Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another Beginning's End

Yesterday, in a few surreal minutes around a banker's table, we completed the sale of our former home. There is no going back. After weeks of packing, procrastinating, and moving in stages, we left the ranks of the homeowners with a few simple signatures and committed ourselves absolutely to a new direction, whatever it may be. As this year draws to a close, an era of our life does also. We now have the punctuation in our equilibrium (rest in peace Stephan Jay Gould) that we have been craving.

All those ominous words make it seem like a big deal (which it is) when it actually felt strangely anticlimactic. We were a little excited while waiting in the lobby, and after it was over there was numb shock, but during? The weird fact is that the legally and officially important part of a home sale is not the emotionally interesting part. The search, the dreams, the plans, the weeks of loan processing during which you hope that nothing comes up to make the deal fall through, the move (!!), and the years of your life that you spend making the payments--those stages hold the drama. The defining and binding moment is a few signatures, paper shuffling, a check or two, and handshakes all round. If you're lucky they give you a mug (I still have the one I got when I bought the cottage we just sold).

Many of the big events of our lives happen just this way, like marriage and parenthood. After months of thrilling anticipation, it takes only moments to pronounce vows or achieve conception, but a lifetime to carry through on the commitment. There's a strange inversely proportional relationship here that almost amuses me. Acting in a play or completing a marathon take much longer to do, but neither is a guaranteed life changer. Some of the biggest shifts in life announce themselves officially with a whisper, not a bang. Well, maybe a public service announcement in the middle of a fireworks show.

After our brief and solemn rites of property passage, we returned to the glamorous job of clearing the last things out of the house and cleaning. When all was done, I took a glance down the hall and said goodbye to my now former home--and suddenly felt teary. What a surprise! I was ready to go, but even appropriate partings are a little sad. I want my son to grow up, too, but that necessitates a few tears on occasion, as well.

It's comforting to me that we pass this important milestone under a blue moon, or the second full moon in a calendar month (I only recently found this definition after a lifetime of hearing folks say "Once in a blue moon."), and a special one at that. A blue moon at the new year occurs only every nineteen years. I'll take all the confirmation I can get in this transitional time.

And transitioning we still are. We've made it from the beginning of the end to the end of the beginning. Now starts a new life in which we must decide our heading and sort out the devilish details. How fitting for it to fall at the turning of the year, when thoughts naturally examine what has been accomplished and what might still be achieved. If we're lucky, we've half a lifetime left to chase the promise and keep it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Christmas Eve Wake Up Call

This morning I woke feeling compelled to get up and get going, spurred by thoughts of all I thought I still had to do for the holiday now upon us. The gnat cloud of gotta-do's had already found me last night, causing a fuss festival that left an after effect like morning breath. I was up before my husband, so I took my tea into the den to sip and slowly wake myself and shake off my funk.

The den faces east, towards the coming day. This was waiting for me.

This beautiful sunrise is another of the reasons to move to this spot in the country. The place we left was in a ridge and valley system that didn't allow such happenings, so I haven't seen a sunrise like this one in at least the last six years. Here, just one county away (and that's not far in a state with 125 of them), the land opens up into gently rolling hills that allow fabulous vistas, one of the intangible benefits of life where we want to be. My heart seems to expand with the horizon. It always has here, long before I met my husband and formed ties to this area.

I spent my tea time watching the changing sky and deliberately thinking of things in my life for which I am grateful, a much better way to start the day than thinking raggedly of the future and its demands. Of course, it turned out that I didn't have nearly as much to do as I thought. It usually does.

This Christmas Eve present is another reminder that the important so, so often gets lost in the urgent. I get lost in it, too. For a few minutes this morning, I was found. A glorious sunrise was evidence that the best gift ever--peace--is available every day if we stop to claim it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Staff of Life

Although it was always my intention to make food an important part of this blog because it's an important part of my life, I quite ironically felt the launching call just as we were moving in with my parents-in-law, which meant that I would be cooking and baking less than ever for a while. We were busily between houses, and cooperative arrangements needed to be evolved. Now that we are settling in, I am happily getting back into some of my food routines. How better to begin than with the basics. For us that means a whole grain whole wheat bread that has truly become our staff of life.

