Saturday, January 29, 2011

Don't Buy a Puppy from a Pet Store, and other future classics

It's my theme, at least for today. Somebody should write it as a pop song, or maybe Grant Peeples could write it as a moody leftneck ballad with a solid hook. It's catchy. It could have a repeat: Don't buy a, don't buy a, don't buy a puppy from a pet store...and it's just as true for cats, so there could be an alternate version: Don't buy a, don't buy a, don't buy a kitten from a pettttt stooooore...I can pretty much hear it in my head. If I recorded it, I'd dedicate the recording to Calvin, pictured here in his smiley, smart-alecky glory, and to Zeke, who was rescued too late, and to April, who was rescued in time to find her way into the heart of an adoring family, and to Jayda, who was pulled from the Nassau County shelter this morning, and to all the others helped by BARC (Boxer Aid and Rescue Coalition) and countless other ordinary people, making this small but important difference. For simplicity and to avoid writing the Great American Blog Post on the topic of rescued Boxers, let me just talk about Calvin and Jayda. There are so many rescues, of so many breeds and mixes, of cats and dogs, all deserving of applause. But I'll try to stay focused.

So: Mister Calvin. You can see his big smile in that top photo, the face of a dog who surely had every reason to mistrust and maybe even dislike people forever, but somehow managed to retain balance. Ever watch Cesar Millan? He has a dog named Daddy who serves as a kind of canine barometer, a behavioral translator able to relay information from the unspoken but unmistakable animal vocabulary resulting in behavioral predictors to Cesar, who understands that language. BARC's book on Calvin was that he'd been rescued from a dog-fighting situation in which he was likely used as a bait dog. I've also posted the photo of Mister Calvin and April, because if you look closely at Calvin's shoulder, you can see one of the scars.
It was almost the size of the palm of my hand, and his fur never grew back. Calvin developed certain strong preferences (he would rather be told to move than man-handled into actually moving, for instance) but I was always amazed that he seemed more than content to live as a member of our pack. He never acted on what might, in human terms, have been deep and justified resentment. He was adopted into an excellent family, by a woman who was in vet school and was able to give him every veterinary benefit. But vet school...yikes. It sounds not unlike med school, with the on-call hours, the grueling internship...she knew she couldn't give Calvin the attention he deserved, so she surrendered him back to BARC. This is one of the terms to which BARC adopters agree, and one of the things I love most about the organization: if you can't continue to care for a dog you adopt from us, you give it back, and we will always ensure that it's cared for. Calvin's adoptive mom knew she was giving him to a certainty of a good home. We met him as a prospective foster family, fell in love, and never looked back. As most of you know, he died in December, but not before he changed our family.

We adopted Bandit recently, a former foster we'd had and loved, whose life took a turn that happened to give us the chance to have him back. Because we were all adjusting to the loss of Calvin and the addition of Bandit, we decided to take a break from fostering for a bit. It's a tough call, and not just because of our ties to BARC. On a national and regional level, as well as a local one, pet rescue organizations are realizing that foster homes are far more cost effective and feasible than shelters, and foster homes are far better for the animals. A fostered cat or dog lives in a regular house, with people who do ordinary things and are able to offer affection and consistency. Animals kept in shelters experience the stresses of confinement, the surreal atmosphere of fear and uncertainty amplified by presence of other confined animals, and in most cases are likely to face euthanasia if for no other reason than demand exceeding supply. No-kill shelters are the exception; most have no alternative but to euthanize, because their resources are so limited. Our beloved vet, Dr. Searcy of Antigua Veterinary Clinic in St. Augustine, is a vocal proponent of foster homes as an alternative to shelters; he talks about the overhead costs incurred by a shelter environment, many of which are minimized or completely eliminated by utilization of foster homes.

This is what motivates many volunteers to serve as foster homes. In our case, it motivated us to temp-foster this week even though we know we need a break. Another volunteer can take Jayda in a week or so, but her time on death row had pretty much run out.
Though it's a bit dark and fuzzy, you can see Jayda in the middle of this photo. This morning she was in a shelter, this afternoon she walked on the beach for perhaps the first time in her life, and after a bath and a good meal, this evening she's figuring out her place in a comfortable, balanced pack. She'll get good care, attention for her medical needs, and above all, the comfort of a relatively calm, predictable environment.

