Wednesday, September 10, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Waiting for the Sauce to be Done

Autumn's offerings of fruits and vegetables have taken on a new meaning for me. Sundays are now major cooking days as I make big batches of tomato sauce out of the harvest of Roma tomatoes from our garden. I've been reminded of what I loved about cooking when I first started making food for myself: fragrance, color, texture, rhythm when chopping and stirring, patience, sharing. Waiting for tomato sauce to be reduced by half bathes our home in savory aroma and little bubbly noises barely audible over other sounds. And it'll give us comfort again after the garden is done for the season, when Minnesota breathes its wintery breath in our faces and we want nothing more than to sit down with a warm dinner plate.

The older I get, the more I seek the connectedness that growing and preserving my own food brings to mind. I feel a new urgency to share, take care of myself and my family, my friends. Maybe this is part of missing my adult kids, feeling that quiet that has crept into our home now that my partner and I - and our two dogs - are the only ones making any noise here.

As I wrote the first draft of this post, the latest batch of sauce simmered on the stove. The scent of the recently sautéed onions and garlic lingered. I could hear our neighbor mowing his lawn, the Minnesota Vikings vs. the St. Louis Rams football game on television, a multitude of birds twittering in our back yard. The burbling of the tomato sauce moved beneath it all and I thought about what really makes the foundation of our lives. What sustains us.

Tomato sauce itself is straightforward. Tomatoes. Onions. Garlic. Olive oil. A few fresh herbs. Time. Clean jars to hold it all. What sustains us is a much bigger question, but maybe I should not complicate it.

Autumn is more than a produce harvest this year. It's looking more and more like a big bowl of pasta that makes me feel safe and warm, with a little sauce on the side. And there's going to be enough for everyone who comes through our door.

That is sustenance.

Ingredients for tomato sauce

Step 1: saute onions and garlic in olive oil
Step 2: add tomatoes, bring to boil, simmer 20 minutes

Step 3: pulse mixture in a food processor

Step 4: strain out the tomato seeds and skin

Step 5: simmer strained sauce
until reduced by half (this takes hours)

Step 6: heat up your clean jars and lids

Step 7: put the cooked sauce into the warm jars,
boil in a water bath for 35 minutes,
then wait 24 hours to check the seal. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: School Starts, Leaves Fall, Things Change

I know people who say they never let the grass grow under their feet. I even work with some of them.  And, this fall, I guess that saying applies to me.

Many of you know that I was an editor at Every Day Poets for several years, following a stint as a slush reader and, before that, as a contributing poet. When EDP's daily poem publications were suspended earlier this year, the entire staff - editors and slush readers alike - headed off to do other things. I was clear at that time that I would make no decisions about what was next until the end of the summer. I know my own tendency to leap into things and then feel like I've taken on too much, which results in self-directed anger and impatience. Not the best thing.

So, after a summer of laying low in the literary landscape, I'm ready to start on new adventures. I'm going to be on the editorial staff of a new flash fiction publication, details on that to follow as soon as we finalize a few things. And I'm hoping to be involved in a poetry publication with some of my former colleagues, which we have only begun to explore.

In the meantime, I have two poems coming out in the fall issue of The Linnet's Wings. This is the first time I've been published there. And I recently learned that my piece, Eden Baby Bakery,  published by Saturday Night Reader, is featured on the cover of their first print edition. I learned an important thing about Saturday Night Reader from their website:
A portion of all proceeds from annual subscriptions will go to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and Cystic Fibrosis Canada.
That makes me very happy to be one of their contributing authors and it makes me think I need to get going and send them some new work. The other stories I've seen there have been fun to read. Check them out if you have a chance.

I guess a summer spent gardening, cooking, traveling, and being with family and friends was the perfect way to feed the writer/editor in me.


Yesterday, I volunteered at Second Harvest Heartland's Meals for Minds program at Pillsbury Elementary School in Northeast Minneapolis. I sorted and bagged potatoes alongside several other people, then helped distribute food to families in need. It was the first time I've volunteered with Second Harvest Heartland and it was impressive just how much food they got into the hands of people who needed it.

And how did I find out about this opportunity? Through I signed up there a while ago and began getting regular emails from them that list volunteer opportunities selected for me based upon my profile. Anyone can sign up. And, bonus, you can say that you're only interested in one-time volunteer gigs if committing to a regular schedule is not a good fit for you. In fact, that's exactly what I do.

