Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bits and Pieces

(Now bring us some figgy pudding. Photo credit: The Man)

I can't believe I haven't posted all week. Maybe it's just because I have only tiny things to tell you. Will, for instance, has learned how to make friendship bracelets, and he's started collecting the Mint 50 States quarters. My older brother collected coins, as did my grandfather, and its neat to see Will lugging around those little blue Official Whitman Coin Folders.

Jack doesn't seem to have the collector gene, but Will's got it in spades, which is how I came to spend ten minutes yesterday dusting the tiny plastic NFL and NHL helmets that Will keeps displayed on his dresser. Housekeeping at its goofy best.


We have figs! The two fig trees on the south side of the house have come to fruition, and boy are they ever fruitionating. So far I've canned two batches of fig jam, but the lids on the first batch didn't seal--I think I filled the jars too full--so I'm going to use it to make fig jam-filled cookies. The second batch seems to have come through in tact.

It's tempting to make more fig jam, except I just don't know how much fig jam one family needs. It's quite tasty, not unlike strawberry jam but with a deeper flavor--what's the word for it? I almost want to say "earthy," but I don't know if the phrase "earthy strawberry flavor" will elicit the right response. You might hear it and think, Lovely, I must try some, or else, Sounds like strawberries covered with dirt, and who needs that?

I was telling my friend Amy the other day that I need to come up with a balanced food philosophy when it comes to preserving the fruits of summer. The perfectionist in me is feeling like we should pick all the figs and can them all and ... and ... have dozens of jars of fig jam that we'll end up throwing out after they've sat in the cupboard for two years. The Zen Buddhist in me says: Birds like figs, too. It's okay to leave some for the goldfinches.


I finally finished watching the HBO series "John Adams." I've watched the first four episodes at least three times, but for some reason never made it through the rest. At last, I have done it, and now I have a confession to make: I have a crush on Thomas Jefferson. Oh, we've always been friends; after all, I lived in Charlottesville during elementary school, visited Monticello numerous times, and had a hermit crab named TJ Crabbe.

But something more serious has been brewing since our trip back to Charlottesville last spring. And now that TJ's lima beans and crazy, out-of-control marigolds are blooming in my garden, well, it would appear that a deeper affection has bloomed as well.

Have you ever had a historical crush? Do tell!

By the way, I'm learning how to save seeds this summer, and have lots and lots of Thomas Jefferson marigolds seeds, which I started saving after Gretchen-Joanna asked for some. If you'd like me to send you some as well, let me know, and I will.


After my last entry, Leslie from Wayside Sacraments sent me a link to a great article in Atlantic Monthly called Caring for Your Introvert. I would recommend it to anyone who's an introvert or knows one. It spoke to my heart, this article, it truly did, and even made me feel a touch of introverted pride. Introverts of the world, unite!

Hmmm ... that doesn't seem quite right. How about, Introverts of the world, sit quietly in the corner and read!

Yep, that's more like it.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer Report No. 4

Yesterday I received a thank you note from the head of a group I recently spoke to. It was a lovely note, and I appreciated it, but I was a little startled when she quoted me back to me. "I loved the part where you said, 'I like people in theory, but in reality I find them rather exhausting.'"

Do I really say this sort of stuff out loud? I mean, I think it all the time, sure. But maybe I ought not to say it in public, especially not in front of large groups filled with people who might quote me later.

I was in a large group last night. I went to a community meeting about local food. When I got home, the Man asked me how it went (after I said, "Aren't you going to ask me how it went?"). My reply--but don't quote me--was, "I hate people."

Isn't that sweet? Isn't that oh-so-very Christian?

Actually, when we broke into small discussion groups (I especially hate people who ask other people to break into small discussion groups), I liked my discussion partners very much. In general, I find individual people quite wonderful. But in groups? Applauding and cheering and yelling out "yeah!" when someone says something like, "I don't care what my neighbors think, I'm growing vegetables in my front yard!"?

I'm really not fond of them in that context.

Oh, that's the problem with groups. Someone's always preaching or cheerleading or telling me why eating local means becoming a vegan. And when you start discussing a topic like eating locally and growing your own tomatoes, the levels of self-righteousness and self-congratulatory hoo-hah is out the roof.

So I came home feeling cranky. And feeling the way I always feel when I've had some group time, which is that I don't really fit into groups very well. I never have, but I keep hoping. I do very small groups okay, as long as they're limited to five or six. But beyond that? I get a headache.

I'm jealous of the people at that meeting last night who felt affirmed and confirmed and a part of things. When asked to report our responses to the films we watched ("Nourish" and "Homegrown Revolution," in case you're wondering), people said things like, "I feel really good about the decision I've made to buy as much as I can at the farmer's market!" and "I really want to start a community garden now!"

