Down to the Studs

Rows and piles of cookbooks most often elicit feelings of happiness and pleasure from me, but occasionally there is guilt and recently, there is the sudden understanding that I WILL NEVER MAKE ALL THE THINGS, no matter how many years I live. I mean, I don’t even make dinner most nights, for Pete’s sake. I’ve thought about privately cooking my way through one of these books as a personal, unblogged homage to the Julie/Julia project (remember the early 2000s, when the Internet was not yet a full contact sport and the idea of getting a book deal from a blog seemed downright ridiculous? No? I barely remember those days myself), but then I realized cooking from one book would be terribly limiting.

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Behold how I (completely unintentionally) stuck the paleo cookbook on top of the baking cookbooks. Ha.

[OT: As I write, the sparrows are “singing” (I use the term loosely) at the feeder I filled just yesterday. While I enjoy the sparrows, I’m always hoping for other birds to show up at the feeder. Unfortunately, the only other bird to show up regularly at the feeder is a bird of prey, probably a red-tailed hawk. It plunges into the giant yew bush in front of our house, which is precisely where the sparrows go to hide. Definitely a case of be careful what you wish for.]

In any event, I am (literally) facing the shelf of cookbooks and thinking about all the recipes I haven’t tried. Personal schedules, household food preferences, and especially last year’s epic pickled asparagus fail (EPAF) have taken the wind out of my sails a bit.

Oh, wait. I didn’t tell you about the EPAF of 2015? Interesting. See, it wasn’t really the end result of failure that helped take the wind out of my sails as much as it was the idea, in the back of my mind, that my inattention to detail had caused the EPAF; that I wasn’t all there, that I was engaging in this activity despite my subconscious saying to me, why all this extra work? That you don’t reeeeeally want to be doing right now? 

I mean, really, why? Because we were subsistence farming and I had to? (No.) Because there was a glut of asparagus? (Nope.) Because I love pickling? (No. I love pickles, but am not as fond of the process.) Because I would feel like I was being lazy if I didn’t? (Possibly.) Because there was a “food person” pickling contest of some kind, of which I was obligated to be a part? (Not to my knowledge.)

Oh, that last one is interesting. Hmm. There’s definitely some fierce humblebragging about food on the Internet, mainly due to social media (see above about “full contact sport”), and that engenders this feeling of competition, of the desire to one-up, of the desire to be seen and acknowledged and understood and agreed with. I have totally participated in this. I probably participated in this yesterday (it’s still early in the day today). Online life has gotten that way in general, with the humblebrag or overshare or just plain update du jour countered by the defensive parry, which is neutralized by the passive-aggressive meme, which is responded to by declarations of “taking a break”, with others just agreeing all over the place to a) show solidarity or b) keep the peace. It’s not topic-agnostic – this occurs in conversations about politics, parenting, education, health, whether or not to have a capsule wardobe – and food, of course. Anything that involves people making choices is not just up for discussion – it’s up for angry debate, shaming, ridicule, echo-chambery agreeance, etc. It’s hard to avoid if you spend any time in these so-called “spaces” (which is, I guess, more accurate than “places”). I think it’s incredibly reductive; we’re so much smarter than that…aren’t we?

Anyway, I think my mentioning the epic EPAF now is my way of leaning into the admission of originally not wanting to post about it because it was a messy, gross, expensive failure instead of a (yes) humblebrag. It’s me telling you now: I’m never gonna do that again unless I really freaking feel like it, because it wasn’t fun; I felt obligated to do it as a so-called “food person”; I had to buy asparagus to even have enough for pickling because I’d eaten so much of it and given away more to the neighbors; I made a mistake with the jars and they broke in the canning pot and it was a mess and a complete waste of food, time, and money… and I felt like a jackass for falling prey to “what would the community think?”. 

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Basically, I cropped that whole ridiculous episode out of existence, and no one ever knew. Above is the only photo I took of the EPAF before I cleaned up and sulked about the mess and, embarrassingly, the fact I couldn’t even get a decent photo of the EPAF. (eyeroll)

Here’s the positive thing: I still absolutely want to read about what people are doing around food & culture. I still want to look at photos from trips to wherever, where people ate the most fantastic things; I want to read about the trellises fashioned out of rescued rebar and thrifted Christmas lights; I love seeing jars of pickled asparagus (no, really, I do) and bread dough rising on the counter and omelets made from the eggs laid by beautiful hens in bucolic settings. And I still want to write about my success growing watermelons, of the latest composting victory, of the joys of hanging laundry on the line. Isn’t that part of the reason why people took to the internet with such alacrity back in the day? To get a window into what life was like for other people? But I think it would be interesting to start talking more about what’s happening out of the frame. Mistakes, imperfections, clouds, setbacks… and then figuring things out. Getting on with it – which, by the way, does not mean forgetting about it. Just the opposite. I’m interested in the idea of putting those things out there and carrying on, not getting caught up in the past or in the comment wars. Moving forward, building change, starting in your own house. I was laughing at myself the other day because it seems so simple, yet it’s so hard to do in 2016. It was in 2015. And 2014. Obviously, because I’ve been writing about the same things for ages.