Take a look at her face, as well as you can see it in this predictably poor photo from my phone. People are paying hundreds of dollars for every imaginable breed of dog and cat in pet stores. Jayda has clearly had more than one litter of puppies. Now she's more than 5 years old, she has a worrying growth in one ear, she is heartworm-positive and she was surrendered by her owners to the shelter because they "couldn't afford to keep her anymore". This may be true. This family may be a casualty of the current economy or victims of any number of difficult circumstances. There are many legitimate dog breeders whose credentials are impeccable and who do much to preserve the unique characteristics of various breeds of dogs and cats; I have no quarrel with them. But we know people breed dogs and sell the puppies for money. Puppy mills are a horrible reality and I imagine there's a parallel hell for cats. In the case of dogs, some may even be sold to people like Michael Vick. (Good Lord: don't get me started.) And when they're older, no longer useful for breeding, and develop the inevitable health issues of aging, they're taken to shelters and dropped off. Or just dropped off. Jayda is lucky.

Finish the melody and the air guitar part in your mind, and enjoy the head-banging and the big drum solo. Just don't lose the message: when you need a pet, adopt one. Find that perfectly sweet kitten or delightfully spotted and striped adult cat. Look until you see that particular expression on the face of a fat-bellied puppy or even better, a mature dog, already house-broken and readymade for best friendship. But don't, don't, don't...Don't buy a puppy from a pet store.

Credits: Dylan C., Editor and Proofreader

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dogs, resting comfortably

Some of you may know that our dear old Calvin died in December. He disappeared one night, and we thought he'd just taken his beer money and gone walkabout. We searched and hunted, got the neighbors involved, all to no avail. A few days went by, and on a morning when holiday vistors were expected, we found Calvin. He'd apparently dropped dead of a heart attack or something, falling into a stand of lilies hidden in the oak trees. He had never put a foot out of his own yard. Devastated, we buried him and tried to avoid talking about it as we marked the year-end holidays.

In an almost uncanny turn of events, we were able to re-home a dog we'd previously fostered, and already loved, Bandit. Here he is, doing what Boxers do best, which might be summed up as "Sitting Where People Might Like to Sit, If Only the Sofa Belonged to Them". From left to right, here are Ty for Short, Meg, and Bandit, who is also known as Burgermeister Meisterburger. Happy news for us, who are so dependent on dogs for mental health and well-being; happy news for Bandit, who's finding himself at home in a pretty comfortable pack.

Here, too, is a sunset photo I took in December, looking back to the west from the west side of the Tolomato River. In this image I'm thinking of my dear friend Annie, who is dealing with new challenges as I write this. It was Annie who shared the ultimate parenting advice with me, which becomes more true each day my boys grow older: It's all about letting go. It's great advice, Annie, and I'm working on it. But for now, with you, can it all be about hanging on? I'm sending you love, love, love.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fossils, courtesy of GTMMERR

This is a close photo of the coquina you see in constrast to the fine white sand along the beach at Guana. Nestled in this stuff, which is mostly crushed or small shell, you can find shark's teeth of all kinds of sizes, pieces of turtle shell and teeth, all ancient, all amazing.

To those of you who love the beaches and inland waterways so perfectly protected and blessedly available to the public at our beloved Guana, here is the equivalent of a Valentine from those fine folks. To those of you who turn an indulgent but slightly bored eye to my praise-singing of Guana's abundant natural offerings, accept my thanks in advance.

Because I wrote a post in celebration of the anniversary of GTMMERR, sent it to the Director and opened a dialogue with him, I've been added to a mailing list. This means info I didn't have before, including an announcement all fossil geeks will find to be the delightful Valentine I promised (and everyone else will find incredibly boring): the GTM Education Center is hosting an educational event on February 12 about collecting and identifying fossils on our beaches. (If you're interested, reserve a space by calling the Center at 904.823.4500 - it's free, but space is limited.) We all think of shark's teeth when we think of fossils and my dear old person and I have a shocking number of these collected, but there's an amazing range of teeth and other fossils to be found on our beaches, and get this: we're invited to bring stuff along to have it identified! I might not have to plan that trip to the Paleontology Department at U of F in Gainseville after all. In all the years I've lived here, as I may have mentioned, I didn't even start looking for shark's teeth until, in the office of a colleague, I noticed a postcard image identifying different kinds of shark's teeth. I commented, because we walked on the beach all the time and I took them for granted. To my amazement, she said, "You know they're hundreds of thousands of years old, right? Some of them are millions of years old." I'd had no idea. And I was hopelessly hooked.

