Friday, January 29, 2010

Losers Unite

Boy, do I suck at doing nothing. Take last Saturday, for example. I drifted about the house waiting for some cue to begin my day. The desk and the kitchen were taken, and I was feeling just a little bitter about my known activity prospects for the day--sheet washing, filing, lunch. Ugh.

Frankly, I was having a little pity party. It all started on Friday while I was doing laundry. My new loungewear pants, whose receipt was of course thrown away, had achieved a ridiculous sock-baring shortness during their time in the dryer. This disappointment came on the heels of obsessive blog reading during which I realized that I don't have comments or a community like the popular girls.

Ever taken ill in that swift way that boggles the mind? Just been driving home and, in minutes, been overcome by a wave of bad feeling, and just like that, you're sick? Well, that's what happened to me there at the dryer. Like blood sugar dropping, the event was entirely internal. No one looking at me would ever have known. But I did. I had been hit with a case of Loser-itis.

In case you've never heard of Loser-itis, allow me to explain. Loser-itis is a disorder in which one suffers general feelings of worthlessness accompanied by slumping energy levels which exacerbate the feelings of worthlessness. I suppose it's a mild form of depression caused by awareness of the Great Yardstick in the Sky--or whatever it is that indicates that you are here and other people are there, and you aren't making it from here to there very quickly, if at all. Onset is often caused by adverse life circumstances but can be quite random. Basically, you suddenly feel like a loser. Thus the common name of this psychological malady.

I would say that Loser-itis is inherited (I'm pretty sure that it's rampant in my family), but my mate suffers from it, too, and his parents seem absolutely untouched by any such dis-ease. Maybe it's a random mutation on the happiness gene in some individuals. Whatever the case, I come down with it regularly, though not as regularly as I used to, and I've worked very hard to minimize outbreaks and recover more quickly. I usually just recognize that a flare-up is occurring, give myself a little emotional TLC, and go on living anyway. Symptoms most often subside shortly. Some particularly bad days end with a small amount of eye seepage, but most incidences resolve quickly and without medication.

But what if I'm not alone? Maybe there are other sufferers out there unknown to me. If so, I could do the world a great service and start a support group. We could call it LA--Loser's Anonymous. (Hi, my name is Ann, and I've been a loser for most of my life.) Who knows how many victims are out there praying for relief, while feeling as if they are the only one. There may be at least three of us. We need to help each other.

But then I might have to hold meetings at my house, and, well--I don't currently have one. We're living with my husband's parents right now. Oh, lord, maybe we really are losers. I think I feel another attack coming on.

Or maybe I'm crazy, and I should just return the shrunken pants and stop reading blogs!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pie and More Pie

Mother-in-law was in the kitchen right up until her knee replacement surgery, and pies plural were some of the results of her efforts--Transparent Tarts and Cushaw Pie. For those living somewhere other than Northern Kentucky, both are regional favorites not well known outside this area. In fact, I hadn't heard of Transparent Pie until I moved to the neighboring county, or of Cushaw Pie until I married into this family. They both deserve some attention for their simplicity and authenticity, being examples of true country baking. They use simple ingredients and formulas and could be done many ways, but I want to share with you the way they're done here, by one family's farm wife. It's where I start, being new to both, until I see where I take them in my turn.

Transparent Pie (or Tarts if baked in individual pie shells as my mother-in-law did) is usually a simple concoction of butter, sugar, and eggs plus a touch of vinegar and vanilla, with many versions adding cream.
After making the pie crust (You do make your own, don't you?), you really can't get much easier than Transparent Pie. It's a stir and bake dessert that yields way more in richness than you gave in effort. If the description sounds a lot like Chess Pie, it's very close, except that Chess Pie contains a little cornmeal. I think they're sisters separated at birth.

From all the possible incarnations of Transparent Pie, I'm happy to start with Aunt Geneva's because you can't get more homey than recipes passed through family. I also think it's a good introduction because it's so utterly simple--the most basic version I found, using pantry staples only and no more work than melting butter and stirring. Aunt Geneva's version didn't even call for cream, which would seem to me to detract from the whole transparent idea anyway, although it does sound tasty. I'll try a cream version later, if only to see if that's the kind made by Magee's Bakery in Maysville, which is famous around here for their Transparent Pies. (George Clooney from nearby Augusta is rumored to be a fan, in case celebrity connection sways you.) For now, here's Aunt Geneva's Transparent Pie or Tarts.

Transparent Pie

Makes 1 9-inch pie or 12 individual pies

1/2 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir all ingredients together in a medium bowl until well blended.
Pour into a 9-inch unbaked pie shell.
Bake at 300 degrees until starting to set.
Raise temperature to 350 degrees and bake until brown on top.
**I have no idea if the two-step baking is necessary. We did
nothing like it at the bakery where I used to work. That's
just how Aunt Geneva did it. And that's what I'm interested in

Don't let the short ingredient list and plain appearance fool you. This farm's Transparent Pie is simple yes, but very rich. It has heft from the butter and singing sweetness from the sugar and an almost-gelatinous feel from the eggs' partnership with the other two. With this deceptively simple dessert, more richness is really not necessary, but when we ordered Transparent Pie at Caproni's restaurant in Maysville, they brought vanilla ice cream with it. The two together were a bit much, although a little lightly sweetened whipped cream might by workable. Alternatively, My Beloved and I immediately imagined it served with an acidic fruit sauce like raspberry (me) or strawberry (him). One website went so far as to declare that the only official accompaniment to Transparent Pie was black coffee. Were I a coffee drinker, I would probably agree.

Before I expound on the subject of our other pie, I 'll identify the cushaw itself, since I had never heard of it before meeting this family. There may be a cushaw-loving underground for all I know, but before my internet search (about two minutes ago), the only other reference I had seen to cushaw was in Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, (She's a Kentucky native born of farming folk much like my in-laws). For the record, the cushaw is a large, long-necked winter squash with a hard, green-striped shell that father-in-law grows every year in the garden. If stored in a cool place like the unheated garage (here) or the basement stairs (Kingsolver's family home), it will last through the winter. A hunk is sliced off as needed and the cut top covered with foil. Here's our cushaw.
What's left of him is about the size of a small basketball, and probably half of his length has been removed already. As I said, they're big.

As for the pie itself, when I asked my mother-in-law where she kept the recipe, she just pointed to her temple. That's right, it's only in her head. There is no measuring to speak of and no exact cooking time, so until I can make one along with her and get a recipe down, I can only tell you the story of the pie--approximately--the way food instruction was probably handed down centuries ago when cooking was a basic skill you learned from your people, not an optional art or a nutritional science. Do something a hundred times, and you can get away with this method, which goes something like this:

Mother-in-law removes the peel from a piece of cushaw and cuts it into chunks. The quantity is enough to fill the pot she always uses to the level that she knows is enough for a 9-inch pie. The squash gets boiled til tender, drained, and mashed. She then adds to it 4 tablespoons of butter, one cup of sugar, a little salt, a generous sprinkle of cinnamon (she thinks this might be about a teaspoon), and one egg. After mixing everything together well, she pours it into an unbaked pie shell and bakes it at 300 degrees til it starts to set. She then increases the temperature to 350 degrees and bakes the pie until the filling is completely set. Baking takes almost an hour she says.

