Friday, March 26, 2010


Oh March you fickle

flirtatious hint of spring.

You bless and blow,

bluster and scatter,

confuse with cold and snow

after such seductive sunbaths.

You are coy with your warmth,

but love you I do,

if only for the promises whispered

in your wicked winds.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Little Known Sign of Spring

It's not the lengthening of the days.

Nor the buds softening the stark tree limbs.

Not my beloved bulb plants thrusting bravely through the cold soil...

or the rhubarb gamely unfurling.

Not even the later blooms forming and bursting.

No, it's not any of the obvious natural phenomena.
It's one that's personal to me.

The return of the yoga pants.
After months of swaddling up in fleece and denim to be warm, I can don my lightweight, stretchy, comfy old friends. When cotton and lycra are sufficient protection from the now friendlier elements,
I know that spring is really here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This May Be Getting Out of Hand

My father-in-law loves many kinds of animals. Like the two dogs that belong to the uncle around the way that he rides back to their house in his old Blazer on many mornings, when they could just as well walk back the way they came. And the cows he call babies and loves on when they let him. And the birds, which I'm pretty sure are an especial favorite.

I'm thinking the birds are special because of the collection of bird helpers out in the yard of which I've just recently taken full notice. First, he has multiple bird feeders hanging from the maple tree out back, all of which can conveniently be seen from his usual chair at the dinner table. He keeps them religiously full.
Apparently the collection is still growing: the one with the bright red roof was added just this year. I'm pretty sure that no bird for miles around has to go anywhere but this buffet all winter.

That's also the beginning of the birdhouse collection, in case you missed them. Let's continue the home tour.

There's a faded blue bird box nailed onto a utility pole...

I like this one.

and two houses mounted on fence-high posts at the yard's back edge.

Then there are two martin boxes mounted on taller metal posts on the side of the house.

Do you get the picture that the size and stature of these bird helpers keeps increasing?

Well, now the topper of them all has arrived.

Some Amish neighbors, in appreciation for being allowed to hunt on father-in-law's back 240, gave him an even grander martin house (more like a condo really) on a 20-foot wooden post, with a cord and winch for raising and lowering these dee-luxe apartments in the sky. Fancy.

It only took three farmers to put it up last Saturday. Of course, my bright husband was the one who figured out how it had to go together and held it up on the post the whole time that they weren't succeeding in figuring it out--after all the gardening of the morning. Need I mention that he was sore the next day?

Even though I wonder where this collection ends and suspect that a bird skyscraper may be next, I have to admit that the Amish gift is handsome, a bright lofty cottage that just needs twittering residents. If you see any homeless martins, just send them our way. We're ready.

Monday, March 22, 2010

File Under "Why We're Here"

Two things we couldn't see where we were.

Early spring sunrise gilding the front yard.

Amazing sunset painting the backyard sky.

Some days we don't need any more reason than these to be here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Here Goes Nothing

Yesterday My Beloved and I helped Father-in-law with the first garden plantings of the season. We set out lettuce, radishes, onions, beets, cabbage, strawberries, and potatoes. Lots and lots of potatoes.

Cue singing birds here.

Maybe I should have warned him that I'm cursed.

I have tried to have a small raised garden bed of my own on three separate occasions. The first two attempts apparently triggered droughts. The third attempt just... didn't grow, probably because the site received too little light. Whatever the legitimate reasons for my gardening failure, I have still found it disappointing to be unable to grow even things that are supposed to be so easy a child could do it. Like radishes. Many days after the seed envelope's promised germination period, I exhumed some. There was no tuber. No surprise, since there had been no leaves developing either. Just a spindly little root to mock me.

That year my total "harvest" was something like seven carrots, one red pepper, one misshapen green pepper, and five green beans. So much for what an acquaintance once said to me: "This is Kentucky. Just put it in the ground, and it'll grow!" Not in my backyard, apparently.

Perhaps I angered the garden gods somehow. I don't know. I just know that I have not yet succeeded in growing food of any kind. Except Italian parsley, which is one delicious weed. And I want to be part of a farming enterprise? I may be on a fool's errand indeed.

