Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy November 13, to the Man Who Reads All the Cards

He's a hard man with whom to shop for greeting cards. He reads the words inside every card. When our children were small and the time was upon them to find a Birthday Mother's Day Anniversary something something card, they were relieved to get home. --Mom he reads them all I mean every word it's the most annoying--

He reads them all. One of the smartest people I know, his native intelligence is immediately visible in its mechanical manifestation. People whose cars and trucks have been made to work by him, as if by magic, still stop him to offer thanks when their paths cross, in some cases years later. You might say that words aren't his strength, but that wouldn't quite match the fact that he really reads all the cards for the occasion, looking for the precise match, the writer whose words reflect the ones in his head, the words he'd have put to paper if he could have.

This is a birthday greeting to the man who reads all the cards, who has always told me that I could, has loved me no matter what I looked like, who contributed the best half to my children. This is a card that says, I know you. I know what trials you've passed through, and what pains you walk through every day. I know the ghosts that haunt you and the lights that shine through your eyes unfailing. I know you, as you know me, and I will love you always. For better, for worse; in health. In sickness. Under the oak trees and on the beaches. Happy November 13, my Dear Old Person, this year, and every year we may be given. Happy birthday, Rodney.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chicken tacos. No more, no less.

Writing a blog is a funny thing. You start out with a solid idea, a central notion, and draft the thing in your head before you get close to your laptop or your iPad or whatever...and then the writer's equivalent of a mote of dust in a sunbeam passes across the room or some haiku fragment arrives unbidden or whatever and that clear notion disappears abruptly in favor of a shiny new topic. Chicken tacos, in my case. Yeah, yeah, I know.

The Slow Food movement makes my heart sing in many ways, but it also raises the spectre of so many meals provided in the fastest possible way, and all the attendant consequences. When my boys played baseball and my Dear Old Person worked at night while I worked days and the boys were in school, and all those other distracted realities you know as well as I do, there were more people handing us food through windows than I like to recall. This uneasy guilt is compounded by the fact that I LOVE to cook; I love meals around the table; I love seeing the faces of my dear ones over the plates my grandmother used to serve her meals. On the other hand: conflict. that's a good story without it, anyway?

Earlier this week the northernmost third of Florida was reminded of clear and perfectly aquamarine skies and the fact that we should have stacked firewood already by a quick brush of chilly days, to which I responded by making chicken and rice. You might have put a pot of chili on to simmer, or made a good homemade soup. Chicken and rice begins with about three boneless skinless chicken breasts, quickly browned in a cast iron skillet in a bit of olive oil. The chicken is set aside and mirepoix added to cook until softened, which takes about 5 minutes. (Don't look up "mirepoix" and don't think you missed something if you don't know the term. It's basically diced onion, celery and carrots, and there are a million ways to do it. At EatHere, it's a convenient collective noun.) Skillet gets deglazed with a splash of whatever white wine I'm drinking (because if it ain't good enough to drink, it ain't good enough to cook with) and some broth (vegetable or chicken). Two cups of rice are added (I use a half-and-half mix of brown and basmati rice), about 5 cups of liquid (broth, if you have it, or water or some combination of both) and the chicken breasts placed on top. I cover, and then cook until the rice is done, 30 or 40 minutes, turning occasionally and VERY gently. Two days later, a boy says, "By the way, you make some DAMN good chicken and rice", and I think how easy it is, really, and how small the investment of time, and how I wish he weren't running out the door to work, but was sitting down across the table, eating from his great-grandmother's plates, talking about his day and his dreams and his laundry.

All this is by way of telling you that the very same scraping-the-bottom pot of chicken and rice was elevated tonight, it chicken leftovers finely chopped and some simple salsa added to simmer into the rice, into chicken tacos that would have made you ask me again why Eat Here Eatery lives only in our imaginations. We used some cheese and a choice of corn or flour tortillas, a kiss of sour cream and the lettuce on hand (though spring lettuces from our garden would have been betterAnd the guac - I told you about that, right? No? Okay, it's quick and you'll thank m later. Scoop the yummy part out of two ripe avocadoes and mash them up. ("I don't like it. I didn't like it as a kid so I still don't eat it." Yeah, I know, but trust me when I tell you that your palate doesn't need to be all that sophisticated. You'll love this.) Mash them with a good squeeze of lime juice. Chop a quarter of a good onion very finely and add a chopped tomato. (The tomato should never have seen the inside of a refrigerator, at least not on your watch.) Add a handful of finely chopped fresh cilantro. Mix all the veggies together, and add a teaspoon of kosher salt and some hot sauce. I use Texas Pete. Mix all this beautiful color together, cover and refrigrate for an hour or so before you eat to ensure a happy marriage of all the disparate flavors.

Then you can assemble something that's pretty close to Slow Food, even though, like me, you probably took some shortcuts along the way. I, for instance, didn't come close to making tortillas by hand. But I still got this. And if by a similar process, you also came to the end of the writing of your blog post, during which no Dread Editorial Gorgon demanded you meet a deadline, and find that you also have an interesting subplot or family tale or reminiscence, you may find you've written quite a good post. For me this evening, the plate will be all the subtext required. Later, as my friend Suldog famously says, With more better stuff.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Oxford English Dictionary: the Digitalia Cometh

The last page turned, the cover closed: the book has ended. I think, 'I love this book. I am never getting rid of this book. Seriously. I have to remember not to lend it out and lose track of it, not to donate it...I am NEVER getting rid of this book.' *

To those whose inner landscape is built on a foundation of reading, of books, of connections that emerge from and depend on the magic of language, the feeling will be at least familiar. So rapidly have we moved from the 600 year old concept of all learning being available through the power of print to the ditigal landscape that we're still catching up with ourselves. And I'm a fan. I live and breathe and make my living in the digital space; I will ultimately share this with you using digital media. Most of my friends are people making at least part of their livings using the media, mindset and tools of...well, digitalia. And yet many of us share a connection to older media too profound to be characterized as nostalgia. And so, my loves, here is a small remembrance of the beauty of pre-digitalia and its resonance in the present.

