Thursday, March 29, 2012

200 or so pages of The Years of Rice and Salt

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I have been exploring my interest in sci-fi, and particularly the dystopian novel. This interest began for me in high school when I read books such as Farenheit 451 and 1984. For many years I followed other pursuits and it has only been recently that I have begun to go back to this area of interest. The book that I am reading now, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, is something of a departure for me. Although KSR is well known for his sci-fi writing, this novel would more accurately be called a speculative or alternate history. The novel consists of ten books which recount the history of the world, but a world in which the black plague wiped out almost all of the population of Europe and Asian cultures took a place of dominance instead of Western Christianity. KSR uses the concept of reincarnation to provide a sort of continuity in the novel. Each book features a reincarnated version of the same two central characters who are inextricably bound together in a karma group. This device helps to convey the arc of history that KSR builds over the course of the novel because each individual book is tightly encapsulated: the narrative begins at some point in the lives of the characters -- sometimes detailing how they met, other times not -- and ends with their deaths. The result is that the overarching revised history is left largely implied.
KSR finds inventive ways of restating this large theme within the episodic narratives of the individual books. For example, the third book titled "Ocean Continents" focuses on a fleet of Chinese treasure ships that have gotten lost at sea and come across an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has not been encountered before. The sailors, having brought small pox with them to the island, infect the islanders and end up taking a young girl with them for their return to the mainland. Kheim, one of the recurring characters wonders if they are justified in taking the girl away from her home even though this means saving her from the certain death that many of her family will face. Kheim considers the speed with which the girl, whom they call "Butterfly," adjusts to life on the ship, which parallels the reader's experience of reorienting, or adjusting, to each new life that the characters appear in. The reader is put into the paradoxical position of knowing more and less than the central characters. The reader knows more because he/she sees the broad arc of the novel, but knows less because the individual lives within each of the books is very minimally glossed. The reader is then forced into a position from which they can see the big picture, the broad historical perspective, but miss out on the intricacies of the lives of the characters presented. This contributes to KSR's purpose because the characters are in tune with reincarnation and often recognize that a single lifetime is a small aspect of the entire "life" of a soul.
The book is fascinating so far. I found it a bit jarring to read at first but it only took the first couple of transitions between historical ages and characters to catch on to the conceit of the novel. The two concepts that interest me the most in the novel are the treatment of character and the treatment of history. KSR develops a complex reimagination of history through his inventive use of "character" in a completely non-traditional way.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"The brittle things of March"

The forecast of bad weather held us back from making a trip to the east today; after last year's hail storm (with larger-than-golf-ball-sized hail), I am more cautious. Nothing much has happened yet, but nonetheless--the day has been good for looking back over some forgotten poems.

A friend recently remarked that it's difficult to understand poetry without knowing the poet; I argued that this is not the case, and that in a good poem, there are many things to grasp hold of, make meaning from.

I first read Joseph Enzweiler's A Curb in Eden almost eight years ago--before I understood the work of a farmer, or began listening to the land in the same way that he does in his poems. Reading the poems now, I know that the wind and the mud aren't abstractions. However, there is still much in this simple poem that is foreign to me--and maybe this very fact is part of the reason for my enjoyment (of any poem).

The Wind

I've been standing here all my life
by the road that day in March
and never knew till now.
Phone lines hold their breath.
Above the neighborhood
a hammer is lifted.
Swifts fall silent in the chimney.
Children on the lawn
are blurred, their faces
delicate as cups.
In the market aisle
a secret waits half-told.
A doorknob turns.
Cars intent on evening
as supper cooks.
Watch hands.
The smell of bread.

As the bus pulls away
in a black roar of diesel,
from its window
you smile at me and wave.
We are fifteen.
My face is cold.
The mud smells warm
with spring and rotten grass.
Four o'clock.
The potholes shiver with rain.

In glass dark and shifting,
clouds rush across your face
like faraway countries
taking you, faster now
until you are dust,
a metal frame of sky.

I never heard the hammer fall,
a garage door shut, the eyes
complete their journeys.
I thought I could always find you there
in the same green coat,
though it's we who are the wind.

I turned home past the locust trees
through the broken gate.
Our steel fence hissed in vines,
sun glazed the pear tree.
The brittle things of March
filled me, and the mud
on my shoes felt light.

That night at supper my family
ate the same in their same chairs.
But for me the fish was beautiful
and sweet  opened with my fork.
They could not see.
I never spoke, though my blood
was curving to the sky.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Deborah Madison, You've Done It Again!

Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's KitchenI was making yet another soup from Deborah Madison's wonderful cookbook Vegetable Soups, when Matt commented, "She certainly likes the squash with the root vegetables." I paused and thought about the soup: it's a navy bean soup with turnips, winter squash, onions, sage, parsley, and savoy cabbage. The beans are cooked first, with onion, garlic, and other aromatics. All in all, the soup is simple, but delicious--just like many of the soups in the cookbook. It was already obvious, but on this late February day, it struck me even more--all the recipes are seasonal. The soup I was making was a classic winter soup, and the squash, sage, parsley, and turnips were all grown by me at some point; they were just waiting patiently for this moment to arrive. The onions, garlic, and cabbage could have also been obtained locally, but I've eaten through all my stores of those. 
If you're at all interested in vegetarian, seasonal, local cooking, I recommend that you get this book. I know it's a few years old, but it's far from being outdated. As for me, I'm looking forward to the spring soups, especially ones with the sugar snap peas...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pressure Canning Workshop

When I talk to people about canning, more than a few express a slight fear of the process; and although there are certainly dangers involved in water-bath canning, nothing terrifies people more than pressure canning. There's just something about putting up non-acidified foods and the menacing-looking pressure canner that stops people from ever trying to preserve using this method. 