Hope you check it out.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Gotta Love August

The comic strip, Stone Soup, runs strips every summer with the phrase, "Gotta love August".  In those panels, the comic's characters spend time outside floating in lake water, running barefoot, reading under the summer sun, and generally enjoying summer in ways I remember from my childhood. The "Gotta love August" strips seem to have finished their appearance for this summer as the comic strip characters now turn their attention to school's resumption.

I love Stone Soup because its creator, Jan Eliot, often nails feelings I've had about family, friends, parenthood, seasons. The characters deal with growth and pain as often as they deal with joy and love. It's one of the few comics I read daily.

That phrase, "Gotta love August," has gotten stuck in my head this year. It's been a busy August for me, with travel and change and a swirl of activities. I tried to find a languid summer at one point, but that was not to be. The garden exploded with produce, my daughter moved into her new student apartment, and my husband and I traveled to Vancouver. I learned to can food. I've had new poetry accepted for publication. I'm looking at new ventures as a writer and as an editor.

I've even gotten into a regular exercise routine.

Yes, gotta love August.

In spite of all that, there's that hard-to-grasp poignancy in the air at the end of summer. There's that Minnesota shift from humid mornings when slow is the top speed to crisp mornings that hint of the coming seasonal shift. This end-of-summer feeling has a less-clear end point than it used to. There's no looming shopping trip for school supplies and new shoes, no back-to-school orientation night. My daughter's return to campus occurred on August 15, so it was a little early to make the shift completely out of summer. She didn't need me to take her shopping for pencils. (Apartment items, yes, however.) And, as soon as she was all moved in, my husband and I headed for our combo Canadian vacation/conference attendance, so there was no time to mourn her absence from our house.

I'm not sure what to make of August this year and am startled that it's almost over. But I can say that I mostly loved it this year. August danced in front of my camera lens and I noticed.

Enjoy some photos from Vancouver and have a look at my Tumblr blog, One MN Writer in Pictures, for the gradual addition of other photos from this series.

Gotta love August. Not a bad thing to have stuck in my head.

View from our room at the Westin Bayshore Hotel, Vancouver.

Inukshuk from English Bay Beach, Vancouver.

Totem poles in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

Beluga whale at Vancouver Aquarium.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Vancouver Voyage

I am not coming to you from Minnesota this week, but from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This is an amazing place of water, mountains, glass, clouds, sea planes, bicycles, coffee houses, ferries, good food, and more.

Where I am, at the Westin Bayshore, is also crawling with scientists. I can snag wi-fi in the lobby, so that is what I'm doing while waiting for my partner, who gave a genetics talk at this conference that has drawn all these scientists, to reappear. I don't normally sit around while he's working but this morning we rented bikes and pedaled  through Stanley Park. I'm happy to sit here, looking at the harbor area, and sip a vanilla latte while I type. We've been all over Granville Island, Downtown, and the West End of Vancouver in the past couple of days. We'll visit Gastown and the Vancouver Lookout before we head home.

This is a great place to get outside and move. Watch my blog for photos and stories to follow.

Gotta love August.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Packing, Again

How many times in your life have you moved?

I've moved 11 times in my life. Packing for each of them grew progressively more difficult, as I moved from being a child whose parents did the packing to being a college student who had very little stuff (at one point, I could move using just my VW Bug), to an adult with a whole house full of things. And those things that I acquired are all inevitably attached to some memory that keeps them in place.

It isn't me packing this time, though. It's my daughter Abby who will move into her student apartment on Friday morning. This is her first apartment (last year was a dorm room), and it feels odd to be on the sidelines waiting to be asked for help. I'm trying to be quiet, to be out of the way as she organizes what amounts to her life at this moment. But I'm certainly reminiscing about my own transitions.

The first apartment I lived in without my parents was a two-bedroom garden level in St. Paul. I had a roommate, my friend Margie with whom I went to high school. We shared our apartment with hundreds of box elder bugs who tried to move inside as the weather got colder. I learned that living alone was something I needed to experience and that if I had a roommate, I should probably get together with someone whose habits might be more like my own. Margie and I remained friends, which is saying something, but we only lived together for a few months. When I got my own place, it was a very tiny efficiency apartment across the street from the one Margie and I shared. Luckily, there was no box elder tree outside the window of that place. But there were silverfish. Yeesh.

Sometimes, I compare that efficiency apartment to this whole house that I share with my husband. I don't miss the bugs or the colorless decor, but I do miss the freedom that comes from having very few possessions. While it's inconvenient to not own a washer and dryer, or a television, just starting out pushes us to consider what we absolutely have to have in a very different way than when we have the resources to acquire more.

This, of course, is the whole point of the tiny house movement. What do we really need? What is superfluous? What can we share with our community?