Now, I've heard bread called the staff of life many times, but I don't think I really understood that statement until I discovered good bread--that is, hearty, handmade, short-ingredient-list bread, so different from the fluffy white stuff that I grew up on, which wasn't substantial enough to sustain a gnat and deserved no particular attention on its own merits. It didn't stand alone as a food, but merely served as a vehicle for whatever of substance one put between its slices. A loaf of that pseudo bread with "a jug of wine, and thou" would leave the average person in a low-blood-sugar coma or at least a state of ravenously renewed hunger in less than two hours. Even as a youngster, I really hated the way it suctioned to the roof of my mouth when I ate sandwiches. That lack of gumption didn't seem right to me even then. I may have been ignorant of quality or nutrition, but I knew annoying when I encountered it. It seemed to me that good food shouldn't be annoying. In fact, my granny used to insist on toasting her white bread because she believed that it became a wet lump in her stomach otherwise. Now that I think about it, maybe she was right. But enough of ranting about industrial bread, which has been banished from my life anyway (except for Chris's Grocery sandwiches, but that's another story).

The beginning of understanding what the staff of life meant was my college trip to France. Good bread is everywhere there. Even street baguette sandwiches have substance and flavor. In fact, I one day made a full lunch of only good cheese and good bread while visiting Baden Baden on a no-lunch-provided bus tour. There I was, perfectly sated after a few pieces of basic food stuffs. That just couldn't have happened after a meal of American pasteurized process cheese food (that's it's unappetizing technical name) and American white bread. My eyes were now opened to what bread could be.

Then I graduated and moved to the mountains of Oregon. Our nearest shopping town didn't have fine bakeries, but I did seek out the best quality factory bread I could find. Still pretty oblivious to ingredient lists, I nonetheless remembered that good bread has body to it. At least, I couldn't roll this bread easily back into a wet, white dough, as I did to my childhood bread. I even experimented with baking bread at home. The first time I did so, I was quite struck by how yeasty it tasted, like an exponent of all the bread I had previously known.

Suddenly, as I recount my own historical relationship with bread, I'm amazed at how long knowledge can take to germinate. I see now that I continued for years--well over a decade--buying grocery store bread, even when I was making from scratch my own pizza and baby food and every sweet thing we ate. The only explanation that I can now find is that bread was so basic to life that I never imagined I would be able to keep us supplied with it myself. I had bought into the industrial food product myth, which says that food is too hard and we should just let them make it easy for us. Oh, the painful hind sight.

It wasn't until I started culinary school in the city, where I discovered Great Harvest, that I was able to buy the kind of bread I wished for, simple bread with just a few easily recognized ingredients and without anything else (no dough conditioners, preservatives, corn syrup, emulsifiers, etc.). Yet another layer of scales dropped from my eyes. I was absolutely in love with their bread for over a year , buying it at least weekly. Then, several months ago, I decided that surely I could figure out how to make my own perfect bread. After all, I was allegedly a professional baker (however untrained) and a culinary student. It was high time to master this basic food.

I did a little online research for recipes to compare, so that I could get an idea of the basic formula that would result in good whole grain whole wheat bread. (I'm borderline hypoglycemic, so white bread is a treat unless carefully combined with protein, and so comes later). I ruled out all recipes that contained anything but pantry staples. I didn't want to have to buy some fancy ingredient that I did not currently stock or that was a convenience product in itself, like powdered milk. With my pool narrowed down to three, I started baking. Pretty quickly, I settled on a basic recipe whose origins I don't even remember now. I've made changes of course, so it's mine now. I may tinker with it still. Good food evolves, and good cooks play.

I missed my bread so when I was unable to bake during the oven outage and moving. Although I bought the best bread I could find at our local grocery store, it was a disappointment, tasting the way I imagine an inflated and toasted cereal box would. So it was with much joy that I returned to baking it here at the Flora farm. My latest loaf is the one in the picture at the beginning of this post. It's my best yet because I kneaded it longer, giving it better gluten development for prettier shape retention. I'm still getting to know the bread and what it needs. And that's OK. It will only get better.