So. Let’s begin. Here’s an uncropped shot of where I usually write.

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RELATED: I was watching a documentary about Studs Terkel and I loved the pile of books in the background contrasted with the fresh flowers, that old lamp, the aging couch.

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I’ll write more about Studs another day, but… Studs. There’ll never be another like him. He definitely put it out there, got on with it, got people to talk about themselves and to each other face-to-face, and only stopped when he passed away at the age of 96.

He probably never pickled asparagus.

Black Hole Sat

I’m not a planner by nature. How about you?

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Being prepared, planning, listing out steps, having an idea of what I want to do before I start doing something – it’s all very learned behavior for me, and I’m still not great at it. I was never taught, exactly, how to make plans, how to plan ahead, when I was a kid. I was told to do it by teachers and family, and I often experienced the fallout for not planning when I was a young student (I remember, very well, the day my mother told me what “procrastination” meant and I sat there thinking, there’s a word for this thing I do?), but there’s a big difference between knowing you’re supposed to be doing something and knowing how to do that thing. It smarts, especially when it seems to come so easily to everyone else, including your annoying little brother.

Things I’m somewhat hapless at planning in my personal life:

1. Anything with money (I’d just rather not spend it, or spend it on the same things)

2. The future (long-term)

3. What I’m going to wear (or even knowing what I have to wear) (related: #1)

4.What I’m going to blog about (I do have lists of topics now)

5. Leisure time (I just clean instead)

You can imagine how I’m feeling as Jim and I work with Lilly on Planning Her Future, which is a LOT of 1 & 2. None of us are really good at it and it’s terribly intimidating, but we’re trying to relish the challenge. Gulp.

There are certain types of planning I’m pretty good at. I know my way around conceiving, planning, and executing campaigns at my job. I LOVE the strategic planning process for organizations. I’m an excellent (though rather barky, if I’m not getting help) meal planner. And today I realized, after Jim and I did the grocery shopping and I was getting everything ready for the beef stew that’s on the stove right now, I really enjoy prep work in the kitchen. I like the peeling, the chopping, the dicing, the measuring, the mise en place. I enjoy cooking, but prep work makes me happy. When Jim cooks, I often help with the prepping of the vegetables. Our kitchen is small and we are not small people, but I enjoy being side-by-side, working together and bumping into each other.

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We’re getting a little more snow tonight. I was just outside to take out some recycling and it was so still and so quiet as the snow fell, the only sound my neighbor practicing his French horn. The stew is done. The biscuits are done (I highly recommend them). Before I go, here’s tonight’s LOTSA (Lisa’s Open Tabs Saved Aggressively):

The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t

Interview with Jeff Wise, who has an interesting MH370 theory

His theory

More spec from Jeff Wise

She Does podcast

The most amazing cattle you will ever see

Reddit AMA with animator Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) – she lives in Urbana!

I hate the “picked for you” pins on Pinterest and use it less because of them

How to thicken stews

Idle Hands Make Pie

As February lurches on – it doesn’t march, it lurches – the days lengthen and the desire to DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING increases. I start trolling the web looking for stuff to do, not unlike a bored toddler, fresh Sharpie in hand, eyeing a blank wall. Building, baking, seed-starting, whatever, but it has to be EXACTLY what I want to be doing and it CANNOT be drudgery and NO ONE can make any suggestions. So this weekend I baked a key lime pie the way Deb at Smitten Kitchen does it because a) I’d been craving limes and b) it’s a sentimental favorite (more on that in a sec).

Production was colorful – the butter (Kerrygold) was a cheerful, robust yellow as it melted, the lime zest an otherworldly green. The entire house reeked of citrus.

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Making the crust and the filling were absurdly easy, though juicing the limes was a bit hard on my hands (we no longer have a citrus juicer, alas). And while I’m always nervous that pies of this type will never set properly and leave me with a pie plate full of graham cracker and goo – I speak from experience – such was not the case. Most of the total time involves the cooling of the pie (twice – once for the filling, another for the whipped cream on top). Here’s an arty shot, before the whipped cream was applied:

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Why key lime pie, you might ask? Great question. When I was in Florida, growing up, limes were the weird citrus tree. I loved every other citrus fruit, but limes were weird and how could you even tell they were ripe and they seemed to spend more time in beverages than anywhere else, which was suspicious. Of course, we eventually left Florida for Minnesota and, over time, I basically forgot all about limes as anything other than something to put in a gin and tonic or to accompany Mexican food. When we started heading to Florida every winter in the early 2000s, we would also visit my Oma (RIP) for a day and basically steep in fresh-squeezed citrus juice. She didn’t have lime trees, but she juiced the, um, juice out of each and every orange and tangerine on her property. Her neighbors thought she was insane, but she knew better – they’re buying their orange juice at the store, she scoffed. I liked the way she thought. Juicing oranges and tangerines with her, in her kitchen in Titusville, reignited my love for citrus, limes included. We now have a custom of buying the surprisingly-good key lime pie from Publix every time we’re on vacation, but this year, I couldn’t wait. And while Publix makes a decent KLP… well, so do I, as it turns out.