I've written about this, too, of course, in part because the University of Florida houses a great little museum of paleontology AND it is possible, in theory at least, to make an appointment with the nice geeky professorial types who work there. I'm told you can set up time and pretty much literally pour your collection of fossilized stuff on someone's desk for inspection and identification. But why drive to Gainesville? Come down to the Education Center. I wish you could all come, especially the kids. So if any kids care, let me know. I'll write a post for the really discriminating blog palate: kids, who know how fascinating fossils really are, because after all, when you think about it, they're pieces of dinosaurs. How cool is that?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, Opus 5

Here's another glimpse into the fabric of our little town, one I've been meaning to write for a long time. I know I just told a St. Augustine story in my most recent post, but writing that one fired the right combination of synapses to call forth this one from the proverbial back burner. So: another glimpse, which might be subtitled White Trash Cooking, by Palm Valley's own Ernest Matthew Mickler.

The Booksmith brought more than one writer into my orbit, but Ernie Mickler might have been at once the most different and the most reflective. He'd have been recognized in most any company as A Character, for any of a number of reasons. He was completely unpretentious and uproarious fun to be around. He was so easy in his own skin that he made other people rest more comfortably in their own, or if they didn't, you wondered what was wrong with them. He was gay, and in those years small towns in the Bible Belt - certainly St. Augustine - still took a rather dim view, in more ways than one. But my first adjective is my most accurate: Ernie was sublimely unpretentious. His authenticity gave him charisma, which he never took seriously. To my knowledge, he never lost the kernel at the heart of the authentic: the ability to laugh at everything, including and most especially, himself.

Ernie was a mirror, too, as I mentioned. Ernie's book, White Trash Cooking*, was published in 1986. In the social and physical geography of St. Augustine, you might say that Ernie's was one lens through which the contemporary dialogue about and horrifying reality of AIDS could be viewed. The Booksmith was on the eastern-most end of Cathedral Place. At the western end of our block stands the Cathedral of St. Augustine, where another lens entirely would focus on the subject; a beloved bishop and a popular priest would be part of that view. I might be making too much of that aspect, of course, and Ernie would have been the first to call me on it if I did. But here again is tale for another winter's night, my dears.

The mirror, though? I held it up to myself when Ernie was alive, and it changed the path of my life in several ways. Funny thing, though: as I thought about telling you this story, I reached back and realized that Ernie is more present than I'd ever realized. You know those recipes I'm always throwing in here, how they're always more narrative than classic recipe? I owe that to Ernie, and I didn't realize it. So as I wrote about Connie Fowler's influence teaching me to think of myself as a writer, I began to remember that it was Ernie who gave me some powerful lessons in how to do the work.

I've given you a (poor, as usual) photo of the book's cover. The other image is of the title page of my treasured and dog-eared copy of the book, which Ernie inscribed as follows:
To Angie,
Ernest Matthew Mickler
St. Aug 86
I know you're pure White Trash and proud

There's a saying that the further north you go in Florida, the further south you go; this must have been patently obvious to Ernie as he collected recipes and photos and memories for his book. For instance: "Never in my whole put-together life could I write down on paper a hard, fast definition of White Trash. Because, for us, as for our southern White Trash cooking, there are no hard and fast rules. We don't like to be hemmed in! But the first thing you've got to understand is that there's white trash and there's White Trash. Manners and pride separate the two....where I come from in North Florida you never failed to say 'yes ma'am' and 'no sir', never sat on a made-up bed (or put your hat on it), never opened someone else's icebox, never left food on your plate...That's the way the ones before us were raised and that's the way they raised us in the South."

As you might imagine, Ernie's book was born into a media circus. I think he was on The Today Show (oh, dear: another only-in-St.-Augustine-story, but I'll have to tell you about the NBC connection another rainy night, my loves) and just about every other talk show you can think of before he and his partner came home to live. At the Booksmith, I'm not sure we all knew what to make of the book at first, but I knew right away about the mirror thing. I could see myself in the Palm Valley Ernie's book recalled, for this was the cusp of the time when Palm Valley, a rural community northeast of St. Augustine where people lived in trailers or little Cracker cabins, kept chickens or pigs or horses (though not recreational horses, if that makes sense), made its fateful intersection with Development. It was only a few years before natives who'd lived for generations on the same parcels of land found themselves taxed beyond their ability to sustain themselves, only a decade or two before Palm Valley was largely absorbed into Planned Unit Developement World. I could see myself in Ernie's eyes and they could see the placid past and the inevitable future; in less than 20 years the Palm Valley Ernie affectionately documented in his book would be gone. The media covering Ernie and his book could hardly have grasped this, nor this, another quote from his book that explains a LOT about how I cook and how I share that with you in this blog:
" is the next most important thing...skillets, Dutch ovens, and cornbread pans (all of black cast iron) are the only utensils tha give you that real White Trash flavor and golden brown crust...Now don't be too concerned about keeping them clean. Netty Irene says, 'It's no trouble at all! All you gotta do is rench 'em out, wipe 'em out with a dishrag, and put 'em on the fire to dry out all the water'...Netty Irene also said that her mother would never use water on her black iron...pans, only dry cornmeal. She'd rub them until they were smooth..."