The finished pie has a slightly fibrous texture, not nearly as smooth as pumpkin pie, but pleasantly so. The flavor profile is very simple, with a balance between squashiness and a gentle influence of cinnamon, not an out-in-front spice announcement. Like all squashy pie, it practically writes you a note requesting whipped cream. I tried to eat it plain but couldn't do it, even though all we had on hand was Cool Whip, to which I am philosophically opposed. Maybe as I make Cushaw pie my own, I'll try it with fresh ginger or a praline topping. I get to decide.One of the food truths I've learned since being in culinary school is that once some basic techniques are learned there are a hundred different ways to do anything--pancakes, pie, you name it. For someone who struggles to be free of crippling Platonic ideals, this is a liberating revelation. If there is no one ideal, then the job of a foodie is to start somewhere that calls you, find your own ideal, and do it well, whether that's foie gras-heavy gourmet or ace diner chow. In my limbo between lives, I'm beginning my real and personal food journey right here where I find myself, with family recipes, random inspirations, and the hope that someday I'll have my own repertoire to hand down. And I get to make it myself.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Common Ground in the Meat House

Last weekend, My Beloved and I went out for a walk around the field, during which he suggested we take a peek into the meat house. In case that sounds like a strange location to visit or have on your property, as it did to me when I was first getting to know this family that would become mine, let me assure you that it's a fine thing to have in one's life, even if it is mildly creepy at first.

The meat house is an unassuming, windowless building in the back yard to which I've never paid much attention, the kind in which suburban folk might store yard equipment. Out here on the farm though, it holds meat in production. Back in the fall, my father-in-law purchased two hogs on the hoof from a local farmer, had them slaughtered (also locally), and cured the hams from them himself. They are now aging in the meat house. Basically, father-in-law is making country hams in his back yard, carrying on an old tradition, one of the last vestiges of the food ways with which he was raised.

The hams get plastered with a curing mixture (I think it's a secret recipe, but there's salt, sugar, and yes nitrates involved) before being hung for months to reach the official status of cured. At some point they go into pillowcases to protect them from bugs, probably when the weather is warmer. Accidentally bumping the back of my head against one of the fabric-clad hams while trying to photograph hanging animal haunches speckled with spices and tiny mold spores in a damp, semi-dark hut was the mildly creepy part. I'm over it now. City folk just aren't used to being around dead things, especially dead things with mold that you will later eat.

Country hams have always troubled me that way. They're quite moldy and ancient looking, not appetizing to the eye at all. (Those in the picture look pretty good compared to some I've seen.) On the other hand, I have always loved eating them, if I just don't think about the looks. As with bacon, that salty bite is just so good, even though I am definitely not a saltaholic otherwise. And a little country ham is wonderful flavoring for a mess of beans or a one-dish meal of collard greens and noodles. I even like it fried up (which is a good thing while I'm living here), as long it's soaked beforehand, which mother-in-law always does.

Aside from taste, I admire the work and waiting that go into country hams, especially when they're done the old-fashioned way by our very own family member. There is a deep satisfaction in knowing that one of us made it himself. A better writer than I will have to get all flowery about it. I just know it's true.

I am consistently amazed that my parents-in-law, just one generation ahead of us, grew up with these kinds of country ways that I, being a city girl, thought were gone long before their time. They remember fall hog killing time, drying apples on the porch roof, bathing in a big tub filled with water heated on the wood stove, and taking lunch to school because there was no school lunch program. In rural Kentucky, electrification, road building, and other modernizations were only just happening as they reached adulthood in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Farming was still what almost everyone around here did. If you wanted something different, you took off to Ohio or Indiana or Michigan and got a factory job.

I am also amazed at how quickly change can be incorporated in one generation. My parents-in-law grew up with the Old Ways but seemingly embraced all the New Ways that came along--pesticides, TV, central heat and air, county water, and freezers in the garage of a ranch-style house. Their children grew up pretty much the same way I did in a city far away--at least in terms of technology and conveniences.

Nowadays, a growing number of people are talking about, writing about, and trying to bring back some of the Old Ways, especially those used for food. There is much nostalgia for time honored practices that are harder for us in the short term but better for the environment in the long run. Interestingly enough, I have never heard my parents-in-law wax misty over the good old days. They have never spoken of porch-dried apples as being so sublime that they really should go back to doing that again. They garden every year, but have no snobbish complaints about store bought winter tomatoes. Their freezers are full of their own beef and local pork, but the pantry is full of convenience products.

All those contradictions remind me that industrialization occurred for a reason and in a time of innocence. At the time, cheaper and/or easier must have seemed indubitably better, since no one could guess at the unintended consequences. Maybe the developments that the cognoscenti of today decry as damaging and which my in-laws have taken to without trouble were, back then, a relief from the fluctuations of weather and insects or the deprivations of seasonality or the annoyance of hot, sweaty work. Hindsight may have revealed nature-besting efforts as self-defeating in the long run, but they didn't know that then.

The point here is to avoid judgment of people in whose shoes I have never walked. Fifty years ago there was a lot even the experts didn't know. Fifty years from now it will be the same. We are always doing the best we can with what we have. Being nostalgic for hard work or patience I've never had to endure is just a little patronizing.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for biologically sound farming methods, seasonal produce, minimally processed food, and reduction of resource pillage--all the latest thinking on sustainability. I'm a product of my time, too. I just want to be respectful of opposing beliefs
(especially while I'm living with them), even as I try to live by my own. I want to be enlightened, but not smug. Change can sink in fast and become, we think, the only way to do things, but there's always more enlightenment coming. The apparently benighted have reasons for their ways, whether still valid or not. Those reasons must be respected before they can ever be affected, not that changing family is even my job at all.

Besides, even while my parents-in-law live happily with modern ways and products that I want no part of (pesticides in the garden, store bought white bread, etc), they keep some things on which we can agree. Like a loving spirit and Dad's hams hanging in the meat house. Those are pretty good common ground.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Rainy Brain Drain

For a while the exciting refrain was "It's still snowing." Lately, the daily update has changed to "It's still rainy." It's basically looked like this
for daaays now--a world of greeny-brown with a lid of gloomy clouds. I try to stay out of the business of complaining, but a little sun would be nice for variety's sake--especially during these shorter days of the year. We've had enough rain to last for a while, surely.

It's rained so much, in fact, that Locust Creek across the road from the house became more like an elongated pond yesterday; the low lying fields contain shallow lakes; and then there's the mud. The muddiness has progressed to the point that
even four-wheel drive is incapacitated by the slick hillside between man and herd, and the high water prevents creek-crossing overland travel by four-wheeler. Father-in-law has had to visit the cows with the tractor. On the way home today, I saw dark tracks in neighboring fields, gashed by the tractor tires that are necessary to get the job done but hard on the land in its delicate condition.

All this rain also creates more mud, to which I've already decided that I must accustom myself. Snapping a picture of these over the weekend

reinforced my commitment to a mud entrance in our future home. Rows of banished footwear beside the door are another of those country things to make perfectly normal. They need a home away from home, so to speak. I will plan for it.