Here is my Dear Old Person (who was undeniably my Dear Much Younger Person in those days) popping his head into the door of the Booksmith, saying hello. I include it to show you a glimpse of a local independent bookstore. I include it because you see the old brass plate on the door, and the way it opened inward so that our endless stream of friends, customers, visitors, malingerers and characters had to pretty much step into the sales counter to announce their arrival. I include it so you can see the Front Door of An Independent Bookseller's Life, which is not AT ALL the same thing as working in a bookstore. For those of you fortunate enough to live in markets where independent bookstores still live - or, bless 'em, actually thrive - it may not seem important. And if you've adapted wholly to digital media, barely missing the tactile connection with the physically printed word, printed photographs or artwork, good on ya. Enjoy your evening.

When Booksmith friend and patron Mrs. Detmold called us to order a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary people were still caught, uncertain, between the non-digital and its emerging alternatives. For Mrs. Detmold, however, there was no such uncertainty. She and her scholarly husband were firmly grounded in the 20th century even as it faded and we raced toward the 21st. Some of her own manners seemed to date to the previous century, including her quaint telephone manners. We had lots of regular customers whose loyalty drove them to visit the new Barnes & Nobles beginning to dot the Southeast, leaving with wish lists they called in to us, rather than buying on sight. Mrs. Detmold was one of these. Her phone calls began with her soft, sweet voice, announcing her name and enumerating her list, and ended when she simply hung up. When she was finished with her call, she didn't say, "Well, thanks - talk to you later," or "Bye bye, dear," or anything signature-like at all. When the list had been dictated, the order placed, she simply hung up. This all would have passed with little notice, except for the day she called to order that copy of the OED.

There was no computer in the Booksmith. We had a microfiche reader, and respectably tattered copied of Books in Print. We used these to locate things our customers requested, and the hardware tools were supplemented by our personal knowledge and networks. The tools we had, primitive as they seem now, generally provided at least ballpark estimates of pricing. When I found the version of the OED Mrs. Detmmold seemed to be reqesting, I was astonished. "Are you sure you don't want me to look for an abridged version of the dictionary?" I asked Mrs. Detmold. No, thank you, she said. I stammered out the price. Was she certain? The new OED, recently updated and unabridged, running to nearly 20 volumes, was about $2500.00, a sum that approached the limits of my imagination. Really? Was she really certain?

Yes, dear, she said, and hung up.

The order was placed with much seriousness and attention, and when the heavy boxes arrived, they were picked up with much the same feeling. And then, like the ending of a phone call with Mrs. Detmold, there was silence. A couple of months passed before she called to place an order. When she did, it was impossible not to ask: Were they satisfied with the order? Did they like it? (I know: it seemed the most ridiculous thing to ask about the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, but there it was.) Did they (timdly, this last was ventured), well, did they get much use from the Dictionary? There was a moment of silence, but not the stilted I'm-not-sure-about-this-telephone-business silence to which we'd all gotten accustomed. This was a puzzled silence, a moment in which Mrs. Detmold may have considered us the Oldest City's nicest Philistines, but Philistines, no less. Finally she said, "Oh, yes, dear. We use it all the time. Someone will mention a word, and off we go to the library to look it up. We just love it." She paused, and then added, "Every time we have company, I find someone or other in the library, curled up with one volume or another, just...well, you know, just READING it."

I set the phone down and returned to the tasks at hand: matchmaking between books and people, welcoming the unbelievably diverse Booksmith clientele, thinking about novels by Isabel Allende, collections of Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe and books like The 12-Volt Bible, and the history section where Dr. Michael Gannon made his home, and the historical fiction of local interest, where Eugenia Price's Maria and Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered were staples. New writers like Connie Fowler and Ernie Mickler and Carl Hiaasen were being hand-sold because our staff loved them. And yet, The Oxford English Dictionary had found its way to someone's libary, here in provincial little St. Augustine. Someone valued the pure possession of a beloved book, printed on paper, spanning many volumes, holding the accumulated and evolving secrets of the English language over time passing human understanding.

*The book is The Red Chamber, by Pauline A. Chen (Knopf, New York, 2012). It's a beautiful re-imagining of Cao Xuequin's "The Dream of the Red Chamber", itself, according to Chen, "...the eighteenth century novel widely considered the most important work of fiction in the Chinese literary tradition....largely unknown to western audiences...", a book I'd read and loved 20 years ago or more. Ironically, one of its themes is the careless certainty we have in our youth that everything is within reach, and the awareness that comes ever so slowly as we age that every choice leads inexorably to that which cannot be undone. It is beautifully told. Thank you, Pauline Chen.

Photo(c) Angela Christensen 2012 All rights reserved

Monday, October 8, 2012

White Bean Chili, or The Art of the Lost Jalapeno

The jalapeno was simply gone. It was with me when I left the store, and undeniably Not There when its fateful moment came and it was time to be finely minced and welcomed to the pot. I was working on a Chicken and White Bean Chili, after the fashion of the fabulous Susan Brown and completely without benefit of any recipe. Following my usual theory that cooking is more art than science except when baking is involved, I figured I could use Susan's delicious example as an inspiration and make most of it up as I went along. This often works well, but at its heart is a sort of experimental approach to cooking, with hypotheses, one or two of which are bound to end up on the lab, er, kitchen floor now and then. But I digress.