Does this sound familiar? You might have learned it somewhere else, of course, but you've heard it here, too. And it's partly because my mother and Ernie's mother were not so far apart but it's also because the simple learnings I carried from my mother's kitchen were validated by those Ernie wrote about. I should have credited Ernie in part for the Eat Here Eatery concept, as well as the way I write recipes. Here's Ernie's version of Ida's Indian Onion Curry Omelet:
" 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
6-7 eggs
3 green scallions
1 teaspoon of curry powder
1 teaspoon prepared mustard (French's yellow)
1/2 cup of milk
Fry sliced green onions in mdeium-hot skillet. Add mixture of eggs, milk, curry, mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until eggs are firm and all liquid is gone. Serves 4 or 5. Serve with toast and plain sardines, cold. Ida Dillard, of Due West, South Carolina, said, 'You gotta be kinda wild to try this one. It weeds 'em out.'"

Ernie's versions of recipes like tomato sandwiches and icebox cake just about make my hair stand on end. There are a million of them, and they'd be right at home at Eat Here. You'd love them. But the evening winds on, and this recollection has rambled far longer than I meant it to. Ernie didn't live to see the turning of the new century, but he did his part to usher it in, with a touch of hope and a boatload of laughter. In fact, I'm rather shyly delighted to find that Eat Here might in fact have carried forward a bit of that hope, that love of food and friendship, and maybe even a tiny bit of that willingness to stare into the mirror and laugh and laugh and laugh.

*White Trash Cooking, by Ernest Matthew Mickler, 1986
Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA

Thursday, January 20, 2011

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, Opus 4

It's been awhile since I told you a St. Augustine tale. Here's one about yet another writer, and how her work and kindness helped me begin to see myself as a writer. Oh, and you get a recipe tonight, too: Eat Here Eatery's Signature Cheeseburger is on tonight's menu. Stay tuned.

If you read here you know I used to work in a magical, unforgettable and now sadly gone independent bookstore called The Booksmith. It was a tiny place, really, with two small back rooms, one of which was the sale room, where we kept the remaindered books we loved, and one of which was the storage room, where only employees went and those few customers who might ask if they could use our restroom. The restroom backed right up on the men's room at the Trade Winds, the venerable watering hole next door. The Trade Winds is still there, still a watering hole, and a more-or-less mandatory stop on Palm Sunday. This didn't always fit together nicely for me during the days when I was also singing at the Cathedral, right up the block, but those are other stories, my loves, for other winter evenings.

This story is about Connie May Fowler, and the first novel she wrote, which was called Sugar Cage, and which was edited by the marvelous Faith Sale. (There are some intriguing blogland connections here, but those, too, are tales for another evening.) Connie was - and is - a novelist with a powerful voice and many tales to tell, which was a big deal if you were a bookseller. As one of our publisher's reps used to say, EVERYone has one novel in them. If you've lived a life, you have one novel. But real storytellers? Those are the people who have novel after novel, who mine some internal vein of richness the rest of us can only imagine. This notion of the true novelist, in fact, moved the publisher's rep to collect not first novels, as a fair number of book people do, but second novels, which by his lights were a far better measure of a writer of fiction. When a publisher's galley of Sugar Cage reached us, we knew something special had happened, something independent bookstores dream of, really: we had a novel with local overtones, written by a woman who had lived in St. Augustine as a child and had returned, and a novel that would be taken seriously on a national level. It was, in short, a book we would take to our hearts as readers, booksellers and locals. And it turned out Connie was someone very easy to take to heart, as well.

When I met her, her beauty took my breath away. It would be years before I would realize that she had suffered from such a serious misalignment of her jaw that the overbite would have to be corrected by a maxillofacial surgeon in her adulthood, and that she carried inside her the scars and ancient aches left by those who treated her with unkindness or outright cruelty when she was young. She simply looked lovely to me, with honey-colored hair, a willowly build and a sort of unpretentious warmth that seemed rooted in a rather shy personality. She autographed books for us, and we sold them joyfully, often giving that highest of bookseller recommendations: taking time to hand-sell the book, convincing people to read it, promising to take it back if they didn't like it. She was generous with her time (and those countless signatures and inscriptions!), did a reading at Flagler College (remember how small the Booksmith was - there was no way for us to get all the interested folks into the store for such an event), and best of all, she continued to write, as she continues to write to this very day.