I, too, was once afraid of the pressure canner. However, with a few practice runs I felt confident enough to can a variety of items--from stock, to soups, to corn. And my endeavors into pressure-canning have been incredibly worth-while: I have local corn to use year-round; a fulfilling dinner is minutes away with tomato or lentil soup. I have vegetable stock on-the ready for winter soup-making. Eating well is easier with a pressure-canner. 

I am happy to offer a workshop on pressure-canning, so those wanting to learn can do so before the bounty of spring and summer comes rolling in. During this workshop we will can vegetarian lentil soup, discuss pressure-canning methods, and talk about pressure-canning other items. The class costs $35 (payable in advance of the class date) and includes a print-out of basic canning instructions and the recipe, as well as a jar of the soup. Although the class is most suitable for someone already familiar with canning, I will not discourage novices from attending. 

The class will be capped at 10 people; you must reserve your space in the workshop through purchasing a "ticket" through the PayPal link (you do not need a PayPal account to buy). Also, RSVP to me, the instructor, to let me know you're coming. Space in the workshop is not guaranteed if you have not reserved your spot. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. I look forward to the workshop!***

When announcing this workshop in the middle of February, I had no idea how busy March was going to be for me, or how many weekends I'd be working at Beardsley Farm. For now, I still plan to hold the workshop, but it will probably take place in April or May--please stay tuned for details, and don't hesitate to contact me if you're interested in taking the class!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Overwintering Peppers

One of my two Manzanos
Last fall, I learned that peppers can be grown as perennials. (Daniel has written on this, too.) I was fascinated with the prospect of having year-round chiles, and so decided to overwinter a few plants. (And by a few, I mean about a dozen, some of which were easily three feet tall, and in 18" pots.) Since October, when I took them in, two thirds of the plants have mysteriously died. I'm not sure if it had to do with the diminishing amount of light in our house, or the constant harassment by our cats, but one by one, eight of the pepper plants withered. Perhaps it was because I was taking in someone else's plants, and giving them a kind of care they were not used to. For weeks, the death of the plants bothered me constantly; but now, I look at the four surviving plants, and am glad to see them alive, if not quite thriving.

My own personal woes aside, overwintering chiles is pretty miraculous. And even the concept seems almost familiar. So many of the people I've talked to about this have mentioned remembering--sometime, somewhere--a tiny, decorative indoor chile plant. And if it can be done with small chile plants, why not bigger ones? The key is steady fertilizing, watering, pruning, and pest control. I'm being vigilant and hope that my chile plants will make it until Spring.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Yesterday's Canning Workshop

Filling jars with white wine chile jelly.
Securing the lids and rings.
 Yesterday's class reminded me why I started teaching canning in the first place. The energy in the cozy and familiar Birdhouse kitchen was really quite empowering--everyone was interested to learn about canning, and had a lot of questions. A couple people were already familiar with the process of canning, but had questions about the specific recipes (of the mustard and chile jelly that we made) and pressure canning. All in all, I am glad that I've made a return to teaching workshops. I'll definitely have another one in February or March. Thanks, everyone, for coming, learning, and showing your support.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pie Love

Two weeks ago, I became very excited about and consequently purchased a pie book. I've made pies a few times previously, and although they have always been very good, I've never gotten to be quite so enamored with pies (as enamored as others are? as enamored as I could be?). For one, I've been making simpler, less fatty pie crusts (not knowing how the fattier, flakier crusts are quite the pay-off for the effort). And then, as I said, I'd never made that many pies. The book was almost a personal challenge to make more pies, and in the ten (or so) days that I've had it, I've made two pies. The first was a maple-blueberry pie, made with blueberries that my friend Alicia and I picked in the heat of summer last year. Because I used frozen berries, the pie was a little runny, but the flavor made up for the small failure.

On Sunday, I made the maple-pecan pie you see pictured above. I'm certain that I've only had pecan pie one other time in my life, and wasn't thrilled about it then. But now! Now, I am in love with pie. Alicia helped me make this pie, and upon tasting it told me that it is not as sweet as pecan pies usually are. It's sweet in the complex combination of good sugar, molasses, and maple syrup. The pecans are good quality. The crust is also exceptional, if I may say so.

I'm sure that in the next week I'll make another pie--there's no stopping me. I've made enough cookies and cupcakes and cakes to be a little bored with them. But pie, pie is new.  In the summer, I will be diligent about saving fruit for pies--it'll be a new addition to the routine. For now, I'll use what's at hand and extend the pie challenge to you; will you consider making a pie this year (or this month, or this week)?