In other breaking farmification news, my son got to ride the four wheeler for the first time. Stepdad showed him how to shift gears and turned him loose. He asked where he was supposed to go. Stepdad said "Anywhere you want, as long as it's in this field." So he tore off and had a blast, looping through his personal race track over and over again. He only knocked the grain bucket off once.

I was trying to hide from this latest risk (He's also learning to drive cars, but that's another therapy session.) by helping mother-in-law with the dishes, when I saw him fly by at the top of the field. I started yelling through the window to Stepdad about slowing him down but just decided to forget it and go back to hiding, pretending that ATV rollovers were absolutely not a possibility, no matter what three out of four medical helicopter pilots say. He lived, and is duly one step closer to being part country boy. He really wants boots now.

There are other points of interest from the past few days involving pie, more pie, driving practice, and strange out buildings, not to mention surgery, but they will have to wait. It's close to bed time for the Future Farmgirls of America, my brain is drained from playing junior accountant all day, and my husband's evening has descended to such crap status that he's resorted to watching TV on purpose. I can't take any more excitement.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Love Muffin

Today, I find myself about to wax surprisingly rhapsodic over another household staple around here--Cinnamon Muffins. I say surprisingly because I baked them for years without tasting them. Normally baking something without eating it, or baking something that I didn't want to eat in the first place, would be unthinkable, but I made them for my son, not for me or my husband. These goodies were produced not for consumption but to express motherly oven-love that had for many years been crowded out by hours of baking for pay and to wean him off PopTarts while humoring his simple palate.

My dear young man has always been a picky eater who knows what he likes. He started life by rejecting bottle feeding quite clearly. (Good thing I didn't want to go back to work.) Then, after a compliant infancy in which he would eat any fruit or vegetable baby food that I made for him (Isn't there some kind of award for making your own baby food? I'd like to win an award for something.) and any meat that I bought (Wait, there goes my award.), he proceeded to live on a diet of about five foods until toddlerhood. Once he broadened his tastes a bit, he still showed a marked preference for plain foods. He rejected both blueberry banana bread and chunky tomato sauce because they had "fruits" in them. (Apparently, he's brilliant, too. He knew tomatoes were a fruit before I did.) He never got into dipping foods in sauces like some children. He preferred just cheese pizza. He accepted no nuts in homemade brownies and carefully picked them off the packaged ones. He basically has a history of eschewing all chunks, condiments, extras, and toppings. His favorite ice cream flavor is--you guessed it--vanilla, and he still orders his burgers plain at fast food outfits.

I suspect parental payback here, because I was also a picky britches as a child. My idea of a sandwich was American cheese-like food and white bread--only. My list of safe vegetables contained just green beans, corn, and potatoes--not that the last two are even vegetables. I too rejected crunchy interruptions of smooth things like brownies and peanut butter. I was a senior in high school before I ate a salad, and there was probably more ranch dressing on my plate than salad.

Basically, I would have felt like a hypocrite if I'd given him grief. No one made me eat foods I didn't like, and I turned out to be a fairly adventurous eater. Why have a power struggle over it? I figured that with enough time and education he'd expand his menu choices on his own. So I preached the virtues of nutrition and variety, made sure there was something he'd eat on the table each night, and waited. He made it to ranch-soaked romaine way before I did and requested green beans for his birthday feast. My plan is working.

But despite the progress, he still leans toward plainness. When I was belatedly able to begin spoiling him while I still have him by replacing the offensive PopTarts with Mama-made muffins for breakfast, his choice of flavor was cinnamon. That's all. Just cinnamon. He wouldn't even go for chocolate chip, which I would have enjoyed, too. (Wait. He used to call his mother The Queen of Chocolate. Maybe he was just being brilliant again.)

I dug up a plain muffin recipe in a cookbook at the little bakery/cafe where I worked at the time and prepared it with a generous amount of added cinnamon. (It was, ironically, written plain to allow the baker to stir in additions. Shows what they know.) I don't remember even tasting them. They were for him. He liked them. That's all I needed to know.

All, that is, until we found ourselves here at the farm without our own stock of chosen edibles and with a need for a snack. Those muffins suddenly looked mighty interesting. Plain and designated for the child, yes, but at least scratch made and replaceable in my new free time. So hubby and I poured some milk, split one (I make the jumbo size since they're an athletic 16-year-old's breakfast entree), and were pleasantly surprised.

We both agreed that we had given these plain gems short shrift. I immediately elevated them in my mind from plain to simple, which is to me a virtue (This belief is probably why I'm garnish-challenged at school.) I was also gratified to note that they were sweet, but not too sweet--another virtue, since I contend that muffins should not be cupcakes by another name. And is there any homier, more soothing flavor than cinnamon? They were absolutely uncomplicated comfort food, a testament to the powers of the pantry. No wonder my son loves them so.

For now anyway. Another thing about my boy: he'll choose a food, live on it, and forsake it entirely when he's had his fill of it. Someday I may be nostalgically making these muffins for myself when I want a snack like a nap with blankey.

Cinnamon Muffins
Makes 6 jumbo or 12 regular muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar or brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 cup milk or 1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup oil
1 egg

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees (375 if you have a dark nonstick muffin pan).
2) Mix all dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.
3) Mix all wet ingredients in a small bowl.
4) Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ones just until moistened.
5) Divide the batter between the muffin cups.
6) Bake for about 15 minutes for regular muffins or 20 minutes for jumbos.
7) Turn out and cool completely on a wire rack.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Girl Meets Herd

Today started out foul. I woke up still tired from the manic week and proceeded to be draggy and groggy all day. Not even a nap helped. So when my husband volunteered to check Dad's cattle this afternoon (He has a baby--I mean, calf--with pneumonia) and asked me if I wanted to accompany him on the four-wheeler, I agreed, partly to be with him and partly in the hope that being outside would perk me up.

One of the great surprises for me since falling in love with a farm-raised man is that I like riding on that four-wheeler with him. Before being around one in use, I associated them with what my husband calls redneckery (muddin' and tearing up land) and accidents (the local hospital helicopter crew called them "donor cycles"). But snugged up to my new love while flying across the pasture on our first official date, I had to admit that it was fun and, well, kind of sexy. In those courting days, I would rest my head on his back or gaze around at the gracefully draped hills and wonder if I'd found my destiny. The answer was and is yes.

Although it was good to be out in the fresh, above-freezing air on our growling metal steed with the good memories attached, that wasn't the reason for our mode of transportation. Now that all is a "river of January melt" (I just quoted myself!), we needed the ATV to get to where we were going. Even with it, we didn't make it up the hill to where the cattle were clustered around their hay. We began spinning into the mud and had to back down to the bottom of the hill and park there.

One of the missions of the trip was to try to encourage the cattle to move away from that muddy hillside, so My Beloved called to the herd and spread some grain treats on the ground near the parked ATV. When that didn't entice everyone in our direction, most notably the sick calf and its mother, D informed me that he would have to walk over to the remaining cows and I should just wait there, since I hadn't worn my mud boots.

Here is the part where I started feeling like the city girl I was born and making many observations about my new life. I confess that I never got off the four wheeler. I felt safer staying astride the machine during my thoughtful time. Besides, it was muddy, remember.

