. It was a tiny place, dusty and eccentric, filled with books and related stuff I loved, bordered by St. Augustine landmarks as venerable as the Plaza and the Cathedral and as uniquely local as the Trade Winds. And it was peopled, as you probably already know, by a range of regulars and locals and droppers-in, who ranged from the most intellectual and erudite to focused specalists to the most casual readers and tourists. I've told you about Gamble Rogers and Jack Hunter, and maybe Jimmy Buffett and the guys from Tom Petty's band (and one of their mothers) and a million other interesting folks. There were so many of them. One by one, they seem to be wandering into my recollections. With your indulgence, here's another.

This was long time past, my heroes, as T.H. White would have said, long before there was a Barnes & Noble 30 miles to the north, so long ago that you couldn't order books online, if you can imagine such a thing. There wasn't a Borders, at least not one within easy reach. There were only a few small independent stores whose staff members carefully chose the books we put on the shelves, actually read the books, and sold them by hand, which essentially means we sold them as a result of thoughtful conversations with people and the application of our own insight and expertise. It was a special skill, believe it or not, and while it might have been classified as "retail sales" it wasn't a job for a faint-hearted retail store person. You had to know about books. You had to know about people and the books they loved, and the books they WOULD love, if only you put those books in their hands. Because there wasn't a huge store locally, one that felt sort of like a library and allowed people to browse, our Booksmith people came to us so we could order books for them. Even after the big new Barnes & Noble opened in Jacksonville we had dedicated customers who went up there to shop, made lists and called us so we could order the books for them. Others read the New York Times on Sunday and called us to order on Monday; sometimes we made predictions: "I bet this person will call to order this book...", after we read the Times Book Review ourselves. Often we were right.

But this memory is about a special order like no other, one we didn't see coming at all. Louise and George were Booksmith favorites. I didn't know them well and can't tell you much about them, except that judging by the books they ordered, they were both educated people and inveterate and discriminating readers. They were an older couple, retired, I guessed, with old-fashioned manners and sensibilities. Louise would call and say, "Hello, Angie. This is Louise (she would always give her last name, too). I have a list for you today," and she would dictate her list to me and inquire about the expected arrival date. I would try to wrap up the conversation in the time-honored southern way, making a little small talk. Invariably, Louise would say very kindly, "Thank you," and just hang up the phone. No "good-bye", no small talk. I thought it was a little odd at first, but I got used to it. Their book lists were always so interesting I looked forward to Louise's calls. And then she called to order the OED.

The Oxford English Dictionary - the OED - is the ultimate ride for word lovers, work collecters, writers...just about anyone with an interest in etymology. Anyone passionate about the English language has probably peered into a copy of the OED at one time or another; today most of its content is available online. Long ago, you had to buy a copy. For most people, this purchase was of something like the Compact Edition, or another variation. When Louise called, she said, "Hello, Angie; this is Louise. I would like to order a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, Unabridged."

Unabridged? Was she sure? She was. I looked it up. It was in 20 volumes, and it was $2,500.00. It's not a typo. Two thousand, five hundred dollars. Yes, Louise said calmly, that sounds about right. Please call us when it comes in.

The order was placed, the OED arrived, it was duly picked up and presumably installed in a suitable location at home. Back at the Booksmith, the staff continued to marvel now and then about the order. The price tag seemed staggering, but it was the value, the relative importance of spending all those dollars not on real estate or stocks or a grandchild's college or trust fund. Imagine: the study of the English language was important enough to this couple to warrant an expenditure that equalled in one publication what most people spent on books in a year, in two years, or more. It was, in the truest sense of the word, wonderful.

A year or so afterward, I asked Louise about it. "I'm just curious," I said, "about the OED. What's it like, having the unabridged version at your fingertips?" Louise was genuinely pleased I'd asked, and as it happened: it was delightful. Not only were she and George deeply gratified by having access to the whole language, right at home, all the time, but they'd found it to have a kind of irresistible pull to their family and friends, as well. Often, she said, they would find a houseguest curled up with a volume of the dictionary. Having meant only to look up a word, they seemed to be easily caught up in serendipitous energy, driving exploration. A quick consultation of the Dictionary could become an hour or two under a reading lamp, uncovering the unexpected. "You can read it, you know," Louise said, marveling a little, "You needn't be looking for anything in particular, you know. You can just pick it up and drop in. it."