Today’s LOTSA (Lisa’s Open Tabs Saved Aggressively):

Transforming a junk drawer

Creating a buyer persona

Podcast editing tips

Wall Street wants to know where the Twitter users are

Chipotle: The Definitive Oral History

Eddie Huang Against the World

Radio peeps moving to podcasting?

My friend Ken Stringfellow’s blog

All about a button museum in CHGO

Jarred Awake

Spears in jars.
Spears in jars. Click to make big.

 

I meant to have a blog post all outlined and organized, the way you’re “supposed” to, but it didn’t happen because time! Is of the essence! Spring’s in. Even though it’s not yet warm enough for my liking here in central Illinois, the sun is out today and the ground is pliable after some rain earlier in the week, so I have to get into the yard with some of these plants I bought at the first farmers market of the season. A few things, though:

The Sustainable Student farm at the University of Illinois has started a vermicomposting pilot project at their place. Zack Grant, the farm’s manager (and my garlic planting guru), was nice enough to let me be there the day the worms arrived.

Zack's worms.
Zack’s worms.

 

I enjoyed hanging out with the worms (and Zack, and his assistant, Matt) so much that I wrote it into a BYIRadio piece. You can listen here.

After the worm situation, Tim and I shot what will become a BYIVideo, number to be determined, featuring my friend/neighbor Jill Miller. She’s the creative force (well, she’s all the forces, really) behind Hooey Batiks, and a fair amount of her art centers around food and gatherings and experimentation with both. We had, predictably, an awesome time. Stay tuned for more info.

BYIVideo #2 is in editing as I type. People, we gathered some excellent footage there. I love Cathe’s farm so much, god. The piece should be done in a few weeks, after some of the frenzy at work dies down and Tim returns from a work-related trip (to San Francisco, that jerk. I kid.). In the interim, I’ll be tweaking the writing…and working on music selection, thanks to our friends Automatic Empire. ILY,AE.

Lastly, Jill (mentioned above) recently told me there was a cookbook by writer Kevin West, Saving the Season, that I had to get. Jill has hundreds of cookbooks – and she reads them all – so her recs are trustworthy. I have too many cookbooks, and the last thing I really needed was to buy another one, especially about food preservation (which this one was). I love the concept of food preservation much more than the execution because, MY GOD, it’s so often presented as being so EASY with this smuggish veneer of utter fussiness underneath the writing, plus the recipes, in my experience, have never been that great. [Note: Paul Virant’s beautiful book, The Preservation Kitchen, is excepted from all of this, but it’s intimidated me from day one. I have more guts now to try stuff now, for reasons I’ll explain in a second, and his book remains one of my favorites. I talk to him about food preservation here.] ANYWAY. What’s beautiful about West’s book is how relatable it is. He’s just a guy who came home from the farmers market with too many strawberries one day and was like, I need to make some jam, and then proceeded to fail at it. The result of that failure is the book. The narrative was so great and everything so simple and attractive, I decided, damn it, I’m pickling some asparagus. The results of my attempt are pictured above. I wrote the experience into a BYIRadio piece, too. Here it is, if you’d like to listen.

OK. If you’ll excuse me, I have weeds to pull, plants to plant, and more asparagus to pickle, oh yes, thanks to my asparagus patch and Tomahnous Farm!

My Whey or the Highway

There’s something in the air. Friday I went to lunch at Sitara with my future writing partner, the awesome Chef Alisa DeMarco, where we commiserated about not having time to really get down all day in the kitchen (in her case, her home kitchen) to make something DEEP; Saveur mag came out (that day, maybe even?) with online content talking about “project recipes“; I’m bored, I think that’s what it is. I think we all are. This winter is endless. Endless! I just wanted to go outside, or do something inside, or WHATEVER. I DIDN’T KNOW. Gah.

So I made yogurt. In a machine. A machine that has been sitting, brand new and untouched, in the cupboard above the oven for 5 years, when I bought it in a fit of pique right around my 40th birthday. [It should be noted that my mother also had a yogurt maker that she used a few times before relegating it to the back of a cupboard, so I come by this hereditarily.]

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I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned my oven woes/whoas. Making yogurt is probably something I would have tried to do in the oven, but the ol’ Visualite is nearing 70 years old, and has decided that her only temperatures are Pretty Damn Hot and Really Fuh-reaking Hot. This will have to be addressed at some point, but that point is not now. It’s been this way for about 8 years, so I’m kind of used to it, but anything requiring precision or overnight heating is unwise. So I got out the yogurt maker and went for it.

What’s cool about making yogurt? It requires only a couple of ingredients, it doesn’t require a lot of babysitting, and it saves the recycling bin from a glut of containers. It feels awesome and thrifty and downright powerful to make a staple food from leftover staple food – chicken stock from a chicken, sourdough bread from starter, more yogurt from starter yogurt. It also tastes pretty damn good. I’m glad I did it. It was incredibly easy. I’m a dork for letting the maker sit in the cupboard for so long. So, thanks, yogurt maker: Until the oven gets fixed, you will not be condemned to the same fate as the panini press, the Foreman grill, the juicer, the food dehydrator…