Before I get to the recipe, I need to say that whole grain whole wheat bread gets an undeservedly bad rap in my opinion. It is substantial, yes, but not heavy or dry or bitter or any of the criticisms I've heard about it. This bread turns out hearty, very wheaty (am I the only person who loves the taste of wheat as is?), moist, lightly sweet, and very nourishing--a good staff of life indeed--with only basic ingredients and techniques. While there is an entire world of bread to explore (and I intend to), this bread is a good place to start. I think of it as the workin' blue jeans of bread. It's stout and easy, an everyday workhorse of sustenance. A toasted and jellied slice of this bread with a glass of milk will get you a ways down the road or off to bed with a satisfied tummy.

There are also so many notes to make about this recipe. First, despite there being some truth to the old rule of being absolutely precise when baking (as opposed to cooking), there is some room for adjustment here. The type of oil is flexible; melted butter might even work, although I haven't tried that yet. Use whatever sweetener you want, even increasing or reducing it to suit your tastes (I did). If the water isn't the specified temperature, you'll still get bread, just a little more slowly. Speaking of slowly, you could even use less yeast and allow more rising time for better flavor development, if you're really in the know. If you'd rather bake two loaves at a time, just double everything. If you aren't familiar with bread baking at all, find instructions for kneading and loaf shaping online, which are the only steps requiring any specialized instruction. There are really so many ways to change any recipe. The point is to start somewhere simple, providing your own basic nourishment, and expand from that humble beginning. That's my plan.

I also must provide the caveat that I'm a novice recipe writer. I learned at culinary school that producing a good standardized recipe is part art, so I apologize if my learning curve shows badly.

Well, not that you've been duly warmed up and warned, I depart to check on my bread. I don't know what the future holds (including anyone actually trying any recipe of mine), but today there's homemade whole wheat on my counter. That's good enough for now.

Basic Whole Grain Whole Wheat Loaf Bread

1 1/3 cup very warm water (110 degrees or so)
2 tablespoons sugar, brown sugar, honey, or molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons oil
3-3 1/2 cups or so whole wheat flour, plus more for kneading
1 tablespoon active dry yeast

  1. In a medium bowl, combine the first four ingredients.
  2. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix well.
  3. Add the yeast and stir in.
  4. Add two cups of flour and stir in. If the dough cleans the side of the bowl at this point, you are ready to begin kneading. If it doesn't, add more flour 1/4 cup at a time until it does.
  5. Knead until smooth and elastic, 7-10 minutes or so by hand, using just enough additional flour to keep from sticking. I have also let my Kitchenaid mixer knead it for me, which only takes a couple of minutes, although I think it benefits from a little hand finishing even then.
  6. Let rise in a greased bowl until it has doubled in size. This will take 30 minutes to an hour.
  7. Shape the raised dough into a loaf and let rise in an 8" X 4 1/2" loaf pan until it's above the sides by about an inch. Again, this will take 30 minutes to an hour.
  8. Bake the risen loaf in a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes.
  9. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Then turn out onto a cooling rack and allow to cool thoroughly before storing.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snow Day

These photos show one of the reasons we've uprooted ourselves from a convenient life and relocated to the country.

Right now, there's a lot of running back and forth to move and store our belongings and to transport my son to school and activities in another county, with moments when I wonder if we really know what we're doing. This morning, after a breakfast of local farm eggs and father-in-law's local hog sausage and my own whole wheat bread, we walked the perimeter of the hay field behind the parents-in-law's house in the quiet and loveliness of fresh snow, and I knew. Experiencing this kind of soft beauty with anything like regularity is worth it. These sweet moments renew our determination to someday have our own farm, even though it will take much effort, time, money, and patience. We've traded in convenience and conservatism for the chance to realize a dream. We go forward on faith.

Yesterday I discovered a quote from Martin Luther King Jr that says it all for us. He said "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." We can't see how we'll accomplish all the steps between us and the beautiful vision to which we hope we're climbing upward. There is no knowing. There is only daring.