Without said jalapeno, I considered the datil peppers in the garden. Datils are small peppers, well known in northeastern Florida for their excellent flavor and heat. When datils are added outright to food (often in things like purlo - we can debate the spelling later - or chowders and soups) one or two of the peppers are dropped intact into the pot and removed before serving, with the amount dictated by the desired degree of heat and corresponding flavor and the quantity in the cook's pot. Considered. Rejected. The peppers on my plants are small, and I was worried I might leave a pepper for some unsuspecting palate to experience in one fateful bite. I soldiered on, pepper-less.

I chopped sweet peppers and onions and sauteed them in olive oil with chopped garlic. Boneless skinless chicken breasts were dredged in seasoned flour and pan fried in a mixture of olive and vegetable oil, following my usual recipe. Oh, except without that jalapeno, I thought, I'd better compensate with a little more cayenne pepper than usual. (This is dangerous. I know this. I only mention it here because of the price I'd have to pay later; you know, as a sort of cautionary note. Eat Here Eatery and all that.) Out came the crisp, lovely chicken, and into the skillet went a bit of the seasoned flour to brown and make a roux. When that was a rich velvet brown color, I deglazed the skillet with some white wine and added chicken broth and a can of that staple of Southern cooking, Ro-tel tomatoes, which are chopped tomatoes and green chiles, thinking about Julia Child and cast iron skillets. And then, as the whole aromatic thing married and simmered, I tasted it for the first time. I should mention that some of The people who eat at Eat Here enjoy the occasional spicy morsel or dish. The general fare, however, allows for the addition of Texas Pete or datil pepper vinegar AFTER cooking is complete, but has a milder nature. This delicious concoction, however, was NOT in the "milder nature" category at ALL. It brought a tear to my eye, immediately followed by the thought that Chicken and White Bean Chili was about to become a much larger batch of Chicken and White Bean Something, almost certainly Soup.

Considerably more broth was added until that was gone and desperation drove me to add a can of cream of chicken soup. After a long simmer, tender chunks of pan-friend chicken, white beans and even some diced potatoes went into the pot. My Dear Old Person suggested the serving solution and poured over brown and white basmati rice, the whole thing was perfectly delicious. Not glamorous, I know, but delicious with a salad of fresh guacamole on the side. All in all, I thought, a successful experiment, even without benefit of the lost jalapeno.

After a nice beach walk this morning, I threw a load of clothes into the washing machine, and rescued the load that had been left in the dryer the night before. This was mostly a load of towels that needed folding, but I'd thrown in some of our reusable grocery bags, as well. They can get smelly and even become rather bacteria-laden if you don't remember to wash them now and then. Besides, you never know: you may reach into the dryer and pull out a slightly bruised jalapeno,completely clean and ready for your pot of White Bean Chili.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fallen flowers and fruit, rising October

Detritus of the convergence of summer's slow end the promise of October: the periwinkle purple-blue of a bruised flower from the top of the climbing thunbergia, and maybe-green-maybe-yellow Meyer lemon, likewise fallen from its home. Soon enough, the beautiful purple of the vine's flowers will stand out against the bright golden hickory leaves of the tree that's served as its host these many years. Later still, the lemons will stay the course of citrus in northeastern Florida and come ripe around Christmastime. Tree and vine, fruit and flower: they have their own stories and thus their own shorthand in our visual vocabulary.

Meyer lemons have a subtle flavor, prized by chefs and cooks for their unique influence on recipes. My Dear Old Person and I will use as many as well can, consider the various and creative ways in which they might be used to good effect, and finally then press the lemons on our friends before finally taking big bags to the office to share. It may not be necessary to say that there has long been slight variance amongst our hoursehold in interpretation of "good effect". To me this implies some of the happy places in which our lemons have found themselves: honored ingredients in brine for holiday turkeys, infusing simple syrup with sharp citrus zest to step up Grownup Lemonade, sharing the billing with lavender in a favorite Meyer Lemon Cake with Lavender Cream. Sons and husbands interpret the definition to incude pitching, flinging, throwing, tossing and hurling lemons at targets, teams, trees, squirrels and each other. Philosophically I always win (about-to-be-thrown-lemons are quickly hidden when I appear); realistically, I hesitate to say how many lemon trees have sprung up around the perimeter of our yard, and how many heartlessly lopped off. And you can kinda see why. This picture shows the branches that have begun to droop, but doesn't give you a sense of the real size; the tree must be 20 feet tall. Most years we haven't a prayer of harvesting all of them. But its history is precious to us, as it was rescued from a 19th century citrus grove years ago, before the county turned the groves into the lovely Alpine Groves Park where it stands on a bluff overlooking at St. Johns River. Our lemon tree connects us to more than a century of citrus farming and a lifestyle whose echoes are still dear to us today.

The simple and abundant flowers of the thunbergia vine, which begins each spring threading its way up the brown stalks of its previous incarnation leftover from the previous winter's freeze, reaches even higher to the top of its hickory tree. It began life in a five gallon nursery can, a birthday gift from my friend Miss Inga. Its persistent efforts at flowering every year are an allegory for a friendship which has passed through the stresses and changes of every season of every year. It's part of the reason I do what I do today for a living; it's part of the reason I think the way I do; it has shaped the person I've grown into. It's a friendship that was dented and scarred by the banal evil and uncertain sanity of a boss and a workplace that was so much fun it was just possible to ignore the fundamental flaws of the business model and the responsible party. It's a friendship still precious to me, based more than ever on truth as we can see it, and generosity as we can share it. We've passed through the trials of caring for aging parents. We are passing through the soaring joys and heartaches of a new generation of children, issues of family rising with degrees of irony for both of us. And every year, there are those elegant little periwinkle-colored flowers to remind me, stretching for the blue October sky, contrasting against the golds of the leaves and the light.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

But tell us what you *really* think

This hearkens back to spring, in honor of the just-passed autmun equinox and the winter solstice toward which time now seems to fly. And it sweetens the point of my beginning, lest you prefer to leave now and return to read on another topic. For while Eat Here Eatery is mostly content to leave matters of politics and public affairs to finer minds and more articulate voices, today's post will be a simple expression of the editor's view and yet likely to find a range of reception. So start off with a view of a spring birdbath, and finish with a bite of dessert. In the middle, with apologies to those who may be offended, here is this.