My first thoughts were about mud, in fact. I found myself thinking "I have to get used to mud," while carefully removing a flipped clod from my boot using a stray leaf that had stuck to my laces. I won't be able to avoid the stuff when we have our own farm with our own animals, nor be delicate about dealing with it. The mud entrance in our new house will be literal, so a zen acceptance of mud must be achieved.

After the mud check, I just watched and listened to the cows from my escape vehicle (Well, it would be if I knew how to start it). I was struck again, as I first was, by their size. Cows are big. I mean BIG. Hundreds of pounds of potentially dangerous flesh. And we puny humans are supposed to tell them what to do? My husband suddenly seemed small off in the distance compared to the crowd of bovines surrounding him, but he wasn't scared. He knows cattle the way he knows family: He may not have seen them daily in years now, but he remembers how they are. He has the confidence of familiarity that I will have to acquire.

I was relieved when the bull of the herd had his fill of grain and wandered off. I really fear--I mean, respect--them. That left just cows and a couple of calves close to me. I took the same tack with these cows as I do on a busy city street: Make no eye contact and look like you know what you're doing. They went on about their simple business, and I relaxed a little, listening to their
munching and lowing and puddle-slurping sounds that punctuated the country silence. (Love that! The silence, that is.) I also heard a bird call, a treat in winter, especially after being indoors so much lately watching bird-feeder TV with no sound.

While trying to be inconspicuous to my new neighbors, I noticed something caught in the bottom of the carrying crate strapped to the front of the four wheeler. It was a tiny stuffed tiger, the Happy Meal toy kind. Where father-in-law found it I don't know. If it was on the farm somewhere, how did it get here?
I had no answer to that question, only a tiny mystery to ponder while I kept the little toy in my hand just because, I sheepishly admit, it made me feel better.

About this time, I began to feel that the cow to my right with her nose buried in a puddle was watching me without watching me, just as I was her. It was weird to have the same knowing and avoiding in a field with a cow that I've had on subways with city people. Maybe she was the decoy, because right about then I noticed that one of the larger calves was moving in behind me for closer inspection. I made some kind of universal shooing-off gesture with my little tiger in hand, which took care of that curiosity.

Now, when my husband left me, he had instructed me to just "shoo off any nosy cows." At the time I wondered exactly how that was done, but decided I would rely on instinct if the need arose. Instinct worked. It turns out that humongous cows respond in pretty much the same way as dogs or cats. Good thing for me.

With the harassment issue settled, I could again turn my attentions to my husband and the herd on the hill. I got to see for myself today some things he's told me about. Like how cute new calves can be. And how fast such a big animal can move when it wants to--say, when it hears the grain bucket rattling. And how when one starts running others do, too--just because--which is disconcerting when it's toward the nervous city girl left alone at the bottom of the hill they're pelting down. Not that I was in any danger. It's just, shall we say, impressive when hooves start pounding and movement begins spreading through the herd right in front of the uninitiated.

Basically, the rest of the visit was awkward but uneventful. I remained an observer only, because I'm a greenhorn and because I am not an animal-loving person. Why I want to be a farm chick is one of the mysteries of the ages. Maybe I'll be the kind of farm wife that my mother-in-law is, ruling the house and only visiting the farming operations. (Ironically enough, she swore that she would never marry a farmer until she fell in love with one--52 years ago.) Or maybe I'll get past the awkward stage and come to love caring for animals in ways that I could never have previously imagined. I'm aiming for chickens. I'm bigger than they are.

Watching my husband moving gently among the cattle, checking on each and every baby, enjoying his time outdoors with them, I agreed with his father that My Beloved would make a good farmer. I don't know about me. The truth is that all our dreams and ambitions could painfully and expensively flop. There is undeniable risk in any new venture. But there's only one way to know. When I'm an old lady in my rocker, I want to know, not wonder about what might have been.

So next time I'll wear my rubber boots (even though they're cutesy, girly ones ). I'll get to know cows and mud and chickens, mortgages and gardens and barns, and see how it all suits me. I'm trusting my inner voice that hasn't steered me wrong since I started listening to it. We'll leap and hope that a beautiful green net appears.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Nostalgia for Nothingness

Last week's blissful snow days of baking and writing and plentiful sleep have already become a nostalgic memory. This week has been filled to capacity with work that exemplified Parkinson's Law (which says basically that work will expand to fill any time available for it), with extra driving to transport my son around, and with nights back at school. And I was just getting good at doing next to nothing.

In fact, after the shock of Christmas break boredom, something I haven't experienced in well over a decade, I settled into a lovely groove of quiet days in the kitchen and at the keyboard, with time for brisk walks, stretching, observation, reading, and pursuit of both internal goals and calmness. Frankly, I want it back--sort of.

Here's the rub. I had to first let myself enjoy the gentle time with which I was gifted. In our current culture, doing nothing is not too highly regarded, so it caused me feelings of guilt and insufficiency. I got past them, but there they were, reminding me how things are around here. America has always been chasing after something--political independence, the other shore, the moon. We became a country not by evolving from long habitation but by a declaration, an act of will. The very first white people here were in search of something, and we haven't shaken it off yet.

You could argue that striving is human nature, but there are other parts of the world where people aren't so eaten up with it, countries with traditions like siesta and two hour lunches--at home. That just isn't done here. For instance, French citizens enjoy a mandatory six weeks of vacation. Most folks I know with anywhere near that generous amount of leave don't use it all. Even my own husband, who is no fan of a frenzied way of life, has vacation days in the use-or-lose category. He's really good at taking it easy, but still feels blocked from using all the time off available to him. As I see it, employers offer the perk to look good, but there's a tacit stigma to taking too much of it--anything more than two weeks of it anyway. In this country, we may admire Thoreau, but we also worry that anyone who builds a shack in the woods and doesn't seem to do much might be the next Unabomber.

Maybe our fear of doing and being nothing is the bad flip side of our belief that this is the Land of Opportunity. We're supposed to be able to work our way up to the top of whatever heap we choose, so if we don't, there's no one to blame but ourselves. We must be slackers,
with no excuse for not being on the success track--getting a college education, landing a "good" job, buying a big house and shiny new car, and amassing a small retirement fortune by the time we're 60, at the latest. We're supposed to be ambitious, chasing a fancier and more expensive way of life. Puttering or wandering require justification--like illness or retirement.

There is a backlash brewing, however. Just today I read a blog post about the art of doing nothing, which referenced two new books on the subject. My current daily reading book (when I can keep the quiet time in the schedule!) has a section on the topic. Maybe we as a culture are finally tiring of perpetual doing. After all, it's pretty sad when even children don't know how to enjoy time without an organized event or an electronic appliance. Apparently they're supposed to be developing themselves in some way with athletics or gymnastics or piano lessons, not just laying and playing around.

It's a shame that we avoid emptiness of time and spirit in the way we do. As I discovered in my few vacuous days, once the wall of resistance is broken through, life's essence--just being--is more valued and available. True desires take shape in the mind and transform into considered activity. With less happening, the inner voice--who can now be heard--has more to say. The bonus is that time, or our perception of it, seems to move more slowly and gently, no longer racing by until, as I am doing this week, we wonder where the days went, it's suddenly Friday, and we're too tired to enjoy the weekend fully.