As my husband said when I shared the quote with him, "Race you up the stairs."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Talent is House Dust

Although I have come to love living in a small town, I do not dislike cities. I love visiting them and understand their gravitational pull, particularly in the area of the arts. There are cultural offerings that are hard to support without great numbers of people to show up and pay money. That's just a fact that I don't fight. I don't expect to find an opera company and a specialized French bakery in my closest town (pop. 3100 or thereabouts). Variety simply flourishes more readily with a greater pool of humanity to feed it. Still, it bothers me immensely that small towns and rural areas are perceived as sleepy, boring places with nothing much to offer and their residents as slow folk who wouldn't know a latte from a ladder. The artists and writers and performers are out there, but they have to create their own outlets--or go to the big city.

The irony in this perceived culture gap is that there is tremendous beauty, one of the touchstones of art, out here in the country, the sort of visual wealth that inspired artists like Vincent Van Gogh, writers like Henry Thoreau, and photographers like Ansel Adams. Out here we have the gorgeous in spades (When I learn to upload pictures, I'll prove it); we just don't have the nearby economic machine in place to easily monetize it. We have the peace and quiet that inspire creation, without the ready market to make a living at it, although the internet is changing that limitation. If artistic production is separated from money and image, we have the best of both worlds, especially with internet connections for exposure and sales when desired.

This all may sound like pipe dreaming (Is that an opium reference, or what?), but some examples from my own painfully unglamorous life back me up. The first is TANO. Never heard of it, you say? I don't doubt it. TANO was the acronym for Toketee Artist's Night Out, a small group of creative souls in the big woods of Oregon. I discovered them when I lived in their community from 1990 to 1992.

The tiny spot named Toketee Falls, 2800 feet up in the Cascade mountains, is home only to a Forest Service Ranger Station with its employees and families, and a Pacific Power and Light hydropower installation with its crew and families. Moving there from a small city (Knoxville, Tennessee, pop. 200,000 plus), I expected to find nothing but basic life going on. For the most part that was true, except for a few proactive people. This handful of artists formed a group to provide mutual support for themselves, but ended up putting on an art show in the middle of nowhere for others.

I helped set up for this out-of-the-way art show one year. I'm here to tell you that it took some doing. Over two days we cleaned up the community building, set up display panels, hung rigged "gallery" lighting (swing arm lamps with clamps), printed flyers, and put signs out to direct guests from the nearby state highway. And guess what? Some passersby actually came, and some actually bought. Back then, a newly transplanted city girl, I was surprised. Now, looking back, I'm not. That experience and others in Kentucky are the reasons why I believe that the arts are alive anywhere.

In 1998, I decided to attend my first community theater performance since moving to Morehead, Kentucky. That summer's big show was Annie. (I didn't know it then, but I was watching my future husband play Drake the butler.) I remember being, frankly, surprised at the talent and the scale of the production. A full-fledged musical requires multiple people with pipes, scads of costumes (All those orphans, people!), many hours of practice, and at least a wee bit of money. All I can say was that I was impressed at what they pulled off in front of a good crowd in a medium-sized auditorium in a small town. I've seen many shows since then, right here in our little town, that have made me laugh and cry just as much as some heavily produced Broadway touring shows or well done movies out of the metropoli. I should have remembered that some of the good stuff is in the hinterlands. Unfortunately, I tend to learn many lessons over and over again.

Then there's our church. The organist is a world class jazz musician who has played with Count Basie, won more than one Daytime Emmy for writing music for soap operas, and thought up a few jingles for national advertising campaigns. Our choir, with a little university student help, has sung the Messiah--a big work for any size group--three times since I've been there.

In fact, since moving to Kentucky, I've seen and been a part of more plays and other arts events, and met more artists than I ever did living in a city. I know that creative outlets abound in cities, but that doesn't mean I was ever led to find them. Residence in a cultural mecca isn't a guarantee of attendance. It can all get lost in the anonymous shuffle. In a small town, artistic endeavors stand out, often because your friends, family, or neighbors are the cast or artists. You find yourself supporting the arts because of connection, not out of generic, high-minded attraction to the arts as a concept.