At the age of 45, Carrie O'Hare Hogan died of breast cancer. In her 50s, Helen Baker Christensen died of cancer. Vince Jeffs, far, far too young, died not long ago of cancer. You yourself almost certainly know someone whose potrait could be equally briefly sketched here. Even among our small circle of readers, surely the list would be too much for any of us to face without grief, and joy, memories and tales as plentiful and lovely as blades of grass. You will almost certainly remember the pain, from the smallest indignities to the agonies passing most human understanding. You will remember the bargains you would have been willing to make with God or the Goddess or the Universe or anyone to relieve the pain - some or all - or to take it onto yourself if even for a moment.

Perhaps you also know someone who lives or has lived, with a painful disorder for which there is a life sentence, no cure, and only a range of hopeful treatments. These can range from inconvenient side effects to horribly debilitating reactions. Perhaps fibromyalgia, MS, neuropathy...these and many other disorders or diseases may occur in the company of other troubles: diabetes, chemotherapy, organ failure; they may also occur on their own, idiopathically, as medical people say, meaning, We have no idea what causes this. And you will know that medical practitioners, bless their hearts, will try an endless list of possible remedies. They will combine and re-combine the best (and often breathtakingly expensive) offerings from pharmaceutical companies; they will fall back to older classes of drugs; they will try to get their hands on the newest things the FDA will let them use. (In our own family, we worked as advocates and partners with our dedicated family doctor to alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimers my father-in-law suffered. Because Medicare offered no prescription coverage at that time, our doctor often provided medications through the pharmaceutical companies themselves and for a time, there was some degree of relief.) In these situations, too, you may find yourself willing to make some of those same unthinkable bargains with the holy and the not-so-holy: couldn't I just be the one in pain for an hour, in her place? Could he have one day to run and work and laugh without the pain - I will take it for myself; please? Could she spend half her day without the sluggish fog this medication exacts in return for the relief of her pain? What if her illness were lifted for a day, an hour, a few moments? - to remove the heavy sadness and depression of this bleak prognosis? What if I might be able to prevent her temptation to consider suicide as she faces the rest of her life with this unalloyed pain? But the answer is always the same.

And now for the divisive opinion of which I warned at the beginning. If you've experienced any of those things, or if you've loved or cared about anyone who has, you must consider this. What if there were a way to make those little bargains of love? What if there were a way to, if not remove, at least relieve the feelings of pain, stress, anxiety and depression that accompany chronic illness and pain? What if the bargain was completely natural, simple, inexpensive and could be gathered as easily as the tomatoes and zinnias and nasturtiums you grow in your garden or on your deck to brighten summer tables? What it it could be ground finely and baked into zucchini chocolate cake to tempt even those appetites made reluctant by medication? What if it could be enjoyed with a cup of tea, and 45 minutes later followed an hour of peace, a smile blessedly untouched by lines of pain? You hear the expression "happy pill", as though your local pharmacist could just hand one over. There's no such thing, of course. But there is something that can bring such relief of symptoms and side effects that it might be called "happy", or called by any of a range of snide and silly other names, easy to tumble from the mouths of those who've never suffered hand-in-hand with a loved one. There is a simple, natural way to help. Why on earth would we withhold this? What puritanical ethos drives us to prevent or even temporarily relieve the suffering of our sisters and brothers?

Oversimplification? Deliberate blindness to the bafflingly complex legal ins and outs, the mafia, drug cartels, the regulation, the confusion, the taxation...all the things I'm pretending to be too obtuse to grasp? Maybe. But at every turn there's an obstacle. Don't ask, don't tell? In this state if you take legitimately prescribed narcotic medications, you're subject to testing. There's no possibility of "Don't ask, don't tell". There's hope in the voice of the people, as long as they speak. There's hope in the collective voice of the medical profession, should it continue to say, We have a medicine. It is not a drug. It is not the product of a laboratory. It can be grown in a corner of the herb garden, and it can be ingested as safely as the rows of lettuces and pots of tomatoes and nasturtium flowers you bring in from your own garden. It can. And for the life of me, I can't understand why we're not bringing it in from the garden.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thing One and Thing Two: A Brief Tale of Friendship and Math

Friendships are as different as leaves or snowflakes. Each has its own rhythm, its own balance, its own customs and rules, overtly or tacitly agreed to immediately or with the passage of time. Each is entered into differently, and each beginning is unique, even when familiar patterns provide framework.

None of these notions crossed my mind when I recently opened friendship negotiations with Amy.* We liked each other on sight. In fairness, I think Amy likes most people on sight; she is as bright and open and curious as anyone I know. Still, we did like each other right away. I could tell, because within a matter of an hour, she asked me one of those fundamental questions of friendship, "What's your favorite color?" Her tone was one of overture, of exploration. She was friendly, but not too friendly, you know? The way you are when you think you might like somebody, but are wary in case they turn out to be a complete nerd and you get stuck with them because you've been too nice. I should probably note here that Amy is not yet ten years old. I'm much older, of course, but this is one of those familiar framework things even I could see at a distance. I considered. "Hmm," I said, reflecting. "I love blues and purples; there are so many great colors, you know? But I probably have to say green. I think green's my favorite."