Luckily the father-in-law has planted many a garden and was willing to let me help despite my curse. After a couple of hours of bending over and squatting and getting up countless times, I decided that he was probably willing to risk my curse to avoid all that work. But I didn't mind. It's good for us, and we're happy to be part of it. We also hope to learn something, even though we're not into the chemical fertilizers and insecticide sprays
he had us use today. Surely, something good will rub off on me.

Then again, this may be the first bust year at the Flora farm. If so, I'm pretty sure that it will be all my fault, in which case I'll stick to cooking ever after.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Loaf Before Dying

If I were going to die tomorrow, I would bake bread.

I came to this conclusion a few weeks ago when I was having chest pain, pressure, and palpitations. My husband kept telling me that I was not going to die. He's had such symptoms for years, and he's still here. And logically I knew there was no point in being anxious or panicky. But I ask you--how is one not supposed to think of mortality with symptoms like that going on, coupled with the knowledge that one's brother, who had similar untreated symptoms, died at 37? I may be a teensy bit prone to drama (I can still hear my 5th and 6th grade teacher saying "Cut the theatrics, Annie."), but I think a little fear is normal in such a situation, along with a few questions that we'd all like answered anyway. Questions like "Am I a good enough person? Did I give my son a sound start in life? What the heck am I here for anyway?"

Weeks later, with the really scary possibilities eliminated, I still don't have answers to those questions, and I'm not at all done figuring out my personal instruction book, nor confident that I am all I can be as a human being. But I do know that, standing in the face of death itself, I would still find the humble act of making bread a worthwhile thing to do.

I would make bread as one of my last acts because I love dough. I love the way it feels when it's ready--smooth and just a little springy. I love the magic of combining the most basic of ingredients and producing one of the most satisfying foods ever created. I'm pleased each time the shaggy mess I dump out onto the counter becomes smooth and elastic, that trite but right description from every cookbook ever written, as I knead it. I used to let my trusty KitchenAid knead it for me, to save my overworked tendons. Now that I'm not taxing my arms and shoulders so badly at the bakery and my 25-pound mixer must be inconveniently carried in from the garage for each use, I've discovered the joys of kneading--the rhythm, and the transformation from slack, wet mess to happy, well-developed dough right under your hands. You don't have to be a baking scientist to know when it's ready. You can feel it.

Well developed dough is warm and alive. There is every happy-hearth-and-home association in the world attached in my mind to the rising loaf in the bowl and on the counter. When I make bread, I feel both as primitive as a settler and as well-kept as June Cleaver in her pearls. The act of making bread for myself and my family connects me to centuries--if not millennia--of my human ancestors. Something that feels almost eternal is comforting when pondering one's own mortality, but I value its heritage at any other time, too.

I would make bread before dying because there is little that is more basic, short of gruel, and I would want to know that I hadn't lost sight of the simple things while traveling through all the complexity that is life. As long as I can still be content with warm bread and butter, I know that I'm still in touch with something essential.

I would make bread, no matter what, because my staff of life is one of the most satisfying things I've ever made, one of the few whose merits I do not question. It's not perfect most of the time. Sometimes a giant air bubble separates the crust from the bread. Sometimes it doesn't rise as well as I would like. But it's mine, the first recipe I ever created to my own liking, the first item in the personal repertoire I'm trying to build. It always pleases me like no bread I have ever bought, and I'm deeply happy every time to have made it myself. It's humble, but it suits me perfectly. I know that I'm meant to make this bread for my home, one answer in a mind full of questions.

Making bread is one of the rightest things I know to do, right up there with loving your family well. So if I knew that I were going out tomorrow, I wouldn't want to take off to Disney World or Paris, or flame out with a wild party. I'd head for the kitchen, bake some bread, and share it with my family and friends. I'd go out with homemade love.

And if I really were dying, I'd definitely have lots of butter!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stick a Fork In Me

Last night at culinary school, I presented the last dishes of the last lab of the last quarter of my career there. I'm done.