Now back to my point about rural artists having to make their own outlets. If you live in a city and want to sing, dance, paint, etc., there are venues in place into which you can insert yourself. If you're in a small town and want to do those aforementioned fine things, you may find yourself founding your town's own community theater or art guild or writer's group. Frankly, I admire the pluck of locals who make a small town audience of sixty weep a little more than I do a major theater company's downtown show for 400. The latter's flawlessness is expected. The former's effectiveness is a delightful surprise that goes against the mold. Extra points are always awarded to the underdog.

I must admit here that a nearby institution of higher learning helps local culture. Fine things in my own current area are boosted by the presence of a state university, which attracts all those faculty and aspiring students who need to do their thing for a grade or a learning opportunity, and Toketee Falls, Oregon had a junior college in the nearest town, an hour and a half away. But success always comes down to the work and devotion of a few dedicated souls, for whom the journey is still uphill, with a smaller pool to tap.

The general principal behind this little rant is disagreement with the idea that bigger and more are better. I find myself eschewing big in all kinds of things now--house and car size to name two. The cultural dichotomy of city plenty and rural poverty is just another facet of my beef with this conventional wisdom. I say in the most positive way that enough is enough. I don't need forty offerings a week. The regularity we have is sufficient and more appreciated, like strawberries eaten only in season.

The scattered cultural gems in the countryside remind me of something I read years ago. A print maker, whose name I unfortunately don't remember, made the assertion that talent is as common as house dust. What makes the difference between success and failure is disciplined daily work at one's art or craft. At the time, I found that statement surprising. As I have carried his words with me and opened my eyes to what is around me and within me, I have come to believe them wholeheartedly. Whether you are in a city bustling with artistic outlets or in a hamlet with homemade venues, art and talent are everywhere. The only barrier to finding them and growing them is in our minds, as I found at the TANO art show and my local production of Annie. As the great sages En Vogue sang, "Free your mind, and the rest will follow." You just might find talent, art, and beauty everywhere.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Biscuit Bobble

Ah, real life. Who needs glamorous, made-up characters and exotic locales. Ordinary life is plenty challenging on its own. That's my opinion, anyway. It's one of the premises on which I base this blog. Just looking at my own life as a tale worth telling has made me see how much is happening to me, a quite ordinary person, on any given day or week.

Let's take yesterday. It was deliciously uneventful at first. I got to rest and read for most of the day. Other than doing a couple of loads of laundry (yawn), my main task of the day was cooking dinner for My Beloved and his parents. They wanted sausage gravy and biscuits. Now I've made this dish many times before, and I'm pretty proud of my biscuits. (The mother-in-law buys hers, don't you know.) Piece of cake, or so I thought. I forgot that this kitchen was new to me. It's someone else's kitchen, with different stuff in different places from my own. The first outing in an unfamiliar kitchen is always bumpy.

First I turned the oven on to preheat and found the necessary supplies. Check. On to mixing and my first mistake--upping the batch on the fly. In case you haven't done a lot of baking, I must inform you that this practice is dangerous. The tendency is to forget the increase already begun and to short an ingredient out of inattention or habit. I almost fouled out there, but caught myself. That was a good thing, because the leavening is never a good ingredient of which to use too little. Biscuits should be for eating, not for playing hockey or a long sea voyage (Hardtack, anyone?).

While working away, I began to notice an unusual smell. Eventually the odor prompted me to check the oven, just in case. It was then that I learned that my dear mother-in-law stores her skillets in there...with oil in them. Two of the now-hot pans had plastic handles, which luckily hadn't melted yet. I found the pot holders really fast. Check. I also learned why biscuit cutters have open tops. Cutting biscuits out with a drinking glass makes flour go everywhere and mashes them pretty flat. To top it all off, when I thought I turned off the timer, I turned off the oven. The poor pale things finished baking with residual heat only. No wonder it took them so long.

