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)?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dystopian Novels: Samuel Butler, Religion, and Erewhon

I have been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic, utopian and dystopian novels over the last year. Most of the ones that I have been reading I have read in the past but wanted to take a fresher look. My interest was first sparked after I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. There was something about the sparse narrative that was well suited to the horror of the story. Maybe I unfairly lump together post-apocalyptic and dys/utopian novels, but they seem to me to share a speculative nature and to, in some ways, have a similar goal of positing a world that is different from our but that looks back on and critiques ours.
The most recent book that I have re-read is Samuel Butler's 1872 novel Erewhon. I first read this book in a 19th century British literature course in my undergrad. I was not impressed with it at the time, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to return to it. I think that I may not have given the book its due when I first read it; I was not terribly interested in 19th century British novels. My interested was also re-kindled in this book after reading a passage about it in Wayne C. Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony in which Booth discusses the paradoxical position on the narrator regarding his stance toward religion. But I'll return to this in a moment.
Much of Erewhon is as I remember it. It is presented as a travelogue. The narrator travels into the unexplored interior of some continent (he does not specify), finds a civilization that has not yet been contacted by the West, lives amongst the people for a time, and then returns to England hoping to make his fortune from his experiences. One of the key differences between this discovered civilization and the one the narrator comes from is that crimes are treated as though they were diseases and vice versa (this is Butler's device to criticize what he sees as the punishment of misfortune under the guise of criminality). One element that I did not notice on that first read is Butler's criticism of religion along with these other elements. At one point Higgs, the narrator, believes that the Erewhonians are one of the lost tribes of Israel and he vows to either make a name for himself by converting this lost tribe to Christianity and thus showing himself to the be equal of the Old Testament prophets or to sell his story and then exploit the natural resources of the unknown country to his own massive profit.
Butler presents this situation less to criticize the institution of religion than what he sees as the duplicity of its adherents. Higgs plans to take full advantage of his fortuitous discovery in whatever way is most advantageous to himself. Rather than desiring to convert the Erewhonians for their own salvation, he desires to convert them for his personal fame. Add to this the fact that he would then elevate himself to the level of the most important Biblical prophets, laying bare his selfish intentions. Higgs relates this to the reader unselfconsciously; he believes that he will be praised for his initiative and business sense.
Booth writes of a critique that is more subtle but exposes Butler's ironic intention in the work. After escaping a difficult situation, Higgs says ". . .As luck would have it, providence was on my side." Booth's point is that Higgs attribute his salvation to both luck and God, clearly a contradictory statement. Booth continues to parse the semantic advantages of Butler's selection of the word "luck" over "fortune" and "providence" over "God," but the point remains. In this example, as in the one I cited above, Higgs professes a kind of piety that he seems not to actually feel. Had his beliefs been true, he would have sought to convert the Erewhonians whatever the benefit to himself and he also would have attributed his salvation to God alone. The fact that he does not -- and these are just two examples of many -- indicates that his professions and his true beliefs do not match up.
Although religion is not Butler's primary focus in this social allegory, it is an important element of the text. His method of treating religion is fairly standard in dystopian texts of this kind, however. For the critique to be effective, Higgs must remain unaware of his hypocrisy. This should, ideally, lead to the reader's questioning his or her own beliefs to determine whether or not they match up with his or her actions.

Since the dystopian novel has been a fascination for me lately and because I have been thinking about them a lot, I have planned a series of posts about both utopian and dystopian literature. This may end up including some post-apocalyptic stuff, too. Coming up: some general thoughts about utopian and dystopian literature, a segment on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, narrative technique in dystopian novels, and much more.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mustard and Jelly Canning Workshop

Today was probably the coldest day of the winter, so far. It was the kind of day that made me long for the scorching days of summer, many of which I spent preserving the season's fruit and vegetables. Standing in front of the stove laden with multiple steaming pots, I wished for a break; now that I am consuming the contents of all those jars, I look forward to canning again.

The winter is certainly a good time to rest and collect ideas for the upcoming year; thus, it is a great time to learn how to can--or to practice canning--without the pressures of imminent harvest and piles upon piles of produce. Winter canning has a different, less frantic pace, and I'm very glad to be teaching a canning workshop now. During this workshop, we will make two items: a garlic & lemon mustard and a habanero wine jelly. Both of these have a complex flavor, while being relatively easy and fun to make. 

The class costs $22 (payable in advance of the class date) and includes a print-out of basic canning instructions and the recipes, as well as a jar of each of the items--the jelly and the mustard. The class is appropriate for any level of canning enthusiast.

The class will take place on Sunday, January 29th from 1:30-4:45 at the Birdhouse (800 North 4th Neighborhood Center). 

The class will be capped at 12 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.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Wild Fermentation

Sandor Katz
About a month ago, the Beardsley farm team and I had the chance to attend a Local Food Summit in Nashville, TN. Sandor Katz was one of the invited guests, and led a brief fermentation workshop. In addition to demonstrating the process of making a radish kraut and talking about the history of fermented products, Katz explained that we are in the midst of a very misguided cultural moment that wages war on bacteria. "In fact," he exclaimed, "much of the bacteria that surrounds is is not harmful!" And by creating bacteria-killing agents, we are depriving ourselves of the beneficial bacteria that help us digest food more efficiently, or fight off diseases, or reduce our bodies' toxicity.  "We, more so than any of our predecessors, need to be conscious of re-populating our bodies with beneficial bacteria," Katz urged.

This is a very important perspective to foster in a time when sanitizing wipes and antibacterial soaps abound--we get so carried away with killing off microorganisms, that we forget how important they are to our well-being and survival. It was also helpful to be reminded about the plethora of different fermentation methods; as a canning enthusiast, I sometimes overlook alternative ways of food preservation. So maybe it's about time that I try making beet kvass, or something else outside of my usual repertoire...

I have had Katz's book Wild Fermentation for a year and a half--about as long as I've been seriously into the process of fermenting--and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the process of fermentation. Katz also has a forthcoming book that will be even more extensive in scope and cover fermentation practices from various cultures.

I am so very glad that I had a chance to meet Sandor Katz and hear him talk about the subject he is so passionate about. Here's to a new year full of beneficial microorganisms!