Well, there's two mandatory hours of deep cleaning the lab (that quarterly festival of fun) and a connection-subsidized five course dinner at one of the better restaurants in the city (A $150.00 value, yours for just $25.00! Act now!). But the thirty months of evening and weekend classes, studying, projects, driving 125 miles round trip, staying overnight when evening and weekend were back to back, sleep deprivation, juggling work-school-home-parenting, ironing uniforms (including aprons and side towels), and telling myself each quarter "It's only 10 weeks. It's only 10 weeks." are over.

My illustrious final menu?
Spinach, orange, and red onion salad with tortillas crisps and orange-cumin vinaigrette

Seared beef tenderloin with tequila-lime sauce, cherry tomato salsa, and calabacitas (a Mexican corn and veggie saute)

Mango sorbet with raspberry sauce and lime-cornmeal cookie
The pictures are of course amateurish because I was hardly in a photography studio, but then so is the actual presentation. I had no idea how hard it is to make food on a plate look stunning until I was forced to try at school. In fact, now that the accomplishment high has been slept off, I'm thinking this work of mine looks pretty lame, even though it tasted good. But then I'm usually way too hard on myself. That's what some people tell me anyway.

Here's something I'm not going to be hard on myself about: finishing school at all. On our first day of class there were 19 of us. The second day we were down to 18. The attrition rate continued in like manner until there were only 8 of us left. Even counting that two of the students lost were transfers to the day program and another one was only slowed, not stopped, by illness, that's still some drop out rate. I respect myself for and take pride in staying the course. It was, without exaggeration, tough going. Whoever gave me the idea during my childhood that I was lazy and a quitter was absolutely wrong!

Persistence aside, I'm pretty sure that I'm no culinary star (said with a grain of salt in case I do indeed think too little of myself). But at school I noticed that a lot of the points on which your grade is based have nothing to do with creativity, even though they encourage it. You could wow the chefs with your latest chocolate-foie gras dessert, but if your uniform looks horrid and you miss classes and your sanitation practices are frightening and you don't care to perform in the classroom as well as the lab, then your grade will suffer. Being a culinary rock star is fine, but only if you also show up faithfully and work neatly and cleanly.

That's the way it is in the business, too. All the folks with the great ideas need a reliable staff right behind them to make those ideas reality. My former boss (and still friend) at the bakery/cafe where I was formerly employed has said this, too. Most people with good work habits and dedication can be taught to make good food, but maverick geniuses can't usually be rehabbed into good employees.

But how did I get onto that? What I really mean to say is that I never expected to be the next Food Network star anyway. God save me from that! Nor do I (at the present time--never say never) want to sell my soul to my own restaurant. My personal goal was to know food well enough to be able to improvise, to be freed from the crutch of a recipe. I may have completed my class work last night, but that personal goal of mine was achieved weeks ago.

Snow prevented me from attending lab one Wednesday, so I had no advance notice of what we'd be working with on Thursday. For the first time, I proceeded spontaneously. I claimed a duck breast just because I'd never cooked one before; went with my gut instinct of cherry-port sauce; and raided the walk-in to come up with a potato and turnip puree and braised kale. In my own mind, I graduated that night. I had passed my own test. And it was all very good! So maybe there are some good instincts in there after all, when I'm not thinking too much and getting in my own way.

I have a good grade and made the Dean's list because I'm a good classroom student. I'm pleased with that. But I still hold a tiny hope that, when I have a lovely home of my own with a kitchen made for me and a farm that produces good raw materials, a little creativity will start simmering on the front burner of my mind. Then again, I may find out sooner than that just how far I can stretch. I've requested one of the finest restaurants in the area for my externship.

I think I feel my next attack of Loser-itis coming on already!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Back in Time

This past weekend the sun went to our heads and we had to get out. All day Saturday and part of Sunday we looked for any excuse to be outside in the light. Take a drive to..? Sure! Take the long way home from church and get ice cream to eat in the cemetary overlooking town? Ooh, let's! The wind was still cold, but the sunlight would not be denied.