"Mine, too!" She nodded enthusiastically, her curly hair boucing on her shoulders, her hazel eyes wide and sparkly, her face lit by her smile. Some months prior I'd sent Amy's family a gift of a field guide to birds, and from her mother I knew that Amy's the family birder. So her next question seemed perfectly natural to me, though her tone told me it was a more significant question. She leaned forward. "What's your favorite bird?" This one, I thought, was a bit of a test. I considered again, struggling. "That's a hard one," I said. "I love all the songbirds, all the passerines. But I love the raptors, too...", and Amy came to the rescue, words tumbling out. "I love cardinals," she said, "And the owls and those big white water birds, and..." By now she was turning the pages of the book I'd sent to her family as well as amuch larger coffee table book filled with bird images. Her mother said, "Don't forget the penguins," and Amy said, "Oh, yes! I love penguins!" So we talked about penguins and puffins and the relative loveable merits of more birds than I can remember. Eventually we moved on, and Amy's serious, scientific mind brought her to a probing question about favorite insects (we both love dragonflies) and onward toward reptiles (mutual favorites include lizards, frogs and toads). And then, finally, the offhand question neither of us thought much about at the time. Amy's nonverbal cue was telegraphed by her and read by me in a millisecond. "Like math?" she asked. "Ewww," I said. And it was done. We were friends.

But it was wrong, of course. She's a girl. She's a smart girl. Her brain is wired for science; she wants to be an oceanographer, a marine biologist, a researcher, a solver of the problems of the natural world. Math is critical. And I'd dismissed it because I wanted her to like me. I was ashamed of myself. It kept me up nights. And then I knew what I needed to tell her: it was what I wished someone had told me - and made me wrap my head around - when I was ten years old, hated math, and couldn't for the LIFE of me figure out its value. Thing One? Math is a Language. Thing Two? Math is Good for Your Brain.

Thing One: Math is a language, as surely as English or French. But its building blocks come to us later than those of the native languages we speak; its alphabet is numbers. Its sophisticated sentences and paragraphs are dependent on things we must take on faith. Equations depend on memorized multiplication tables. Math depends on symbols that are quite distant from those of mother tongues. As a language it poses challenges like those encountered by linguistic students tackling a new alphabet, cuneiform or Cyrillic characters. Babies are sung to in their mother tongues before they're even born. Math? You have to learn the basics after you have command of that mother tongue. And yet math is the language of complete specificity. To be a scientist you have to be able to communicate with your colleagues in specific terms. If you're counting sea turtle nests, you must be able to say, There are 50 sea turtle nests here, and 50 more there, for a total of 100 sea turtle nests this year. I know you know this, dear and gentle reader. But did you know it when you were ten years old?

Thing Two: Math is like a discipline of physical exercise for your brain. The mere act of calculation, however simple or complex, works your brain so that it becomes nimble, supple, muscular; it becomes stronger and more fully developed. It develops capacity it wouldn't have had otherwise. It's like learning Latin. You don't do it because you have a burning need to be conversant in a dead language, but if you do it, you develop parts of your brain that might otherwise never be awakened. Math is good for your brain. Don't love it? That's okay. Do it anyway, for the same reason you eat an apple when you're thinking about a cookie; for the same reason you go for a walk when a nap might be nicer; for the same reason you read a book instead of watching videos on YouTube. It's GOOD for you. And here again, I know you know this. But if you didn't have a native facility for math when you were ten years old, would you have seen the benefits on your own? Yeah. Me neither.

We had dessert; we talked about it. I told Amy I'd thought about it, and sketched out my notions of Thing One and Thing Two. I told her I was sorry for not telling her the truth, and I told her I'd said it because I'd wanted to be her friend. And I told her that real friends tell each other the truth. Which matters. Because Amy's truth and her future are big stuff. She'll need all the languages she can learn, so she can open her big thoughts to the whole, wide world.

*Not her real name

Photo credit: Angela Christensen Cooking credit: Umm, that was me, too. Those are Cream Biscuits from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by the late and very much lamented Marion Cunningham (by way of James Beard) with fresh strawberries and raspberries and homemade whipped cream. It sweetened the regrets considerably.

A tip of the hat to Dr. Seuss for the notions of Thing One and Thing Two.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

For the beauty of the earth

This morning's beach walk was highlighted by a view of our adopted nest: N77 has hatched out, its content of baby sea turtles gone from the safety of the warm sand, launched on their journey to the sea. There's been a lot of this lately, as the nests of spring and summer hatch out under the watchful eyes of the scientists and staff and volunteers of the GTM Reserve.

This photo was shared with us by the team at the Reserve and shows a clutch of babies emerging from their nest just a few days ago. I imagine this is what the residents of N77 looked like: scrambling out of the sand, tiny front flippers frantically rowing in the motion that will keep them alive if they manage to reach the relative safety of the ocean. Of one thing I'm certain: we'll adopt a nest again next year. It's easy, inexpensive and more gratifying than I can say, knowing the dollars are going directly to the support of these very turtle babies, research to help them survive and stewardship of the location to which the geographic fidelity of their species will drive them to nest for untold generations.