Here's where I must concede that we do have to deal with annoying complications like making enough money to live and being responsible grownups who fend for ourselves. I am in no way suggesting that we all become hippie bums, living on free love. That experiment failed. I just suspect that we could all be happier by doing next to nothing as regularly as possible and being less attached to contemporary ideas of achievement. There might be room for thought and inspiration that change the world far more than all the busy work we make for ourselves.

I suppose that, like anything else, doing next to nothing just takes practice. Once I started to get the hang of it and let go of the idea that I wasn't (Horrors!) doing enough, I didn't want it to end. Actually I now have a sneaking suspicion that I could be a champion recreational slacker in the making. I'm even hoping to challenge the status quo by crafting a life someday that contains work but isn't consumed by it. I'm quite contrary about that goal. Until then, I hope that I get to practice the art of doing next to nothing again really soon.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Stressful Day Gratitude List

Things for Which I'm Grateful on a Stressful Day
  1. We left late after a bumpy morning. I was worried about the skiff of...something...on the road. I finally asked my husband if he would slow down if I cried. He solved that problem with a test. He laid on the brakes, we didn't slide, and I was fine after that. Knowing is sooo powerful. We laughed and joked the rest of the way.
  2. I'm glad there are CPA's to do W2's and end of year taxes and be so nice about it.
  3. My son had to hang out most of the day in the lobby of my office because school was out--without complaint. How did I get one of the angelic teenagers? (Uh oh. Did I write that out loud?)
  4. I was able to take my boy with the shiny new driver's permit out for a little practice during a brief break in the non-stop action. We didn't even make each other nervous (much).
  5. One thing about living with parents: I didn't have to cook dinner after getting home late.
  6. I'm pretty sure my misdirected Excel worksheets can be moved some way. Later. Like next week.
  7. School is already on a one-hour delay tomorrow. More sleep!
  8. The sneaking temptation to leave for class in the city early tomorrow and spend my Target gift cards (on me!) or shop for pants (for me!).
  9. Writing anything at all when I feel like hiding in a cave instead. Maybe Julia Cameron is right. Real artists show up when they feel like it and when they don't feel like it. Take that moody world. We have remedies.
  10. We met with our pastor/architect for the first discussion of our new house plan!!! The first step in making a dreamhouse real is taken. The important made it in there after all.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Snow Day with White Bread

The snow and the cold abide with us still. The thermometer on the back porch never rose above 15 degrees today, the kind of cold that inspires gratitude for warm shelter. All the birds darting and flitting around beneath the feeders had their feathers fluffed out for warmth. ( My Beloved wishes we had that ability.) The snow both fell and drifted deeply enough that their movements left wandering dashed trails across the yard.

I forsook my daily walk around the field because of the temperature and wind chill. My farthest venturing from the delicious indoor comfort was onto the back porch to capture just a little of the beauty and mystery of the snow. The ragged edge of the drift looked a bit like the bubbly surf trail on a beach a world away.

My shutter trigger finger started aching from the cold quite quickly while I was having such metaphorical thoughts. Obviously time to get back inside and keep that empty kitchen company again.

Today I wanted to make white bread, which I haven't made in many years, not since I discovered that whole grain bread kept hunger and low-blood-sugar shakes at bay much better. Besides wreaking havoc on my hypersensitive system (Spiking and crashing is no fun), we all know that it lacks the nutrition and fiber of whole grains. But I need to add to the personal repertoire I'm trying to create for myself, and stout bread isn't appropriate for everything. Bakers who want to quit feeling like losers need to know how to make a good farmhouse white, too.

Finding a recipe that met my expectations again took a while. I consulted my mother-in-law's battered Betty Crocker cookbook from the early 1960's (which, much to my consternation, had a lemon pie recipe that I could have used yesterday if I'd remembered that her cookbook collection was there!) and one other well-used cookbook, then checked around online. Again, the variations--in yield (I wanted just one test loaf) and ingredients and technique--were myriad. I ended up cobbling together two recipes and a remembered method to get the loaf I wanted. If I try really hard, I may recall it for you later.

Baking is, as many a person before me has noted, very therapeutic. There's an alchemy in transforming the simplest of ingredients into a deeply satisfying food that makes me feel as if everything is clearer and more right. When I got past the fumbling search for my own experimental recipe and held that warm, happy, well-kneaded ball of dough, as tender yet weighty as a baby's bottom, I felt a peaceful pride, not in myself but in the creation in my hand. Somewhere during the familiar actions of mixing and kneading, I sorted out my disturbed thoughts from yesterday's deflating lemon pie experiment and cut myself some belated slack.

I'm not an expert on much that I'm doing now, because most of it is new. If I'd wanted to be an expert, I would have stayed where I was, doing what I've mastered through repetition, the only way to be an old pro at anything. As my talented friend Jay once told me (approximately), "If you want to be good at something, do it 100 times." I'm out on the leading edge of my next 100 times where learning happens, and that's not comfortable or smooth. I need to set my recovering-perfectionist ego concerns aside and feel proud of being a bold beginner, an intrepid explorer.

I also need to give myself some credit for what I do know. I'm no culinary star, but I know enough to have my own ideas and ideals in food. I knew some of the qualities I wanted in a lemon pie yesterday and in the white bread today. I'm not just following recipes anymore, because I've come far enough to know by reading them whether the outcome is what I desire or not. I'm even hybridizing my own versions. I used to envy my boss's ability to do both. Now I understand that she acquired these skills as a result of experimental doing backed by a little confidence, not some divine gift. There is no way to learn but to do and fail and learn from that failure and do better.

One of the important things I've learned from my dabbling is that the world of food is vast and varied. There are a hundred ways to do anything, including lemon pie and white bread. We all get to find the way that suits us--and then be prepared for our ways to evolve as needed or desired. (Buttermilk and honey bread, anyone?) I'll share my test recipe, just in case, but don't hold me to it.

Thankfully my white bread turned out beautifully--tall and smoothly domed. While I don't care to ever again plaster the roof of my mouth with store bought white bread, homemade is an entirely different animal. It's soft, but still has body, both fluffy and sturdy at the same time. Good old farmhouse white makes the classic grilled cheese, which will be our bread-starring dinner tonight, and fabulous French toast, which we're already planning for breakfast tomorrow. Today's experiment was a winner. But then they all are in some way, teaching us either what to do or what not to do. There's always gain in the end if we're paying attention.

Ann's Test White Bread
Yield 1 loaf

1/3 cup warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 2/3--4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons sugar

1) Dissolve the yeast in the warm water in a small bowl and let stand while you proceed.
2) In a medium bowl combine 1 2/3 cup of the flour and the salt.
3) Combine in a small microwave safe bowl the milk, butter, and sugar. Micro cook until very warm. The temperature should be about 100-110 degrees if you have a thermometer to check it. If not, it should feel very warm to your skin, not hot. The butter does not need to melt all the way. You can also do this step in a pot on the stove.
4) Stir the warm milk mixture and the yeast mixture into the flour.
5) Add the remaining flour 1/3 cup at a time, mixing vigorously after each addition, until you have a soft dough that comes away from the side of the bowl.
6) Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 6-8 minutes, until smooth and elastic.
7) Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover and let rest until doubled in size or until the indentation made by your finger doesn't spring back.
8) Punch the dough down and shape into a loaf. Placed shaped dough into greased 8" X 4" loaf pan and let rise until it's at least 1 inch above the top of the pan.
9) Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
10) Cool thoroughly (even though you don't want to) on a wire rack.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Snow Day with Lemon Pie

The frozen pond at the top of the hayfield. Not so common a condition here.