Our Saturday wanderings took us to one of our favorite places--Augusta, Kentucky. To us Augusta is just about everything a small town should be, offering the genuine feel of going back in time just a bit. Old men sit on benches talking. There's not a chain outlet in sight. (Unless you count the IGA grocery store, and I don't think you do.) It has well defined boundaries, a couple of business-lined cross streets that serve as the commercial center of town, and a Kindergarten through 12-grade school pretty much in the center where most any child could walk to it. (A resident told us that the town could have sent the older kids off to bigger schools. They chose not to.)

There's a scenic riverside street lined with both grand detached homes and stately row houses built in the 1800's to stroll.

From its brick sidewalks you can watch the ferry cross back and forth from Ohio.

A couple of blocks away railroad tracks bisect town, with houses facing onto it as if it were a street. Maybe it was at one time.
Not quite as scenic as the riverside avenue. But quirky and very like real life.

That's another thing I like about Augusta: It's a very real town, with
local restaurants and a couple of cozy shops on Main Street, but also an industrial business (probably providing more jobs) at the edge of town; lovingly preserved brick homes, but also trailers in odd places, like between buildings on main street and jutting into the lawn of one fine old house; a freshly re-purposed church, but also a boarded-up church one block away.

They won't put those juxtapositions in their visitor's brochure, but I accept them as necessary reality. In fact, they endear the town to me more. I've visited many charming places in which I couldn't imagine affording to live. Augusta isn't like that. It wears it's charm lightly, backed by the grit to stay a small, working town while the rest of America seems to be trying so hard to expand. They are prepared for visitors but aren't a tourist trap. It's pleasant but not pretentious. The whole package is comforting to a woman who started life in an old neighborhood near a railroad track herself.

I selfishly hope that Augusta remains happily and steadily in its eddy by the river, watching the barges go by, for as long as anything can last in this changing world. The knowledge that there are quiet places like this where past and present mingle honestly makes life a finer thing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In Praise of Spring Bulbs

As of last week, I've already made one important landscaping decision even though we haven't built our house yet: I will definitely be planting some spring-blooming bulbs. I came to this decision in one of those unheralded moments that's a lot like realizing that you love your best guy friend who's been there all along, cheering you up after every breakup, only you didn't know it until that moment.

This all started two Sundays ago, when I noticed daffodil blooms emerging from the soil by the church entrance, the first I've seen this year. My heart instantly lightened because it was a visible sign that spring really is coming, one I instantly felt had been missing. Then last week, when I was outside during one of the first sunny days we'd had in what seemed like months, looking for picture worthy signs of spring for this blog, all I could find were tree buds because--and I had never noticed this before--there are no bulb plants here at the parents-in-law's farmhouse. The yard suddenly seemed empty and bare without them.
That's when I realized how much a part of my life bulb plants have been and how much I love and lean on them.

I see now that I have fond memories of bulb blooms from way back. When my granny built the house in which I grew up, she planted bulbs that, 60 untended years later, were still blooming. Daffodils and hyacinths sprang up every year of my childhood with zero attention from the current generation. They were an amazement to me, so effortlessly beautiful and indomitable, a yearly reminder of the work and hopes of generations past. When I planned my future wedding, as girls are sometimes wont to do, daffodils were the flowers.

Then, when I bought my first house, I discovered it came with purple crocuses. My second house had them, too, as well as daffodils and pink hyacinth and red tulips. In both cases, they were a belated purchasing bonus, planted by people I didn't know but whom I appreciated for leaving me these colorful surprises. I had flowers by grace, which was a welcome thing because I've never been a good gardener, indoors or out.

What I learned about myself standing there in the yard was how very much I have enjoyed the fruit of those blind bulbs that just came with the territory in past years of my life. I began to anticipate their blooming and savor their seasons. When I would go outside, even if just in passing from the house to the car, they were there to cheer me, to let me know that winter was just about over even when it didn't feel as if it was, and to remind me of the life that's stored in the soil--all at a dark time when the cold and captivity of winter had begun to weigh heavily. Like nothing else I know, those bud heads pushing determinedly up through the cold dirt transform cabin-fever impatience into contented certainty that the wideness and warmth of spring is coming. Their jaunty presence makes it easier to wait. Faith by sight, I suppose.