There was another touch of magic in the day for us, as well, my dear old person and me, which came in the form of a memory, or maybe a prayer or a message. In the long summer days and evenings of his childhood when they were spent on these same miles of sand, his mother Helen, like us, combed the beach for the simple treasures of great Mother Ocean. Her favorites, he recalls, were the perfect spirals of the shells called cats' eyes, smooth and glossy as pearls to the touch of your fingers. These days, when we find one we exchange a fond glance and think or sometimes speak of our mothers. This morning as we walked along the surfline we passed a small family: mother, father, and small bright girl. "Hello," the dad hailed us, "Found anything today?" We waved and smiled, "Nothing today, but it's a nice day for it," and walked on. A few minutes passed before the small, bright girl caught up to us again. Her hair, strung with sea water and twinkling with sand,was fair as sunshine, her eyes a startling blue. She held out her hand to me and said very clearly, "I'd like to give this to you." She gave me a beautiful fragment of a cats' eye, her face solemn as church. "Well, thank you," I said, completely surprised. "Maybe I could give you one of my shark teeth, in trade? Would you like...?" She nodded and I gave her one of the small teeth I'd found. With a quick smile, she turned to catch up with her family. For a long moment, my dear old person and I looked at each other, thinking the same thoughts, saying nothing. I was thinking it felt like a tiny blessing, a reminder: We are present, children; all will be well. And I was thinking, "For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies; for the love which from our birth over and around us lies..."

I do hope your day has been touched in some way by the benediction of the beauty of the earth.

Monday, July 23, 2012

There comes a time

Politics are not the purview of this blog. There are so many voices, far more educated, erudite and articulate, better informed, better suited and in short, better qualified to discuss politics and political issues. But as a very clear-minded person said today, and will say again publicly this evening, There comes a time when doing the right thing is more important than convenience. Eat Here Eatery generally concerns itself with people and food, recipes and gardens, flowers and birds. But, you know, there comes a time.

There comes a time when we realize that some things we've done aren't right. They may have been fun; they may have been thoughtless; they may have been done in youthful exuberance and innocent ignorance. In the days of Mad Men, our pregnant mothers and grandmothers sat chattering together around bridge or cocktail or picnic tables, martini in one hand, cigarette in the other. Many of our parents and their generation had loud and brightly lit parties on beaches til all hours; some even harvested sea turtle eggs for the richest, most delicious cakes any of them remember tasting. My girlhood was punctuated with family outings during which we rode dune buggies or other four-wheel drive vehicles through the high dunes of the beaches in northeastern Florida, heedless of nesting birds or native plantlife, which were raising chicks or holding the dune lines together. We don't do any of those things anymore, because we KNOW BETTER NOW. We don't go whaling. We don't hunt to extinction species of birds because we value certain feathers for our hats. We don't shoot buffalo in their thousands, simply because we see them standing placidly alongside our railroads. (Well, maybe there are variations on this theme - rhino horn, anyone? - but we'll leave those for another day.) We don't do these things anymore, because we've matured as a species, ourselves, and because we've begun to see ourselves in the holistic context of our small blue planet, and we simply KNOW BETTER.

And so it is with driving on the beaches on land adjacent to the Fort Matanzas National Monument and the southern portion of the GTM Research Reserve. Tonight and tomorrow night, there will be public meetings in discussion of the National Monument's draft management plan. The most divisive issue under discussion is likely to be that of Driving on the Beach. There's a very vocal group who advocate for this, despite the dangers it poses to one of the most pristine, delicate ecosystems in our area, which will absolutely suffer negative impacts should the practice be continued. Both meetings begin at 6 pm and take place at Lohman Auditorium at the Whitney Labs in Marineland. Many false claims have been made in the past, and those same claims are likely to be made tonight and tomorrow night. Here are the facts:

There are already miles of beach with safe driving access and even ADA-compliant ramps in our county.

There are ADA-compliant ramps to access the beaches adjacent to the parking lots at the National Park.

There is no need to drive on all beaches to continue access for fishing, boating, walking the dog, playing with the kids, or simply sitting quietly in profound admiration for the rich marine and estuarine heritage with which we're blessed.

There comes a time when we put away childish things. And here we are again, outside the purview of this blog, quoting Biblical references. But this is exactly the heart of my view. I believe that we are learning to be good stewards of what we have. Someone said to me, of the riches of northeastern Florida, "We live in paradise", and it may very well be true. But I recall being young and reckless and thoughtless about what my children might see of this paradise; I didn't HAVE children; it didn't matter so much to me when I was twenty. When you put away childish things, you're not putting away fun. You're not putting the values of your family or your heritage. You're not putting away The Way We Used to Do Things. You're simply stepping into mature and responsible stewardship of your riches, whatever form they may take.

As a species, as a collective of sentient beings living on the Earth, we have - mostly - put away hunting white birds for their feathers. We have put away - or have tried to put away - hatred of people simply because they're different. We have put away senseless slaughter of buffalo, senseless disregard for the habits of nesting sea turtles, senseless destruction of delicate habitats. We should simply put away the notion of driving our cars on our most precious beaches. We should recognize that it was fun when we didn't know any better, that many of us will always treasure memories of whistling down the beach in an old Scout or pickup truck, that there are shoeboxes in all our closets filled with snapshots marked "Aug 58" or "June 61".

But as Chris Rich put it so beautifully today, There comes a time. We don't need to drive on these precious beaches anymore. Today is that time.

Editorial note: Chris Rich is the President of the Friends of the GTM Reserve. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm honored to serve on that board with her, and to serve with all the Friends and volunteers whose mission it is to educate, support research and perhaps most critically of all, ensure stewardship of this breathtaking resource.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Without a map

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the very first Fathers' Day celebrated by my Dear Old Person. One of our dear sons was born in the fall of 1989, and the other in the summer of 1991. Neither I nor my Dear Old Person had much of an idea of how to manage either event, both of us having more or less lost our parents through various mysteries and accidents of familial history. Some of these reached, apparently, into the very antecedents of Scandinvian geneaology; the Danish history when peeled away was particularly lurid. In my own past were the shadows of Appalachia and a long exile, useless for the charting of a map into the future. Nevertheless, we joined hands and stepped off into the void, somehow managing to bring two amazing young men along with us as we sidestepped or waded right through joys and troubles, just as most people do every day.