It's still snowing. That begins to seem obvious, but in Kentucky, snow and below freezing temperatures for days are news--not unheard of, but not normal either. In my busier past I had to go on to work anyway when it snowed, or go unpaid and cause others more work. Now, I can stay here at the farm feeling well kept and cozy while I do little chores, stretch, and bake, of course. There are few nicer feelings than being tucked up snug in your home while the snow flies and the kitchen fills with oven scents, like browning pie crust. (If that description doesn't give you aroma recall, you have been deprived.) I'm enjoying the luxury of being the one who stays home and bakes for those returning from the cold.

Poor hubby and mother-in-law had to go on to work at their desk jobs (Universities and banks don't give in to Old Man Weather so easily.), and father-in-law's cows require checking every day, regardless of the weather. Luckily, although it took them twice as long, they all returned safely on the slippery roads. Well, two of them briefly. A new calf that wasn't eating well this morning had to be checked on again in the evening. Hubby and father-in-law put on their boots (again), put the vintage Blazer in four-wheel-drive, and went back out into the snow. Mother-in-law and I had to wait dinner. Such is the life of a farm wife, she tells me. (Yes, I had a snack.)

Now to back up to the pie part. I wasn't sure this morning (before the snow started up again) that I would be home tonight. I was scheduled to be in Advance Techniques lab at culinary school whipping up chicken appetizers. Road conditions near departure time changed my plans, so today became the day to make the lemon pie that father-in-law had requested at Thanksgiving but didn't get because my oven died an electrically-fired death a few days before the holiday. Eating pie at home beats 120 round-trip miles of high anxiety any day.

Once I firmly and finally decided that I was going nowhere but to the kitchen, I needed a recipe. I've made dozens of lemon meringue pies at the little bakery/cafe where I used to work (Root-A-Bakers remains in my heart!), but not often enough to have memorized the recipe. With my cookbooks unavailable, my plan was to jump online and grab one. I would never have guessed how many subtle variations there are on lemon pie and how many usually reliable sites were devoid of the kind of recipe I had in mind. I wanted what I thought was the not-too-sweet, not-too-tart classic, made with lemon juice and water (no milk and certainly no sweetened condensed milk) and thickened with cornstarch only. To confuse myself further I contemplated and researched hot (or Italian) meringue.

After untold minutes puttering around search lists, I ditched my hot meringue plans and decided to choose a conventionally meringued recipe after lunch. (Never make important decisions when hungry is my motto.) Then while eating, I remembered that my cornstarch box has a lemon pie recipe on it. But upon inspection, I also remembered that I've made it before and found it skimpy in size and too sweet. So back to the computer and an executive decision on the straight-up formula I wanted with greater pan-filling quantities of ingredients. I have no idea where it came from at this point. I was so over the search by then that I just jotted down the ingredients while paying no attention to where in cyberspace I was. I mean, the recipe part wasn't supposed to be so hard.

Luckily the pie crust making (there's a whole post subject there) and the filling cooking and the meringue making went well. My only problem was with equipment, specifically a rolling pin. I called my mother-in-law at work to ask if she had one. She told me to use one of the two that have been hanging on the wall for the entire five and a half years that I've been coming to their house. Sigh. So I did.

Now, as to how the pie turned out? OK.
The filling was well set and balanced in flavor. The crust tasted nicely of butter and toasted flour but was way too crunchy. Concerted effort was required to cut through it, producing not so much a pleasant shattering as a hard fracturing. I've made hundreds of pie crusts, and that has never happened. (I blame the dark nonstick pan.) The meringue, although it shrank away from the crust in one section and beaded up a little on top, was fine, but I wished when eating it that I had gone with my first instincts and made the hot version, even if it would have required piecing together recipes and improvising. Always trust your instincts, especially if they're as dreamy as Italian meringue--billowy, satiny, stable.

The important outcome was that it tasted good once we forcefully broke the crust into bite size pieces. My father-in-law ate two servings, in fact. Plus I had a delightful time making it. As my husband pointed out, my afternoon of pie making on a snowy day is many a person's fantasy (including my own), and I got to live it. While all of the above is true, I remain disappointed. I have thoughts on my case of loser-itis, but they will have to wait until tomorrow.

The truth is that at this point I feel like a fraud, wondering how I ever made a living as a professional baker and why exactly I'm in culinary school. I mean, I thought I knew pie crust, at least. My husband reminded me that I'm not in my own kitchen with my preferred equipment that's preferred for a reason. Besides, the joy and love of baking and cooking really are more important than the perfection or lack thereof in the finished product. I truly do believe that. Even OK homemade still always tastes better to me than the factory version. And everyone has off days, etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, I've included a picture as page jewelry, but I won't even bother posting the recipe, because today I'm no expert. Definitely still a spurt. (Sorry, couldn't resist. At least I still have my sense of humor.) Someday, I'll come back to this pie, with proper pie weights (not doubled foil topped with a Pyrex casserole), a French rolling pin, my own glass pie pans, and an Italian meringue formula that makes me swoon. Until then I want to remember how it felt to savor the bright, tangy lemon filling and its airy topping while outside all was dark and wintry, like swallowing sunshine in the middle of snow. The thought to hold is that in January lemon pie, however imperfect, is like a promise of spring.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Progress Where I Find It

In that picture is something of which I am just a little bit proud.

This Christmas, for the first time in about fifteen years, I made some of our gifts. The time I spent in the kitchen making these sauces for my sisters was one of the best parts of the holiday for me, a small part of life as we dream it--slow, rich, sweet, loving, handmade. It's a small step, but I believe in calling progress when I see it. I'm already noticing ideas for next year. Family, if you'd really rather have a gift card, be warned!

Here's something I'm proud of in a different way.

This is Eclair Dessert. It's pretty much everything to which I object in food--an assemblage of four processed or premade food products. There's not a scratch element in it. But I'm proud of it anyway, because that's what my son wanted for his 16th birthday dinner. It was (ahem) assembled with love by his mama, whose foodie principles he well knows, and devoured by the happy family.

There's progress here, too. My boy--make that, young man--is a low key, mellow guy who doesn't go in for much fuss. If he has any celebratory requests, I honor them, even setting aside my principles for the day (But that's all!). The fact that he asked for a special dinner this year (chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes, mac-n-cheese, green beans, know) means that maybe my festive gene is manifesting itself in my offspring. I love him just the way he is, but I celebrate with him eagerly when he's ready.