So for most of the last fifteen years, I've had bulb flowers to lift my spirits at winter's end, without ever understanding how meaningful those accidental gifts were to me. I lucked into them and took them for granted. Now that my eyes have been opened to their dependable charms, I don't want to imagine a life without these faithful harbingers of spring. This accidental relationship will become intentional just as soon as I have ground of my own in which to plant them.

Surely even a black thumb like me can grow some bulbs. They're easy. And isn't that one of the other things to love about bulbs? All they ask is that you get them into the ground right side up. They take it from there.
They're my kind of plants--effortlessly beautiful, yes, but also beautifully effortless. And like the best relationships, they're self-nurturing and resilient.

I'll have bulbs blooming in my life again someday, but this time I will have planted them myself as a nod to my past and a gesture toward the future. They may still be blooming and bringing renewing cheer long after I'm gone.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

Today is a special day. My happiness cup is gloriously full in a way that makes me want to just sit and feel it while it lasts, as if there is nothing more important to do. Such a moment seems worth recording, at least for myself.

Now I would report myself as being "happy" a good deal of the time, but that rating isn't like this feeling. On most days I can intellectually consider my circumstances and conclude that I have every reason to be happy. The available blessings add up to evidence that I should be happy, so I decide to be. I try to make the choosing of a basic, puttering level of happiness a practice for my ordinary living.

But it's not so often that I feel this fountainously joyful, with my inner indicator voice humming and giggling away inside. Moments of ecstasy are usually and rightfully far apart in life. We expect them to come from events like our wedding day, the birth of a baby, or the achievement of a long-sought goal. But like some of my most memorable birthdays, this happy, happy day arrived because of two very normal occurrences--singing birds and test results.

When I went outside this morning, I heard those birds singing and found myself spontaneously laughing with pure joy. Birds, plural. That's the first time this year. It's one more sign that spring is truly near--not here, but near. It's really going to happen. Winter will soon release it's snowy grip and schlump off to another hemisphere. Oh, and it was sunny, too! The heavy lid of cloud had been removed, leaving room for joy to rise.

The other great reason to be happy today is that I have a healthy heart. After weeks of chest pain and palpitations and waiting for testing, I had a perfectly normal stress test yesterday. Whatever is wrong with me, it's not in my arteries or muscles, which means it's most likely fixable. A huge weight of anxiety is now off my psyche. I'm for sure going to live. Whew!

One thing about suffering and deprivation, whether it's waiting for a violent winter to end or coping with physical discomfort and fear, the cessation of affliction creates fabulous joy born of pure relief. There's nothing like it. Not that I would go courting it by creating misery from which to be relieved (well, not consciously anyway). I'm just happy that I get to be here and have more chances to fulfill my callings in life, now that I vaguely know what they are. I'm not done, and I'm awfully glad to think this morning that God doesn't think I'm done yet, either.

I wish that I could bottle this pure joy of just getting to be here under a broadly sunny sky, with bright future plans sparkling in my mind and a reasonably healthy body to do my bidding if I will only bid it and spring's promise in the still-freezing air. Then I could take a little nip whenever I'm just not feeling the love of life, warming myself with the memory of relief's gratitude, reminding myself of the pleasure of possibility. What an elixir that would be.

Realistically, the feeling will slip away, as feelings are wont to do. But I will remember. I will keep the knowing. And knowing is half the battle won.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When We Dipped...

This past Saturday the staff of the bakery/cafe where I worked until November belatedly celebrated Christmas by going out for food that we didn't prepare. The boss treated us to dinner at The Melting Pot, a much-talked-about, (almost) all fondue restaurant that is a new addition to our regional restaurant scene. Although I'm no sage reviewer, I'll audaciously share my experience anyway.

In case there isn't a Melting Pot in your area or if you (like me) missed out on the alleged fondue craze that might have induced such an imaginative leap, here's the idea: an entire meal eaten (mostly) from a fondue pot. It's served in four courses--appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert, almost all of which are prepared in and/or eaten from fondue pots on smooth-surface heating elements set into the table (or even the bar, I noticed on the way out). I'll give you three guesses to figure out which course wasn't en fondue--and the first two don't count. (Psst...salad. Yes. Thank you.)