By the time my sweet husband arrived and remarked that my biscuits looked a little wrong, I was officially in no mood for critique. I announced the closure of the complaint window, and we ate those biscuits, which tasted just fine despite their hard and short life. The whole incident just proves my contention that even second rate homemade is better than store bought. Besides, even the pro's have off nights. I've read the books at school to prove it. I'll just anticipate the day when I make for them my "These-may-be-the-best-I've-ever-made" biscuits, and they weep with long lost joy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Poem for Hopeful Times

Bless malleable, creatable life,
Full of discovery and unknown
Raw materials of dream.
Hail the accidents and
Beneficial failures that
Shape us most mercifully.
Follow the homing beacons
Within that buzz and jingle
When we near our nests.
The mystery is the answer.
The clues are whispering within.
Be your own soft animal,
Led by the nose and ears
To new lands of plenty.
Turn all the corners with
Expectation of surprise.
Go brave navigator, and
Find the gold under the leaf.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Coffee Spoons and Castles

In one of T. S. Eliot's poems, he writes "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons." I could not now tell you the title of the poem, but that phrase has remained in my mind for many years, in quite a melancholy fashion. My impression at the time I read it, way back in my college days, was one of regret and futility. The line seemed to say that the speaker had wasted his life in metered trivialities and endless mundane details. Maybe I remembered it for such a long time because I was determined to avoid that kind of rueful fate. It summed up for me death by banality.

Today, as I continue to pack up all my spoons and most of our other worldly goods, I have a slightly different perspective on those long remembered words. Yes, they could still mean what I thought they did so long ago, but, then again, how else is anyone meting out his days? This morning, waking in someone else's house, to which I must (and I know I will) adjust, I found myself missing those small measures of my former everyday life--my own smooth-handled spoons without the edges that pressed ever so slightly into my hand as I ate breakfast today; the hand-made French cup for my morning tea that was a gift from my beloved; boringly healthy cereals in the cupboard.

I would not want habits to be the sum of my existence, else I would not write, but I am reminded now that the little routines of our daily lives arise for a reason. They are comforting. I'm used to knowing when I'm going to eat breakfast and what I will be eating. I'm accustomed to a hook for my bathrobe, socks folded neatly in the drawer, and a schedule that gets us out the door without thought. Patterned action keeps us from having to think out our each next step. Who wants to do that every bleary morning?

It's odd and enlightening to feel this way because, for the last few years, I have been craving change, movement, adventure. I have chafed against doing The Same Old Thing while my inner voice called out for action.
Go to work, eat, go to WalMart, go to bed. It seemed no way to truly live a life. That discontent was one of the reasons I decided to go to culinary school. In my excitement at finally making this latest change, I forgot about the bumpy transition phase. But that's all it is--a transition. In a very few days we'll know who's going to shower when and where the clothes live now. The new normal will unfold as naturally as the disturbance of changing. I've been through new starts before, which have taught me that humans have an amazing capacity to adapt. I choose to trust it.

Part of my changing perspective on that haunting line is because of my current circumstances, but part of it is because of age and experience. I was nineteen or twenty when I read that Eliot poem. Like most young people, I wanted to do something big. At forty two, as my friend Wayne once said, I try to do a few small things well. I'm also learning to find contentment in every day just as it is, just where I am, doing just what I have to do, rather than living for a future that is not guaranteed. Even the little items and chores of life can be rich if we make space to enjoy them. We can avoid the basics of life or we can aggrandize them. ( Flea market antique coffee spoons, anyone? )

The truth is that I want it both ways. I want my soothing routines and soul-stretching adventure. I want to floss my teeth religiously every night and start a brand new life in the country. I want to eat the same thing for breakfast every morning and cook a different dinner almost every night. I want my coffee spoons and a grand experiment. I insist on believing that we are meant for both. The trick is not to short change either. Act toward the big dreams of tomorrow, but honor the little duties of today.

I'm deeply glad that, at this stage of my life, I have begun dreaming big but have learned to be happy with being small as well. Here in the ripe middle is where I can be brave enough to build castles in the air, but wise enough to enjoy laying the bricks one by one.