Though I assumed it had been based, however loosely, on Connie's own personal history, Sugar Cage might have been written about Rodney's family. Some of the reminders were so poignant for me, some visions of my dear old person's history so powerfully evoked, that I would have to put the book down for an hour or a day. But remember: Connie is a novelist with many more stories than one waiting to be mined. When her book Before Women Had Wings appeared, it confirmed that she was indeed that storyteller we'd hoped for. She was no one-hit wonder. This was the real thing. Here's how I recall that book: I took a copy home and I can't remember if it was a publisher's galley, which are usually paperback versions that precede the print run, or whether it was a boud version of the draft. I can tell you this: I don't remember being capable of worrying about keeping the pages dry. I'd decided to take a nice hot bath and read in the tub for a bit. When I was finally able to stop reading, I had cried for so long that the water in the tub was utterly cold, and the pages might well have been as wet and messy as I was. It was a book I'd never really forget. At some point later, Connie inscribed a copy of the book for me, and in her kindness reminded me that I shared a love for "the word" and should follow that love. In some ways, I've followed it here, to the blog. Thank you, Connie. Thank you, from the center of my heart, Diana, Su, Katie...thank you, Booksmith.

If you stayed around for the modest food encore, this is it.
The Eat Here Eatery Signature Cheesebuger has been mentioned here before, of course, but since it's a nice time of year to have a meatloaf in the oven I thought it was worth revisiting. It's a sandwich I made some years ago to something less than universal acclaim: Dylan didn't eat many vegetables in those days (ah, the changes a trip to Africa can make!) and Mac doesn't eat cheese. But my dear old person loves it, and I love to make it, so here it is.

Make a meatloaf. I can tell you how to do this, but you probably have a recipe your mother made, or have evolved into a vegetarian version, or can make the yummy one in the Silver Palate cookbook or whatever. The only un-secret secret part of mine is the sauce you add to the meatloaf about 20 minutes before it has finished baking, which is a combination of ketchup, a touch of mustard, some brown sugar (or maple syrup - even better!) and a teensy whisper of ground cloves. You whisk this together more or less to taste and drizzle it over the meatloaf, allowing about 20 minutes' final cooking time so it can mature and take on a nice color. Be sure to make enough of this sauce to set some aside. You'll want it for the sandwiches and your people might like using it for other servings of leftover meatloaf.

When the meatloaf has cooled enough a bit, place two slices of very lightly buttered bread in a skillet to grill. We have a strong preference for sourdough bread for this sandwich but as always, use what you like. Add a slice of cheese (we use muenster or baby Swiss unless my dear old person is driving, in which case you're getting American cheese, baby, like it or not!) as for a grilled cheese sandwich. Top with sliced, warm meatloaf and a touch of the aforementioned sauce. If you're truly evil, or a fan of Ernie Mickler's White Trash Cooking (another night's tale, my loves) you can kiss this whole lovely thing with mayonnaise. Top the meatloaf with the other slice of bread you've been gently grilling. Slice and serve with salad or fresh fruit and do penance for it the next day. It's worth it, my dears.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dr. King was here

St. Augustine has a long and often ugly page in the book of the struggle for civil rights. In fact, the circles within circles in our ancient little city have their own shameful tales to tell. During my days as a singer at the Cathedral of St. Augustine, when a beloved young priest was dying and it became more or less public knowledge that he was a victim of AIDS, the outpouring of support and affection was far from universal. The leadership of love and tolerance that came to us after his death was provided by our bishop, who gave life to it by establishing and actively supporting a ministry for those afflicted by HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. He did not just preach this message from the pulpit, but chose to lead by action with love and humility, steadfastly and bravely looking into faces of ignorance and intolerance. Had he learned from St. Thomas Aquinas, from Gandhi, from the Prophet Mohammed, from Pope John XXIII? I imagine he had. And I imagine he'd learned from Dr. King, as well.

Dr. King himself visited St. Augustine, and was greeted with outright, unapologetic hostility, peculiarly ironic in a town that had prided itself on a warm hospitality that had drawn visitors and tourists for the most recent hundred years or so of its four hundred year history. Dr. King posed an unprecedented and particular threat to and aroused deep fear among the ignorant and intolerant of the little old city. His visit has given rise to stories that try the limits of the imagination; I can't begin to provide an accurate account. One guess, at least, feels pretty safe to me: the hostility Dr. King was shown was all too familiar to the people of color who called St. Augustine home, and its bitter taste lingers even today.

