I embrace coincidences.
Though, really, I don't think they're coincidences. (So why call them that? I don't know – do you have a better word or phrase? Perhaps "serendipitous occurances" would do.) But anyway…they are not things that just happen randomly. It's more like Fate or God or The Universe or Mother Nature showing something to you and then…just to keep your attention focused where it's supposed to be (whether you realize it or not)…you are shown something else – something similar but different, kind of the same, but maybe from a different angle. Told, perhaps, in a slightly different voice, but still on the same overall topic. Again, to keep you paying attention. Or to reinforce what you're starting to pick up on. It's a gentle process, at least at first. I find that if you still aren't getting it, the Powers That Be will come along and give you a good, hard smack upside the head.
But anyway. Back to the gentle process part.
Periodically I'm sent books by publishers to look at and talk about and sometimes host book giveaways. I'm not paid, at least not in money. But I get free books that I might not otherwise have bought, and so for me, that's better than cash. After all – FREE BOOKS! Mostly it's been cookbooks, which is great, because even if I've got eight billion cookbooks, there's always room for one more.
A little while back I was sent an advanced copy of Meat: A Love Story, by Susan Bourette. Ms. Bourette is an award-winning journalist based in Toronto who went undercover at a slaughterhouse for a week and after that decided to become a vegetarian. But that didn't last, and she was lured back to meat by the smell of bacon cooking in a diner. Her ensuing quest, after experiencing the blood and screams firsthand from the slaughterhouse assembly line, was to find a way to eat meat and have a clear conscience about it.
I'm still reading the book – and it's a good read. Ms. Bourette goes on a whale hunt with the Inuit, a Canadian moose hunt, she spends time on a Texas cattle ranch, and on and on. And it is possible, she shows us, to find and purchase and consume meat that is raised well and respectfully, and dispatched with compassion. Pioneer Woman has written about this sort of thing on her blog. Their cattle are given the best lives they can have. They roam and graze freely – they aren't crammed nose to tail in mounds of their own manure, and they don't eat mysterious blends of grain and bits of distant cousins. No Mad Cow Disease here. If I were a beef cow in Oklahoma, I'd want to grow up on THAT ranch.
So there's one little "something" – the book I was sent.
Our friend, John, who I've mentioned before, most often in conjunction with the brewing of beer or the catching of trout, has, for lack of a better way of describing this, kind of gone caveman. He still shaves, and his head went on strike in the hair department long ago anyway, so I don't mean in a furry way. And I don't know which car insurance he has, either. What I mean is, he has learned how to make a fire from sticks.
Not long ago, he skinned a groundhog (I think that's what it was) that he found (already dead) by the side of the road. To learn how.
And, more recently, he skinned, cooked (fried), and ate (yes, ate) a squirrel. It was fresh. And no, according to him, it did not taste at all like chicken.
He called to report (to me, because I have this foodish blog and would be interested in his tasting notes) that it tasted "sweet, gamey…and would be perfect in a curry." John takes his tasting notes seriously.
On one level, part of me cringes at the whole squirrel skinning notion.
But. Apart from the rodent factor, there's nothing all that different between eating squirrel and eating chicken or beef. It's just the up close and personal aspect that's different. Most of us don't grow our own chickens or beef for food. We buy it wrapped in cellophane at the store. It doesn't look a whole lot like an animal that lived and breathed at that point. At least, not like any of the cuter animals. Still – it lived, and someone had to kill it so we can eat it.
We go fishing, and we used to have lobster pots, and I have killed my share of fish and lobsters (and crabs and mussels and oysters and clams) for dinner. Bill, of course, has, too. But we aren't killing for fun. We catch the fish or dig the clams or harvest the mussels for dinner, and we make sure that when the creatures are killed, it is done as swiftly as possible. We are not wasteful – we only take what we will eat. And our children know that the seafood on their plates was alive at one point and was killed so we could eat it. They know where their seafood comes from.
So that (mainly the squirrel) is another little "something."