Tonight's credits:
Photo courtesy of The Internet (as Your Aunt Becky might say)
Proofreading courtesy of Dylan; any typos or missed recollections are on me. Thanks, Dylan.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

To walk in fields of gold

With beautiful understated eloquence, Ms. Moon has caught the thing perfectly in her new header. So while we are not talking about ensuring the safety of the walrus population, nor shoes nor ships nor sealing wax, I feel obliged to share this with you. If you were planning a trip to Florida, don't cancel. If you had an idea of some sparkling hot summer days, reading a fat paperback on a sunny beach, don't change your plans. As much as I complain about tourists (and I do; we all do - hell, it's a community pasttime here) visitors bring prosperity. And every one of them sees a treasure and is able to share the memories for years and years to come.

The photo at top right was taken yesterday at Guana Reserve just before sunset. There was almost no one on the beach; Rodney and I were walking, and a lone kite devotee was preparing to check the wind with what appeared to be a very sophisticated kite. This is what Rodney called "a field of gold" and so it seemed to be: long parallel lines of red shell, or coquina, stretching west to east, down to the low tide line. You can't see it in the photo, but every thread of shell shimmers as if it had its own careless scattering of tiny diamonds. I could squint and imagine carefully sown and tended crops, gleaming in sunlight.

But of course it's not a pastoral scene, but rather this pristine, gorgeous and under-utilized north Florida beach. If you're watching the news, or listening to NPR, it might be hard to form a picture in your mind of what things look like, here. Well, it looks like this. Those are my feet in the surf, with the clear water breaking over them and the hem of my skirt caught in the southeast breeze. The worst may be coming, but as Ms. Moon reminds us, we must cherish what we have, while we have it. It's perfectly beautiful, and as my poor photography demonstrates, can't really be captured in still shots. Come down. Bring the kids. Look for shells, shark teeth, turtle nests...whales, even: the county thinks there may be a few of them still in our waters, thanks to the long chilly spring. Come out and skimboard or swim or surf. Step into the warm, clear water and look to the horizon. You can just see the gentle curve of the earth, where the water meets the sky. If you were coming to see us, come on. And if you weren't planning to travel, maybe you should. Take joy in the present. We'll meet you at the beach.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Turtle tracks

Early June in northeast Florida. It means, as our Lorie reminds us, that it's time for gardenias to bloom, scenting gardens and front yards with such a perfume as might have been brought across endless sands and mountains in caravans of camels and traders in centuries past. Soft petals of brightest white burst into flower one after another, covering the plant, the collective perfume so powerful as to be all but visible. A single blossom, cut and placed in water, is enough to scent a room.

June means the onset of hurricane season for us, too. And this year it also heralds the onset of potential disaster we do not hazard to begin predicting, here on the east coast, at least not yet. As the pleasure of gardenia blossoms remind us of happy summers long past, of hot weather really coming, of the grass-mowing season, of long evenings and cool drinks in the shade of the oaks, so does this other, deeply alarming hint of approaching evil scent the air with something like poison. I promised I wouldn't write of it in detail here, and I won't. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers far more talented and informed than I am will take it on, have taken it on. I mention it only as a reminder of the timing and of that which is precious to all of us, and vulnerable. So: June means Turtle Season comes into full swing. This means female sea turtles find their ancient ways to ancestral homelands, lay their eggs, do their immutable part in the continuation of their species.

In the photo at the top right, you can see two sets of tracks quite clearly. Flowing down toward the ocean are those of the turtle, as she came out of the sea to find her nest site; alongside are those she made as she returned to the sea. Parallel to the breaking water are the 4-wheeler tracks made by the Guana volunteers and staff who monitor the nests and help ensure their success. The turtle clearly came up to the high (west) side of the beach during the night; the turtle folks came along shortly after daybreak to investigate. If you could see this without the limits of the photo you'd note how deeply the sand was imprinted by her flippers as she came laboriously up the beach. You'd be able to see how close alongside are the return-trip imprints.