But, back to Abby. She seems excited about her move. She has acquired dishes and cookware, bedding and towels. She will leave things here, books and movies from her childhood that have little purpose on campus. But she will take a few that are precious or comforting. We will keep her place here, waiting until she decides where home is going to be after college.

And I will consider just what I need to hang onto as well. A long marriage, parenthood, friendships and jobs - all these have entered into the equation of what I've acquired and what I've let go. But, as I watch Abby get ready to leave again, I am reminded that I've acquired more than I can use right now. More than I need.

A purge is in order. As I clear out old belongings, donate things to people who will actually use them, perhaps my thoughts will move toward the calm that comes with space.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Canning Lessons

This week, I've been trying my damnedest to practice being in the moment, being grateful, and using what I have. Oh, so Zen-like. August has this effect on me, with its reminder that summer is waning and the light is shifting and the garden is giving up its produce for anyone who's paying attention.

I've spent a fair amount of time these past few months not just gardening, but reading about food production, health, and pesticides, and agricultural policies made interesting by people like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. I've thought about what it means to grow our own food and preserve it for the winter months ahead. Are we using what this place offers to the best of our abilities and in ways that are kind to the environment?

Anyone who has paid attention to the idea of sustainability asks themselves that question over and over. In my case, it sometimes gets phrased as, "Do I really need to go through the Taco Bell drive-thru when I have a fresh tomato from my garden that will make a perfectly good sandwich?"

Sometimes sustainability questions are pretty simple.

Anyway, yesterday, I took finally took my own garden's produce and learned to can. I come from a family who didn't grow food or preserve it while I was growing up, although I was surprised to recently learn that my mother canned food before I was born. (Really? My mom occasionally burned Totino's Pizza on Saturday nights because she just plain didn't want to stand in the kitchen long enough to watch it in the oven. She really preferred going out.) It's no surprise to me that I don't know how to do a lot of things related to growing and preserving food or that I've come to this so late in my life.

But at least I got here. And I'm growing cucumbers that are the most prolific things I've ever seen that aren't rabbits.

So I started my own canning lessons with the cucumbers. Yesterday, I canned my first pickles. I followed advice I had heard that the best pickles are made from cucumbers picked that day, so off I went in the morning and gathered these:

Then I set about slicing them. One of the things I love about cooking in general is the slicing of things, how the food feels, how it smells, the beauty of the insides of vegetables and fruits. Cucumbers have beautiful insides.

Once I had the cucumbers and some onions and garlic ready, I followed my recipe's instructions to add the pickling salt, cover everything with cracked ice, and leave it all in the fridge for several hours.

During the time the cucumbers were sitting in the fridge, I sterilized jars and lids and re-read the canning instructions again. I was a little apprehensive about making a mistake and creating a jar full of something that would make someone else sick. But a former poetry editor ought to be able to pay enough attention to details that nothing gets missed, right?

This is the thing about canning and cooking in general - multitasking is a bad idea. Trying to do something else at the same time makes room for huge mistakes that render whatever food is being prepared inedible. So, my lessons yesterday were not just for the canning process, but for letting everything else I could be doing go. 

Then I did hit a point where all I had to do was wait for the cucumbers' fridge time to be up, so that was when I did something else. I wrote. And, because I was already in a state of mind where I was very much thinking about that which was right in front of me, the poem I worked on came rolling out of my pen (no computer in the kitchen where I was staying put) in a way that just worked. There is now a draft ready to be revised and sent somewhere. I haven't had that kind of luck all summer as I've dashed from one thing to the next, even though the things I dashed to were summery kinds of things.

It took a day of canning to slow myself down to the sort of pace that welcomed creative work completely.

The pickles turned out pretty well, too. I'll be thinking of August every time I open one of these jars.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Traveling Light

On Monday, my daughter Abby and I packed one backpack each and got on a Chicago-bound plane. We booked a room at the Travelodge on Harrison Street, walking distance from everything we longed to see. We left behind our computers, dress clothes, cameras, to-do lists, and anything that wouldn't fit under an airplane seat. It was all last-minute because we waited until Abby had four days in a row off work.

So here we are until tomorrow, wandering around our favorite Windy City with very little to weigh us down. I'm typing this on my iPhone, which is also  doubling as my camera and that's quite a concession for a writer who loves to shoot photos.

But this lack of stuff has been wonderful. We so seldom travel this lightly, thinking more about what we absolutely have to have with us than what we can do without. 

Dropping all the stuff we usually carry makes movement a whole lot easier. 

I leave you with this morning's view from our room.