Today the beaches of St. Augustine greeted the remembrance of Dr. King as they often commemorate the afternoons in late January, with cold rain and low-hanging clouds, the very air inhospitable to the sea birds who live in its arms. Here they are, huddling against the wind, waiting out the weather. They wait as Dr. King did, facing into the wind, allowing it to blow around and past, confident it would abate so that he could do his work again, or failing that, that the work could be taken up by his sisters and brothers. And so it was, and so it is. For each of us in small ways we may hardly even understand, this was a man who made changes. Dr. King was here, indeed.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Winter themes and variations

The cold-but-perfect weather has continued in St. Augustine. Rodney and I walked at Guana yesterday and the day before under polished blue skies and bright sunshine, the air temp around 50 degrees, but with an uncompromising wind blowing at about 15 miles an hour out of the north-northeast. We even took two of the dogs, who love walking on the beach as much as we do, but have certain prejudices against chilly weather. At a certain point, no amount of whale-watching or red knot-sighting or even possible gopher tortoise observations are enough to keep Meg from sitting down firmly, shivering pathetically, and insisting on going home for winter sports like toasting marshmallows by the fire or making pots of soup. As it happened that we saw no whales those days, we gave in and returned to the fireside.

But the winter's theme of repeating something in the name of learning it to the point of excellence seems to persist. We've begun to get early Florida strawberries, and they've been baked into several variations of a remarkable coffee cake (the recipe for which originated with the venerable Bibical reference of cake-baking, Susan Purdy's A Piece of Cake). We used blueberries in one instance, but there's something perfectly balanced in the pairing of this cake's delicacy and the late-winter strawberries. This is the one we baked last night, with Rodney and I as sous chef supporting kitchen staff, and Dylan as Chef de Cuisine. My phone camera doesn't do it justice, but no camera could capture its sublime simplicity without benefit of palate. You'll have to take my word for it. And as always if anyone's interested, the Eat Here kitchen is happy to provide a how-to.

As for me, I have been distracted from most other recreation for the past couple of weeks as a contagion has possessed me more and more thoroughly. Just look at this. Thanks to some people who shall remain nameless (but I'm looking at you, Elisabeth) I have become obsessed with color and texture and have spent the past few weeks crocheting thing after thing. Even with my phone camera, you can see the intriguing greens and creams, reds and golds that have captured by eye and my heart. I'm only able to make the most rudimentary designs. I'm not capable of the elaborately adorable designs of my friend Erin at Ultra Cute Crochet. I'm not even close to the elegance of design imagined and created by Elisabeth Williamson of Mon Amie Ribbonerie, whose crocheted confetti pieces are treasured by the owners of her pieces, but whose artistic endeavors are more and more focused on ribbon flowers. But I can make a couple of things, and my winter labors are concentrated on making those pieces over and over again, learning with each piece. (See the beach photo of Rodney, above, who is wearing a slightly flawed but well-loved example of my handiwork.) The joy of matching colors and textures, high contrast and subtle shading, soft as lambs wool or smooth and fresh as cotton...these are the pleasures of winter for me this year. I hope your fireside is comforting and some of your joys as simple and uncomplicated as these.

A final note about the rhythm of winter and the coming of spring: I saw the first robin yesterday. My dear Jayne and I try to mark the promise of spring with this early visible sign. Last year the robins were here on the first of January; this year, a bit later. Whether early or late, the promise of spring always arrives with the folding of their wings.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Happy Anniversary, GTMMER

There is a preturnaturally sacred place in northeast Florida that provides sanctuary for shore creatures you can imagine, and perhaps some that you can't. Various species of sea turtles nest here; ancient land tortoises burrow and breed here. Birds as elegant as egrets and as ludicrously beautiful as roseate spoonbills find peace here. North Atlantic Right Whales - a species estimated to number 350-400 at present - pass through these waters as they move south to bear their live young. Many acres and several beautiful miles of marshland and pristine beaches can be found here, with no development and relatively few visitors. This is the breathtaking Guana Tolomato Matanzas Marine Estuarine Reserve, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month under the care and supervision of Mike Shirley and a dedicated staff including law enforcement personnel, biologists and volunteers. (Thank you, Folio Weekly, for including mention of this milestone in your December 28 issue.)

None of this is news to you if you read here regularly (and my apologies for being repetitive) but I think it's an anniversary worth of celebration. Quiet success stories like this one give hope to anyone hoping to share unspoiled natural glories with the children of the next generations. Pay the $3 and walk across A1A to take a look for yourself. Remind yourself that this is prime real estate, stretching out between expensive properties on both the beach- and riverside fronts, but preserved for the joy of every one of us regardless of means. If you're visiting the area, don't miss it. Either way, if you happen to see the volunteer sea turtle patrol, or run into one of the law enforcement guys who keep the place safe, or notice someone marking sea turtle nests or taking notes, stop and offer your thanks. Oh, and maybe your congratulations. It's a big anniversary.