When Rodney and I were kids our parents and their friends had parties on St. Augustine and Vilano Beach (and I'm sure the rich people in Ponte Vedra did the same thing). They'd start early, spend the day on the beach and then dig a pit, build a bonfire, boil shrimp, roast hot dogs for the kids, and stretch the parties out into the night. If a turtle came ashore to lay her eggs, people would stand around and watch. In previous generations of ignorance, people would wait for the eggs and then collect them, or excavate nest sites and steal them. One turtle egg was said to be as rich as three chicken eggs. They were a delicacy. In ignorance people prevented turtles from finding their way to their historic nesting sites, inhibiting reproductive success; in dangerous ignorance they actually prevented it. The turtles were nearly exterminated.

Conditions have improved for sea turtles. They're not ideal, of course, but in my lifetime change has occurred. People know now that turtles are disoriented by artifical light, and it's controlled by law so residents and visitors must control the ambient light on beaches at night. The nests are carefully spotted, marked and protected by law and by dedicated individuals. Some work for the State of Florida at the Guana site; others are precious volunteers. Still more are those who can afford to donate and help ensure funding for the effort. (n fact, you can, too. Adopt a sea turtle nest.)

As I've described here before, the turtle watch is so closely kept that it's possible for a nest of hatchlings to be collected on the day they hatch and released carefully after dark, helping the tiny baby turtles avoid a wide range of pitfalls. Even now only a very small percentage survive to adulthood in the wild.

It's a new moon, or it was this weekend when I took these pictures. A new moon, my friends would remind me, is the best time for planting, for sowing, for making new beginnings. And there were a LOT of new nests this weekend, and at least one attempt, documented on the left, in which a turtle made the long, difficult trek to the west and for some reason returned to the sea after nothing more than a brief rest. You can see her tracks coming and going, making a nearly perfect U-turn. Though it's hard to see in my imperfect photo, she left the imprint of her body in the sand before the long walk back. With no exaggeration, from her nose to her tail she was at least 3 feet long and she'd started life as a nestling small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. Honest. The photo of the baby turtle was taken last year, and unfortunately has no comparative object for perspective. Trust me on this: it would fit in the palm of your hand, tiny flippers and all. This one is courtesy of Tara Dodson of St. Johns County, who helps oversee the health of the turtle population in our county.

Any of a hundred things could have prevented the digging of the nest, the laying of the eggs. It could be that the nest site wasn't just right for her. Maybe she wasn't quite ready to lay her eggs; maybe she walked back down to the breakers and came back later that night, or the next night. Maybe she found a better spot. I'd have to ask someone with more knowledge of the habits of sea turtles even to make an educated guess. Something kept this turtle from digging this nest. But there's good news. The nests are numbered in order of their discovery. And I can tell you for sure that before last weekend, the highest number Rodney and I saw on a nest was 10. Tonight we saw one numbered 23. Here are the tracks, leading up to the high tide line and back, obviously inspected by our turtle patrol as you can see from the overlaid track marks.

We watched something called "Through the Wormhole" on one of the science channels the other night. It provided several theories for the origin of the universe, including one based in physics and described in elegant equations, one based on theological contemplation, and one (intriguingly) based on the hypothesis that out of left-brain anxiety about the end of existence is born a right-brain counter balance in which the brain creates a sense of the spiritual, a belief in holiness, by which that anxiety is alleviated. One theory, however, is positively Gene Roddenberry-esque. It proposes that we are all the creations of an elaborate entertainment, the brain children of ourselves sometime in the future. Leaving aside religion for the moment, this last is ineffably appealing to me. It implies, as Roddenberry's Star Trek did, a hope for the future, a belief that we are somehow able to save ourselves from ourselves. If it turns out to be true, perhaps we are somehow able to save our sea turtles from ourselves, as well. Hope springs, my dears.

Baby turtle photo - Tara Dodson, St. Johns County Environmenal staff member