Bear with me – I know I'm rambling. I sort of have a point.
I was at Barnes & Noble last week. Alex had the day off from kindergarten because it was so VERY hot, and many other schools only stayed open half the day. Coincidentally it was his birthday. Daycare, which is air-conditioned (the schools generally aren't) was open, so we dropped Julia off and spent a few hours of quality mother and son time doing a bit of bookstore browsing. We had a little nosh in the cafe, some lemonade for him and iced coffee for me, and then we headed to the children's dept to get a few things. First of all – some Kumon workbooks for him and Julia to work on through the summer – and then a couple of stuffed animals (it was his birthday, and he wanted one for Julia, too) and another book from the I'm Going To Read series Alex likes. And then I made Alex follow me around for a bit as I racewalked through a few sections hoping something would jump out at me. (I don't racewalk when I'm alone, but I kind of have to with a child in tow. They don't like to stand there watching you leaf through volume after volume. As Alex frequently reminds me "It's hard for a kid to be patient.")
Anyway – back to the jumping out at me part – something did. Or at least it waved and shouted "OVER HERE!"
It was actually a little cardboard stand display, posed next to an endcap near (I believe) the Essays section, which was on the way, sort of, back to the cooking section (I thought I could get away with two laps through there, since it's food, and Alex does like to help me cook or bake sometimes.)
And the book on display was this one:
And my hand just shot out and plucked one from the cardboard stand and tucked it into the basket along with fluffy creatures and Kumon workbooks.
I started reading that one a few days ago, and it's one of those books I don't want to end. I am more than halfway through, and I don't want to finish. I also know (or am pretty certain) that when I finish the book I will read it all over again, right away.
What's it about?
Well, first of all, I'll skip that question and say that for whatever reason, I haven't read anything (that I can think of) by Barbara Kingsolver. Not on purpose – just…hadn't. Yet. Til now.
The book chronicles a year in which Ms. Kingsolver, her husband, and two daughters (husband and elder daughter are co-authors of this book) "abandoned the industrial-food pipeline to live a rural live–vowing that, for one year, they'd only buy food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it." (from the back cover.)
Month by month we see the fruits of a farmer's labor, all following the natural cycle of plant and season. With just about every fruit and vegetable available at every large grocery store at any time of the year, we get away from the natural order of things. Asparagus arrives in May (in this part of the world), and you have to stop harvesting it so it can grow tall and ferny and gather strength and nutrients for next year's growth. Then come the leafy greens…and the berries…and tomatoes…and potatoes and squashes…each in turn.
They also raise turkeys and chickens – turkeys for the table, chickens mainly for the eggs, but roosters are for the table, too, since too many roosters means a lot of poultry testosterone and that means a lot of fighting. The turkeys begin as fluffy little cute things and eventually, because this is why they were raised, many of them will be swiftly beheaded, bled, plucked and frozen.
I love this book. I am not doing it justice, but I'm trying. I found myself nodding in agreement through much of the book – descriptions of different varieties of vegetables…of cooking…of food memories…of observations such as this one:
Once you start cooking, one thing leads to another. A new recipe is as exciting as a blind date. A new ingredient, heaven help me, is an intoxicating affair. I've grown new vegetables just to see what they taste like: Jerusalem artichokes, edamame, potimarrons. A quick recipe can turn slow in our kitchen because of the experiments we hazard. We make things from scratch just to see if we can. We've rolled out and cut our pasta, raised turkeys to roast or stuff into link sausage, made chutney from our garden. On high occasions we'll make cherry pies with crisscrossed lattice tops and ravioli with crimped edges, for the satisfaction of seeing these storybook comforts become real.
Yes, exactly! We do that, too! We're growing kohlrabi this year – we've never grown it, never eaten it, either. But they're out there, in a little patch of garden, and they're actually starting to LOOK LIKE KOHLRABI! How cool is that?
The bad thing about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is that it makes me wish we had a much larger plot of land so we could grow MORE.