There's more progress in my principle-violating love offering--the love. I grew up feeling (whatever the reality) underloved and less important than a handful of rules. I have always intended that my child would NEVER know those feelings. If the occasional factory food will ensure that, so be it. Not many rules should apply on birthdays anyway. It's all part of the plan to be the safe, warm, loving, soft-place-to-land mama that every mother probably wants to be. Hey, at least he asked for a green vegetable! I must have done something right.

Progress isn't always about big money or happenings. It can be a steady victory by attrition, an accumulation of small steps toward big goals. Want big love? Maybe you bend the rules just a little every now and then. Want a fabulous life? Maybe a little time in the kitchen adds one tiny piece to the mosaic that is an artful life. That's what I choose to believe and why I write: to pile up treasure in the details that make life the finer thing I crave.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Snow Day with Birds and Bran Muffins

It's another snowy day here at the farm. With the excess busyness and freedom of the holidays behind me, I am swaddled back up in a comfortably roomy routine. (Yes, I needed to learn to be more self-destined, but a little structure does a mind good, too.) Yesterday was a satisfying day of office work. Today, as the flakes flurry about, I'm enjoying being home with just a few joyful goals for my time.

Left alone with an unchaperoned kitchen, my thoughts always turn to baking. I had, after what seemed like ages of deprivation, replenished our supply of Whole Grain Whole Wheat bread on Sunday. It's so not fancy, but when it was done and toasted and buttered and jellied, I gobbled it up as if I had never known bread. Nothing, but nothing, is like homemade bread, even if it's not perfect. Good thing I photographed my last loaf. Anyway, with the Staff of Life thus handled, I turned to an idea that's been percolating on the back burner of my mind for many months.

You know how the bottom of the cereal bags always have those crushed-up dregs that make way too much sog when eaten with milk? Having been raised a poor girl and hating to waste food, my bright idea was to save them up and make bran-like muffins out of them. I have been collecting these leavings for weeks
(Note: We eat only whole-grain cereal. No sugaries here.) and even moved them to the farm in the insistent belief that I would finally get round to this experiment. Then I found Farmgirl Susan's Moist and Delicious 100% Whole Grain Bran Muffin recipe on her delightful Farmgirl Fare blog while obsessively consuming her archives (proper credit, check). Now I didn't even have to do internet research in the absence of my cookbook library, sadly stashed in boxes in a concrete and steel cell (My poor babies!). The project was meant to be.

There is one irony here. Farmgirl Susan's recipe actually calls for straight oat and wheat brans, not cereals, because she was trying to create a bran muffin that didn't require buying boxes of cereal. Despite our crossed purposes, her promise of tasty and moist muffins substantial enough to be breakfast (my blood sugar salutes her), without further recipe research, sealed the deal.

I chose the cranberry orange version, because we have seasonally-shipped citrus here at the house that I 've been itching to use for something other than noshing. (Christmas citrus is now one of our favored gifts to recieve. So much better shipped ripe from the grove than gassed in the truck!) Then began the tweakings to accomodate the other things on hand. I substituted equal measurements of my cereal dregs for the two brans, butterm
ilk for the yogurt, and local sorghum for the molasses. I opted for the suggested flavor boost of grated orange zest and squeezed the now denuded orange for part of the juice specified. (Part? I usually use only fresh citrus juices, so why I rounded out with carton juice escapes me at this moment.)

After first stirring it all together, I had my doubts about the batter. It seemed quite wet and too voluminous for the regular-size muffin tin that I was rapidly filling. As I was pondering how to handle this bounty (Overfill my regular tin? Or did "10 large muffins" perhaps mean those from a jumbo muffin pan?), my mother-in-law called to tell me all about how father-in-law hadn't yet returned from driving her to work because of two blown-out tires caused by running over a piece of a bridge that the snowplow had knocked off and left in the road, which event necessitated a trek through the snow, etc., etc. (Thank goodness the offending agency plans to reimburse them for the costs incurred during this little adventure. He just repaired a tractor tire last week, which this city girl now knows isn't cheap.) When I returned to my portioning after the news update, I found that the batter had achieved a more familiar thickness, but there still remained the question of what to do with the rest of it.I decided to fill two cups of my jumbo muffin pan with the remaining batter and popped both pans in the oven.

When the muffins were done, I could see that I had been misled by my retentive tendencies once again. The smaller muffins were quite flat on top, while the jumbo muffins were more properly domed. I had filled the smaller pan's cups two-thirds full as most recipes instruct. The remaining batter was not enough to make three jumbos, so it all went into two cups, filling them basically to the top. I'll have to make these beauties again to be sure, but I think I'm seeing Farmgirl Susan's (and my former boss Lana's) More, More, More policy in action. If so, this recipe could solve an old dilemma for me, in which standard regular-size muffins are a little small for a snack (my primary use for them), but jumbo muffins are too big. I want healthy, nourishing, medium-size muffins with tops and ledges. Next time, it's chockfull regular-size muffin cups for me.

The important thing to report is that they were indeed moist and tasty, as promised. The test muffin I devoured as a snack held hunger at bay quite nicely for an hour and a half or so, which is pretty good performance in a blood-sugar-challenged someone who's still on the infant feeding schedule of every four hours. Definitely stout and nourishing, but very pleasant to eat as well. I love it when taste and nutrition converge! It's my nirvana. My Beloved liked them, too.

I suppose I should have tested my personalized recipe until perfected before throwing it out to the world's wolves, but I what I really want to share here is the adventure of living and trying, without worrying so much about finished products. I have learned through being an untrained professional baker and a culinary student that experimenting--and enjoying it--is allowed and encouraged. Especially at school, a recipe, for the adventurous, is just a starting place. Besides, we should be responsive to what's available, what's seasonally appropriate, and what we desire, not be captive to a regimented cuisine or set of instructions. The enjoyable effort is the thing.

In that spirit, here is my version of today's bran muffins at this winter's Flora Farm. Do with it what you will.

Frugal Cranberry-Orange Whole Grain Muffins

3 cups whole grain cereal leavings (what's at the bottom of the bag)
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsps baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
Grated zest of one orange
2/3 cup orange juice
2/3 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup oil
1/3 cup sorghum
1/4 cup honey
1 cup dried cranberries

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2) Mix all dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.
3) Mix all wet ingredients together in a small bowl.
4) Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until moist.
5) Stir in the dried cranberries.
6) Fill 10-12 muffin cups mostly full with the batter.
7) Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
8) Let cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely on a wire rack.

Yield: 10-12 generous muffins

And what of the birds in my title? Why, they accompanied the text in the same way they accompanied me whiIe I was baking--happily alongside.

**Update**I ate one of the jumbo muffins, split and peanut buttered, with a glass of milk for breakfast the next morning. It was more than I needed, and I wasn't hungry for hours! Anyone who knows me will now believe that these make a hearty breakfast. (I'm usually ready for first lunch by 10:30am and most always carry snacks.) The Farmgirl Susan regulation-size muffins should be just right when I make the next batch, which will be as soon as I have more cereal leavings--maybe with blueberries or raisins.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

I Wasn't Careful What I Wished For

I learned something about myself yesterday. It's official. I am indeed my own worst enemy. But that's normal. We all should be careful what we wish for because we probably don't know what to do when we get it. Thank God the wise ones warned me.