Joys came. Small boys creating language together, racing each other for ridiculous accomplishments, gradually emerging like sculptures with marble dust blown away in painstaking gusts to reveal completely different personalities. Large boys, making music and sports and smells, eating like Biblical plagues, teaching us, lighting the corners in ways we'd never have expected. Through these years my Dear Old Person worked quietly but constantly to make more money, to be something more than his father had been, to make his sons proud, to give them something other than what he recalled. What he recalled, in fact, he said little of, much of it seeming too strange or frightening to bring into the present. He spent as many minutes as possible with the fists of small boys pulling on his beard, with the voices of small boys crowing at him as he fixed broken tricycles or set up antique electric trains under the tree at Christmastime.

Troubles came. Some were small and uneven, those day-by-day things every family finds its way through. The loss of his father, inch by painful inch, to Alzheimers and anger, was large and deadly, causing fractures and fault lines along which the whole family broke like waves over rocks; the aftershocks of which remain with us these 10 years later. Through all these troubles, there were these amazing boys. And there was this amazing father, who persevered through all adversity, strong and stubborn and sometimes frightening. From the Wisconsin links to the old country, I often heard the voice of Aunt Thelma: "You can always tell a Dane, but you can't tell him much." Today we work our way around a progessive neuropathy that means we dance constantly around the physicality of day-to-day living. This walking is all done without a map, for there are no directions given with such diagnoses.

But it's not all that different from kids, really. We've had to dive into who we are, where we came from, what defined us. We've had to face things square on, or decide not to face them. We've gotten up in the morning and put on our clothes and started the days. We've laughed our heads off with our treasured friends, and cried our heads off with them. Or we've exchanged glances or hugs that transcended words, and been grateful for such blessings. Always there's a sense of the grace given to those who are long-bound, long-handfast wives, husbands, partners. We make promises of love for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness or health. There is no map for delivery on those promises. And yet...and yet: it is possible to find your way, walking together, making best guesses, trusting each other, without a map.

So: join me today in the celebration of Fathers' Day, recalling those who have done their best and gone on, and those who still do their best every day. Happy Fathers' Day. Blessings to us all.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Simple, under robin's egg blue

The weekend draws to a close, and in northeastern Florida it's been a wonder. Clear, comfortable days under stunning skies as blue as diamonds wish they were, full of birdsong and hope, beckoning like sirens toward Spring. Too early!, our minds say, but to our hearts and our gardeners' hands, the lure is almost irresistible. And so at our house, we've spent much of the day simply sitting under the perfect turquoise sky, watching breezes ruffle the Spanish moss, being grateful for our blessings.

Among these, as my dear friends and readers will know, are counted simple foods. These are the foods we would all put before our families had we the time; these are the foods for which we yearn, not because they present the challenges of our favorite chefs de cuisine, but because they require little more than the investment of time, a commodity that often seems just beyond reach. As we sat tonight, watching the dusk come, listening to the last evensong of the birds, we prepared for a simple meal of roast chicken and potatoes with salad.

Roast chicken breasts are easily prepared on a two-tiered gas grill, using whole chicken breasts with skin on. Salt and pepper, and place on the topmost rack of your grill. Cover and allow to roast until the skin is golden brown the the thickest part of the meat tests done. Using those new, delightful tiny potatoes as a compliment to the roast chicken, I toss them lightly with olive oil in a small cast iron skillet and scatter with a touch of kosher salt. The skillet can be placed under the roasting chicken after half an hour or so of roasting; chicken breasts with bone and skin will need an hour or so - perhaps a bit more - to cook while the small potatoes take 30 or 45 minutes. When they're done the small potatoes need nothing more than a touch of pepper. This evening I split them and topped with a tiny spoonful of feta cheese, but no one knows your people better than you. Feta, fine cheddar, or nothing more than pepper: simple, simple. Finally, a bag of salad (yes, I did use a bag o' salad; as I've often said here, shortcuts have their places!), added fresh watermelon and croutons and supper was ready. The bright sky, which had verged on a bright robin's egg blue all day long, darkened until the silhouettes of trees and moss were backlit by shadow.

We moved indoors to simple food and company, and wish you all the joys of your own.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


We inherited the Green Bay Packers from my father-in-law. He was born in 1920 in the curiously-named Poy Sippi, Wisconsin to Danish parents who still spoke Danish at home. His early years were spent farming in rural Wisconsin. In young adulthood he lived in Beloit and found his way to Chicago and eventually far to the south through the changing fortunes of the War. In old age he was afflicted by Alzheimers and was variously cranky, difficult and downright mean. In some ways it might be fair to say that parts of our family were destroyed on the rocks of his personal shipwreck, but that's a story for another time, my dears. This evening, we're thinking of one tiny connection that has successfully persisted as we watch the NFL playoffs and rally, as always, around the Pack.

This morning we happened upon an old movie on TCM. It was a typical Margaret O'Brien movie of the mid-40s, sentimental and simple, yet resonant thanks to a cast that included Edward G. Robinson and a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, it was called. Set in Wisconsin among Norwegian farmers, it had faint echoes of Pop's childhood, seen through the eyes of Hollywood, of course, but no less unmistakable.