An opportunity for grace

It's been a remarkably cold December here, but we've managed to get in a few achingly beautiful beach walks. The sky is blue enough to stop you in your tracks, the water still warm enough to step through the shallows barefooted, and presumably the whales are gliding by, heading southward for the calving season. There are few places more perfectly suited to contemplative reflection, at least for me. My dear old person walks with me. Sometimes we marvel together over the minutely miraculous - brightly colored starfish or pods of dolphin dancing above the shimmering water - and sometimes we indulge our own interests. He looks for Spanish silver; I look for shark teeth, and let my mind wander. Perhaps because of the recent Season of Light, I've been thinking about the Biblical "more blessed to give than to receive" injunction. Because the MadriGalz were fortunate enough to carol for our patron Miss Dot this year, the theme was especially compelling to me.

The Dalai Lama said something like this (and I hope His Holiness will forgive me for paraphrasing him): Make someone else happy to find happiness yourself. Most of us know this to be true in one way or another. Research has been done indicating that humans are more or less hard-wired to donate generously when the recipient in need can be perceived with a human face. Statistics, no matter how heartbreaking, do not move us in the same way as personal appeals we can associate with real people. Appeals telling us that inumerable people are starving in Darfur are far less likely to move us than the very same appeal when it's delivered with the faces of the people or specific personal stories. And when we donate in response to such appeals, neurological chemistry rewards us. We feel good about giving. Spiritual texts and guides entreat us to do this, our brains reward us, and it's easy to believe that it is, indeed, more blessed to give. Certainly it is blessed to give.

But is it MORE blessed? The MadriGalz caroled this year for our friend and patron, Miss Dot, who is confined to bed, suffering a painful illness. It was a kindness, much appreciated by Miss Dot and joyfully welcomed by her family, for us to visit and sing some of her favorite carols. But I believe it was more blessed of Miss Dot to accept the gift with humility and patience. When Rodney's dad was afflicted with Alzheimers and had to accept care from his family, it was nearly impossible for him to do it gracefully. He had grown accustomed to dispensing such kindnesses as he could, but had never learned to accept the return of kindnesses from others. The folks I work with combine their treasure and talents to "adopt" a family during the holiday season. The outpouring of gifts to provide presents and a holiday feast is always moving. What always amazes me more is the ability of the receiving family to accept the generosity. In each case the recipients are, in truth, providing the givers with an opportunity for grace. We feel good about ourselves. We face our spiritual standards, our God by whatever name and in whatever language is native to us, with joy and a feeling that we've done something fine and good. And of course we have.

But it may be harder, and perhaps, indeed, more blessed, to receive. To allow others to care for us, to feed us, to visit us in our times of sadness or despair, to wash our bodies when we cannot do this for ourselves, to provide others with opportunities for grace...this may be one of the most blessed of all gifts human beings are able to grant one another. What do you think?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

One more mistletoe kiss, and a last eggnog toast to 2010

How easily and quickly the routines and rhythms of everyday life are disrupted, sometimes seriously but often to accommodate the smallest of joys and graces. So it's been at Eat Here: all storytelling abandoned in favor of holiday cooking, MadriGal singing, friends and family visiting, and several long cold days when the lure of the fireplace was irresisible. It was purely heaven, my loves, and I dearly hope you had some of those days, too. It's time for me return to something like order, pack away joyful holiday chaos with the Christmas tree ornaments and get back to work. At Eat Here, with your indulgence, my dears, there's still time for a shared memory or two. This is a perfect sunset caught near the time of the Winter Solstice at Saltwater Cowboy's, where the MadriGalz rang in the season. As perfect as the view was, it was also breathtakingly cold for December in St. Augustine. All was merry and bright in the restaurant, though; the carols were good and the food was even better.

Christmastide has come to mean MadriGalz to me, in addition to the other blessings of the season. It means singing together with two voices I admire, love and am humbled to partner with, for just a few short weeks, in the company of some of our most beloved friends. Some of those friends are also current or past performance partners, whose kindness is especially valuable to us. (I'm looking at you, Miss Jo.) Judy has astonishing vocal range and discipline, and the ability to become almost invisible as an ensemble singer. Lis has a voice of heartwrenching sweetness, and a nearly tangible charismatic charm. And though we've been singing in this configuration together for nearly 10 years, they both surprise me over and over again. This year Miss Judy opened her bag of tricks and treated us to an impromptu version of "Santa Baby" that I didn't see coming despite nearly 30 years of friendship and shared music. If you look past the terrible picture quality (it's an iPhone, okay? And it was dark in the bar at Creekside Dinery that night), you can see Judy, Lis and our friend Rick, who kindly took the guitar for this one. What you can't see is Miss Judy, intriguingly blending Eartha Kitt's sensuality with Judy Holliday's girlish-voiced frankness, delivering a rendition we won't soon forget.