I've just finished reading chapter 17, entitled "Celebration Days" and subtitled "November-December." Toward the end of the chapter, Ms Kingsolver writes about food and holiday traditions, and specifically, among others, about Dia de los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos "is…an entirely happy ritual of remembering one's departed loved ones, welcoming them into the living room by means of altars covered with photographs and other treasured things that bring memory into the present."
The chapter ends thusly:
I'm drawn to this celebration, I'm sure, because I live in a culture that allows almost no room for dead people. I celebrated Dia de las Muertos in the homes of friends from a different background, with their deceased relatives, for years before I caught on. But I think I understand now. When I cultivate my garden I'm spending time with my grandfather, sometimes recalling deeply buried memories of him, decades after his death. While shaking beans from an envelope I have been overwhelmed by a vision of my Pappaw's speckled beans and flat corn seeds in peanut butter jars in his garage, lined up in rows, curated as carefully as a museum collection. That's Xantolo, a memory space opened before my eyes, which has no name in my language.
When I'm cooking, I find myself inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it. Slamming a door on food-rich holidays, declaring food an enemy, sends all the grandparents and great aunts to a lonely place. I have been so relieved latley to welcome them back: my tiny great-aunt Lena who served huge, elaborate meals at her table but would never sit down there with us herself, insisting on eating alone in the kitchen instead. My grandmother Kingsolver, who started every meal plan with dessert. My other grandmother, who made perfect rolls and gravy. My Henry grandfather, who used a cool attic room to cure the dark hams and fragrant cloth-wrapped sausages he made from his own hogs. My father, who first took me mushroom hunting and taught me to love wild asparagus. My mother, whose special way of beating eggs makes them fly in an ellipse in the bowl.
Here I stand in the consecrated presence of all they have wished for me, and cooked for me. Right here, canning tomatoes with Camille, making egg bread with Lily. Come back, I find myself begging every memory. Come back for a potholder hug.
When I am baking the German cookies at Christmas time, my late mother-in-law is right there in the kitchen, too. Fishing – that began with my dad's father and continues into the generation after mine. Yorkshire pudding – the instruction to "beat it til lit plops" (the batter) – from my mother's mother. Other foods…my mother's father loved "stinky cheese" and I'm sure that contributed to my love of all cheeses bleu. And from my dad's mother – the little treat of butter on saltines…and the tradition of Cornish pasties. And, though I'm fortunate that they are still among the living, I have food memories from both my parents…shucking scallops in the garage with my Dad while the rain poured outside…and innumerable moments in the kitchen with my Mom.
And now I pass that along to my kids…we bake cookies…we make pasta…we're going to do an awful lot of food things this summer.
And, to get back to my long-ago original theme…that book was the next "something."
I don't know what to call it. An awareness. A respect and reverence. A going back to basics. I've always had it to some degree…I can bake bread from scratch, make pasta dough, pastry dough, and so on. And next up – I'm going to make cheese. I just made a batch of ricotta yesterday. I bought a couple books and I'm going to make fresh mozzarella and who knows what else. And the kids will help, and watch, and learn that this is where cheese actually "comes from."
And I'm also going to can things. I always roast tomatoes and freeze them for sauces…this year I want to do more – make sauce and can it…make jams…pickles, chutneys, and so on. I remember jewel-toned jars of fruits and sauces high up on the shelves in our back kitchen when I was a kid. I remember shucking corn and snapping the ends off beans with my sister and our friends – free labor for my mother, who would then blanch the vegetables and pack them in the freezer. The corn tasted just like August corn, even when we were eating it in December.
And I'm buying from the Farmers' Markets. I'm trying to become a "locavore," as the new term has been coined. I'm more conscious of where my food is coming from, and I'm making my purchases based on what I'm learning. And I want my children to grow up knowing where their food comes from. And respecting the whole process, from the growing and caring for to the cooking and eating.
It's not a new concept. But I am all fired up with the renewal of it.