This concept obviously works well for groups. Other than the non-fondue salads, which are ordered individually, the other courses are meant for sharing. Our group of seven selected two flavors of cheese fondue (Alp and Dell and Spinach-Artichoke) for our appetizer course, two flavors of broth (vegetable and Carribbean-inspired Mojo) to use for the entree course, and two variations on chocolate fondue (S'mores and Flaming Turtle) for the dessert course. The cheese fondue comes with bread cubes, veggies, and green apple chunks for dipping. The entree lets you cook your own (Hey! Wait a minute...) chunks of seafood, meat, pasta, or even tofu in the hot broth (oil is also available), accompanied by at least half a dozen sauces. The chocolate fondue enrobes chunks of
(Deep breath here) cheesecake, brownie, marshmallows, pound cake, strawberries, banana slices, and crisped rice squares.

In case this sounds like a lot of food, it is.
The bowls and plates that were purported to be holding dunkables in the appropriate amount for our group or for pairs of us were in reality covered with enough food for one and a half to two times that--the typical out-of-control American portion size, unfortunately. I would advise you to come Bubba hungry, pace yourself carefully (leaving plenty behind along the way), or disappoint your waiter by ordering half of their menu recommendations.

Maybe the latter suggestion would help with another big thing at The Melting Pot--the price. I try not to complain about menu cost, especially at any place where I know they actually make the food because I've been a food service provider. It's hard work with a narrow profit margin, people. I don't begrudge paying what good food is worth, and I have no doubt that they are charging what they need to in order to make a profit. I'm just saying that you won't get out of there for less than about $40.00 per person for all four courses--and you did some of the cooking! Their pricing is not outrageous, but if I want to have a $100.00 dinner for two I would prefer a non-chain, gourmet establishment. If you like concept and theme, then you'll be happy.

The last thing you need to arrive with a lot of is time--at least on a busy weekend night. We couldn't get a reservation until 8:15, still didn't have food at 9:00, and closed the place down in order to get all our courses brought and eaten. The preparations at table and the waiting for your protein chunks to cook are bound to extend the usual time required to do dinner, but during our visit this unavoidable extension was compounded by service that I considered to be slow. I'm not one to rush dinner (Do not bring me my entree if I'm still eating my salad.), but when the conversation stalls and you have time to wonder where the food is on more than one occasion, service is lagging. Then again, I usually have patience with those lapses, too, having been there and struggled through that. Perhaps being up way past my bedtime with an hour and a half drive home to survive made delays more noticeable. The thing to remember is that this style of dining will take longer. Plan accordingly in order to enjoy it.

My last little quibble with The Melting Pot is lighting. As at many other restaurants, the light level is great for mood but not for reading the menu. I would prefer to have both ambiance and adequate ambient light.

All of the above probably makes it sound as if I disliked The Melting Pot. That's not true. My experience was pleasing enough but left a neutral aftertaste. I didn't leave thinking that I simply had to come back and bring my husband, but neither did I decry it as a monumental waste of time and money. The Melting Pot is good at what it is--a theme-and-concept chain restaurant. The decor is darkly luxurious; the glass-walled wine cellar that one must pass to get to almost any table is generous and apparently a point of pride; we liked the taste of most everything, especially the chocolate endings we chose, which were lusty good (Our group fell on them as if we hadn't seen food all evening.); and the (almost) all fondue idea was novel fun to try, especially for a lively group like ours. I just happen to prefer my food experiences sans hook. I'm kind of plain that way. In fact, a friend once told me while clothes shopping that she'd like to see me in something that was a print. There's your grain of coarse salt to accompany any opinion of mine.

To sum up, I'm grateful to my former boss (and still friend) for the chance to see what all the buzz was about and try something new while enjoying the good company of people I miss seeing. As for the rest of you, if you have a good bank balance and about three hours available, and if you like cute ideas for variety, you'll like The Melting Pot. Should you run across one of their restaurants, take a little dip of your own and see what you think.