Amongst the appearances at our favorite local restaurants and various other engagements, we were also able to carol for our friend Miss Dot, the benefactor who made our CD a possibility a few years ago. It was an opportunity of grace for us, and afforded this rare photo of all of us together. We were surrounded by Miss Dot's large and amazing family, among whom are members of the locally venerated Red River Band, and it's safe to say a good time was had by all, especially the MadriGalz. In years past we've actually managed go caroling, dropping in to carol for friends and acquaintances. This was a happy return to that tradition and one for which we're grateful to the Pellicer family.

So the MadriGalz delighted in the Season; meanwhile, we got ready at home, too. The house was decorated, Santa Claus was situated in his place of honor on the roof (yes, we have a ridiculous Santa, about 3 feet tall, whose inner lightbulb has been guiding friends to our house for more years than I care to count), Christmas Rum Cakes were baked and to my complete astonishment, several Christmas cards were actually written and - get this - mailed! I know, right? I'd pretty much reconciled myself to having been dropped from Christmas card lists, having not managed to get cards out these past few years. But some cards found their way out from our pens, and some were welcomed and hung in places of honor as they came in. Holiday cards are a gift, I believe. No one should feel bad about not sending them; not everyone has time every year. But the people who do send them get to feel really good about it, especially when some of us can't manage to return the gift. I didn't get cards out to all of you, but I did think of you as I worked on them. Maybe next year. For now, though? The Rum Cakes.

This recipe was given to me years ago by my dear friend Debra, who wrote it on a piece of stationary that abides even now in a recipe box once owned by my dear old person's mother. It's the only cake I make these days that uses boxed cake mix as its foundation, and I've been meaning to reverse-engineer it so that it can be made without the boxes; maybe I'll get to that next year along with the complete list of Christmas cards. Ahem. Maybe not. In any case, here's the Christmas Rum Cake recipe, for your consideration.

Christmas Rum Cake (doubled from the original; with thanks to Debra B. for the beautiful original version)
Combine 2 boxes of Yellow Cake Mix and 2 small packages of vanilla instant pudding mix with 1 cup each of milk, vegetable oil and rum in the large bowl of your mixer. Mix gently til combined and then add 4 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat until you have a lovely creamy mixture. Pour into two standard tube pans or several loaf pans (each of these should be well-greased - I use cooking spray - and dusted with granulated sugar and if desired, pecans and maraschino cherries). Don't overfill your pans as the cake will rise above the sides; I fill the pans about 2/3 full. Bake cakes at 325 degrees for about 45-50 minutes or until they test done.

While they're baking, prepare a glaze. In a saucepan, combine 1 stick of butter (real butter - you can't cheat on this one), about 1 cup of granulated sugar, and about 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a boil carefully, and simmer at boiling for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Add about 2/3 cup of rum. In really tough years I use about a cup of rum, but you can do this to taste. Remember that the rum won't really cook out of the glaze, as it does the cake, so more rum means a stronger taste. Use your judgement. When the cakes are done, use a toothpick or an ice pick to prick the tops of the cakes; this will let the glaze penetrate the surface of the cakes. Drizzle the glaze over the cakes, distributing evenly. If you've made tube or Bundt cakes, you can invert on plates to serve. If you've made loaf pans as gifts (I use aluminum pans that needn't be returned) you can cover when the cakes are cool.

Doesn't that sound nice?

That's the mistletoe kiss I meant to send you, and the final raising of the eggnog glass in a toast to the very happiest of New Years. Coming soon? Eat Here goes back to the beach in search of North Atlantic Right Whales (their calving season runs through March), gopher tortoises, porpoises, shark teeth and cloud formations and whatever other gifts are placed in our path as we walk. Thank you for walking along with us.

P.S. Gold, Myrrh and Peaches
The best gifts are the gifts of the heart, and this often means they're handmade. It sounds trite, of course, but I still have all the handmade cards the boys have given me over the years. You probably have a collection equally humble and equally treasured. This Christmas we were gifted with a dazzling collection of jewel-toned fruits, canned by our friends Tina and Jimmy. Especially beautiful was a jar of peaches, captured at the perfect fullness of summer, as golden as any sunrise. These found their way into a peach-and-ginger upside down cake, baked in cast iron and short-lived in our kitchen. I can tell you how to make one, if you're interested.