A year or so before we were married - and many years before the perceptible effects of Alzheimers - we traveled to WIsconsin to visit Pop's family and see the places he'd known as a young man. It's a beautiful place with its great spaces caught in boreal forests that must have reminded all those Scandinavian emigrants of the snow-bounded and blue-skied lands of coastal and inland waters they'd left behind. And though the geography and some of the cultural fine points seemed foreign or even exotic, there was - and is - a common sense of warmth and openness between those of the south and those of the midwest as though they are cousins of cultural etiquette. Certainly they're cousins of the table; there was never a more abundant, homely, delicious board than the one we shared with Pop's sisters and their families. They were kind, generous and unfailingly polite, their pronounced northern midwestern accents shaped by nearly-forgetten Danish and Norwegian cadences. One of these aunts and her husband would, some years hence, travel to Florida for Pop's funeral at considerable inconvenience simply because it was the right thing to do, and for the love his sister always kept for him.

Long years later, we cheer faithfully for the Packers in memory of Pop, letting the sharp, jagged memories of recent years recede into the distance. It's still good to recall the words of Aunt Thelma, a Norwegian girl married into the family and often-uttered where Pop was concerned. "Well, you can always tell a Dane," she would say. "But you can't tell him much."

Go, Pack, go.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The robins are coming, the robins are coming

Out with the old and in with the new, or perhaps: Let us put by that which we've outgrown or outworn or simply need no more, and let us take up and celebrate that which brings us learning, growth or most emphatically, peace. And let us remember to cherish what lies between. It can be so dangerously easy to envision only The Old and The New, without consideration for all that copious territory describing the rest of our lives. And most of that doesn't need to be thrown away, or embraced for the sake of its novelty. Most of that wide expanse simply needs to be tended.

Important things for tending: Robins. Beautifully plump red-breasted American robins arrive here every year, but the time of their coming can vary widely. We caught our first glimpse this winter just before Christmas, about December 23. It was a small flock, and they disappeared too quickly to be caught in photographs. Just a few days later, on December 30, the trees were suddenly filled with their voices (which really DO sound oddly like something a Victorian writer might have described as "chirrup-ing"), and their curious explorations on the ground, characterized by a good deal more hopping than flying. So much hopping and interrogation of the ground do they do that they provide excellent subjects for photos. In the photo at the top, here, there's at least one robin, but I defy you to find it. This is partly because I am a woefully inadequate photographer, and partly because I seldom listen to the wisdom of my dear old person on this, even when he stands at my elbow with a much better camera than my phone could ever offer. But it's there. And in spite of the general gloom of the landscape and the date on the calendar, that virtually invisible little bird spans the continuum of The Old and The New with a simple reminder. Spring will come.

As the chilly days wind along and we wait for more immediate proof of the spring for which mid-winter is the harbinger, we observe with familiar markers. Often the markers, the reminders, take the form of food. Here in the south, we mark the arrival and passing of the New Year with a plate like this one. Some people call it Hoppin' John; when I was growing up it was just "peas and rice", and everybody knew the peas in question were black-eyed peas cooked with ham and served over rice. Everybody also knew, or seemed to know, that the foods symbolized something, each with its unique significance. These symbols are lost to me personally; I only know that it's good luck to have this meal on New Year's Day, and that the whole thing turned out especially well this year. I thought I might talk about old and new by sharing the "how" of the cooking here. Standard apologies to my vegetarian friends.

This whole undertaking is made easier if you cooked a ham for Christmas. If you did, you have a ham bone and/or some pieces of ham you can cut up and use to season most of the meal. If you didn't, and you want to approach the meal from a traditional standpoint you'll have to face down the mysteries of ham hocks on your own. Good luck. For our purposes let's assume you DID cook that ham, or that you're adjusting for vegetarianism as you go along. So: there are, in our family, four main components to prepare.

Black-eyed peas must be bought dried and prepared according to package instructions. At my house this means simmered until done with the ham bone, some kosher salt and some Texas Pete.
Cornbread is prepared according to your own lights. At my house, this one has one of the shortcuts I advocate as a cook and a relatively sane person (readers will know that I believe cooks should identify and embrace those shortcuts with which they can live, and should heartily reject those with which they cannot). I use a Martha White cornbread mix shortcut, with the caveat that one cannot add sugar to cornbread. There it is, and I stand by it. Gather ye cornbreads how ye may.
Rice is critically important. In my kitchen we use a half-and-half combination of organic brown and basmati rices, both of which you can get at the grocery store. Simmered together, they fill the kitchen with a delicate aroma that takes its part in the whole of the meal's experience.
Greens are different every time I cook them, but this year they're splendid. I prefer collards for the mild flavor and one of the shortcuts I can abide is the purchase of them pre-cleaned and more or less ready to cook. This year I coated a cast iron skillet with olive oil and added very finely chopped onion, just enough to make a layer in the skillet. As the onion cooked to translucence I added about a teaspoon of kosher salt, a couple of teaspoons of sugar and several dashes of white wine vinegar. I thought something delicate like pear-infused vinegar would have been lovely, but no such luxury lay to hand. I also thought some red pepper would be a good addition. I was out, but in the top of my pantry was a small packet from a local pizza joint, enought for a slice of pizza. Perfect. A quarter cup or so of water de-glazed the skillet and the greens were added slowly to allow them to cook down. A pound of collard greens, when cooked down in a 10-inch cast iron skillet, results in about enough to serve 4 or 5 people, but it takes awhile. This cooked most of the afternoon, and when finished looked more or less like this photo.

Happy New Year and thank you for continuing to return to read, despite the erratic occurence of posts. As 2012 begins, one of my goals is to meet you here more often, for I am grateful to find myself learning and growing with each interaction. For now, peas and rice are on the table. Let's eat.