Like so many people, I have chased around busily, wishing for free time. Well, yesterday I had it. And after the success of a blog post (Play at new passion, check.), I didn't know what to do with myself.

Granted circumstances were against me. It was 20 degrees at the warmest yesterday, and I handle cold poorly, so extended outside time was...well, out (Reynaud's syndrome and long winter exposure are mutually exclusive.) I wanted to be baking, which always helps my attitude, but the mother-in-law was working in her kitchen. I have no space to set up my sewing machine, so the crafty ideas that I now have time to hatch are a no go. I couldn't find my favorite reference pictures to share with hubby so that we could compare ideas for our new house. I have no current house to keep up or improve upon, projects for which usually keep me busy over Christmas break. My usual go-to activities were all removed from possibility.

By evening I was quite fussy, abandoned to a waiting room day--just waiting to go to bed again. When that time arrived, My Beloved, as he always does, listened to my tirade, after which I felt a little relieved and resigned to getting some sleep and starting over tomorrow. I chose Julia Cameron's Letters To A Young Artist to read for a few minutes before sleeping, in the hope that it would comfort my ailing artsy heart. It did, and then some.

I realized, while reading her admonitions to quit whining and just get busy making art when, where, and how you are, including bored (ouch), how easy it is to blame our circumstances or life demands (the child, the house, etc) for our inability to live our imagined good life in which we produce beautiful fruit. I found yesterday that it isn't the time you have, it's the use you make of it, whether it's a whole winter day or ten minutes each morning. I wasn't prepared for the time that came my way, and I got angry and upset about that situation, rather then calmly solving the problem. I have a tendency to do that.

So many wise and creative people warned me that this would happen. We crave, in the midst of seemingly imposed-upon-us busyness, free time and solitude. We live for vacation, which is fine as a balancing antidote to manic activity but not fine as a way of life. With the freedom in empty time comes the responsibility to fill it well, with what you keep saying really matters. Instead, most of the time, we go a little out of our minds at first. That's what Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek, and Martha Beck in her little gem The Joy Diet both say. I see now what they mean.We may chafe against limitations, but they actually do us a backhanded favor, relieving us of the need to decide what to do. Unleashed from schedules and obligations, it's all up to you baby. Better know what you love and enjoy and feel called to give to the world. The work of finding that if you don't know it can be a little bumpy indeed.

Anyway, after reading a wiser woman's words, I resolved to find a way to redeem this time, which will not be forever at all. I start back to school on Wednesday, and mom-in-law has knee replacement surgery on the 25th, after which I expect to be homekeeper while she heals. I made myself a plan for today to use this time well while it lasts, with writing at the top. (Here I am. This is for me and maybe for others, too.) There's also a little business that's been ignored during the holiday-ing this week and a little baking, if the kitchen is clear.

I also thought of something wonderful to do when I don't know what to do--look around me (at the house, the field, the newborn calves) with capturing eyes and take pictures! I've often wished for time to play at experiencing and savoring the world this way. Now is my chance. I've been nudged into making a start already by this wordy blog of mine, which seemed to need some pictorial accentuation (Or is it relief?), so I chose a couple of stored shots of one of the barns at night to share. The first is at the beginning of this post, illustrating my belated light bulb moment. Here is the other.

Yesterday's crappiness was a teacher, in the way that negative experiences often are if we let them be. Here's what I learned.
1) I now know that I can always go looking for more beauty where I am, without leaving home or spending an extra dime, thanks to the miracle of the digital camera. I now have a space-efficient and creative hobby to explore.
2) If I yearn to live like an artist, I need to make artistic choices for my time and form artist habits for my days.
3) I need to relearn how to play. I'm a grown up's grown up from way back. Just piddling around with something or doing nothing needs to become OK with me again.
4) I really ought to get comfortable with the notion that just being is enough. I guess one shouldn't require a checklist of accomplishments to feel worthy.

What a lot of wisdom came from a seemingly lousy day. If I can manage to live by it in this new year, life should be a finer thing indeed.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Usual New Beginning

Someone once told me that if you do something once it's just something you did; if you do it twice, it's tradition; and if you do it three times, it's how you've always done things. I guess we've reached the latter stage when it comes to this holiday time. For the third year in a row, My Beloved and I closed out our year with a New Year's Eve Extravaganza All-Day Date. We spent all day in the city haunting one of our favorite book stores, shopping for clothes, eating out (twice!), and seeing a movie. It's a thrill-ride day of spending and acquiring and savoring that pretty much sates us for six months or so and keeps me awake until midnight, which is way past my usual bedtime.

This year's acquiring portion was a little different in feel. Living in one bedroom and part of a den in someone elses house precludes buying unnecessary stuff. It's freeing actually. No wandering around stores that might have something pretty or getting more of things you already have (except books). We bought only things we needed (again, except books), things the current life tells us that it requires to function, like farm jeans and office attire to replace the husband's shabbier items and a new printer/scanner/copier to replace our dead one. In cramped spacial or financial quarters, you rediscover that you don't need much; that if you won't use it and don't have a place to put it there isn't any point in buying it anyway; and that there can be clarity in limitation. What has made the cut is loved and used and guilt free--one of the silver linings to what seems at first a daunting and unpleasant challenge.

When I was younger, shopping days like these left me feeling as if a hunger had been activated but not sated. There might have been more to see. There never seemed to be enough money to buy all I did see that I thought I wanted. If I found nothing worth buying, that was a disappointment, too. I would head home feeling not quite done. Now, when we hit the stores, I feel only grateful. I appreciate having the funds to buy what I need and a few things I want. Each bag I add to the cargo area of the car makes me feel lucky, especially since I know that all of it is paid for. I didn't have that assurance years ago, either. If gratitude replacing greed is a benefit of passing years, I'll take it.

However moderated now, this little city treat day of ours is a thrill for frugal wannabe-farmers. But it's not the best part of our New Year's Eve. These are the supplies for the sweetest part.

When all the running around is done, we return home, get into our good pajamas, and have a quiet, private time of reviewing the old year passing away and welcoming the new one beginning. We look through the previous entries in the notebook listing the major events of our lives in past years, while we nibble on a little something and sip champagne, after which we record this year's milestones and share our hopes for the coming year.

This year's nibbly was ginger snaps because one of the bloggers I've newly discovered this year said that they were good with champagne (She was right). The bubbly this year was Spanish cava, bought just because the bottle was so pretty. We knew we probably couldn't finish it (although we tried mightily), but it was cheaper than the half bottle of good French stuff, so what the heck. We poured the last third out with just a little regret before we tipsily headed to bed.

Our little ritual reminds us, partly to our relief, that life can change so much in a year or in any of the moments it holds. The family-heirloom mantel clock was still bonging at midnight because my husband wound it well. He is the third generation to do so, and that winding was the first one by him. A baton has been passed in a small but poignant moment that deserves marking, like the turning of the year. It's just a clock stroke that happens on the same night of every year, but it gives us the hope of new beginnings. I'm a sucker for hope every time.

We had a bonus this year in our blended household. The mantel clock and the grandfather clock are a few minutes off from each other. We indulged ourselves with two kisses and Happy New Year toasts, one for each chiming. Double wishes can't hurt.