My response was, "You've just shown us two films made in California showing a lot of young people eating beautiful salads at long tables. Where is the film about people eating parsnips boiled in water with a little salt in the middle of Iowa in January? Why aren't we talking about the fact that you can buy all the produce you want at the local farmer's market, but if you don't know how to cook it or preserve it, you're up a creek without a paddle? Why don't we talk about my sister-in-law Danni, who no matter how much you tell her that it's so, so important to support small farmers, is not going to spend $8 a pound for heirloom tomatoes? You are a tiny, liberal elite minority with absolutely no idea how most people live, and I find you insufferable and possibly insane, even if I too do my best to eat locally and think community gardens are pretty cool."

Okay, I didn't actually say that, but I did look around for people whose expressions suggested they were thinking those very thoughts. Didn't find them. Maybe they'd left already.

So there's one more group I'm not going to be a part of. Maybe I'll be part of your group instead--as long as it's just the two of us.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An E. B. White Summer

I thought it was going to be a Eudora Welty summer, so imagine my surprise that it's turned out to be the Summer of E.B. White. How do these things happen? Oh, the best laid plans ...

I suppose it started when the Man and I visited a used bookstore on Broad Street in May and I found Letters of E.B. White for three bucks and scooped it up. This book has been a fine companion all summer. I open it in slow moments and read a little, and suddenly the quality of my thoughts vastly improves.

(The critic Harold Bloom once wrote something to the effect that reading novels doesn't improve us morally, as some would have it, but improves our imaginations and interior lives, which is not to be undervalued. This is a broad paraphrase of Bloom, but I've thought about it a lot, and ultimately agree, though I do think some novels have improved me morally.)

I was at the library Saturday when I came across The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims, which was published last month. I'm about a hundred pages in and completely hooked. The description of White's childhood, which was by all accounts idyllic except that White was shy and prone to melancholia and susceptible to all the usual childhood terrors--which is to say he was a sensitive child--is worth the cost of admission alone.

I haven't even gotten to the part about how White wrote Charlotte's Web, but I'm tingling with anticipation. After all, isn't Charlotte's Web one of my very favorite books ever?

Yes it is, and you know what? It is so much one of my very favorite books ever that when I'm asked to list my favorite books, I rarely answer Charlotte's Web. Why is that? I pondered this yesterday, and yesterday the answer came to me: To say Charlotte's Web is one of my very favorite books ever is akin to saying I have dark brown hair (or did), or that I'm left-handed, or that I grew up in the Army. It's so much of a part of me that it doesn't occur to me to mention it. Did I mention to you that I breathe? That I blink every few seconds?

I nominate E.B. White as the perfect summer literary companion. Who would you nominate?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Summer Report No. 3

This is one of the flowers Will planted--I believe it's called a Mexican Sunflower. All of his flowers are orange or blue. The blue ones are Bachelor's Buttons, which we know now to plant en masse; otherwise they just kind of flop over and look at you with these pathetic, sadsack expressions. Photo credit: The Man.

As I write this, Jack is cutting an onion into wedges. He's making pot roast for dinner. I know, I know, who makes pot roast in July? But our deal is that when he cooks his weekly meal, he can pick what he wants to make. So pot roast it is.

He made two pies for the 4th of July--strawberry lemonade and Key Lime--but has slowed down on pie production since. He says the two pies for the 4th put him ahead a week. He did make wonderful popsicles yesterday, chocolate and vanilla swirls that called for many bowls, much melting, and a long grocery store search for plain, whole fat yogurt. You could spend years looking for that stuff. Low fat is everywhere. It's a shame.


I tried making mozzarella on Tuesday, but failed. I thought maybe I didn't get the temperatures right, or maybe added too much citric acid, or didn't get the rennet diluted enough.

But as it turns out, the problem was much simpler. Turns out that I don't know what a gallon of milk is. I bought a half-gallon, called it a gallon, tried to make mozzarella and ended up with something like ricotta.

But you know what? Whatever I made, it tasted delicious. Last night I ate it with blackberry jam spooned over it. And then I bought a gallon of milk. Turns out that's a lot of milk, cowboy.


Canning update: Today, blueberry jam. Saturday, tomato-basil sauce. Yep, I have eight pounds of ripe tomatoes, thanks to our neighbor, Mr. Eddie, who gave us several plants in early spring that he'd started under lights in January. We've had to ripen a lot of our tomatoes on the porch, to keep them out of the clutches of the squirrels, but they seem to do just fine.

Looking out across the garden, there appear to be approximately 900 tomatoes about to come to fruition. It is possible I will soon feel overwhelmed by the sheer tomato-y goodness of my life. Is there such a thing as too many tomatoes?

No, no there is not.


Pot roast. It's what's for dinner.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


(Blackberry jam, canned by Yours Truly. Photo credit: The Man)

Summer has always been my favorite food season. Two words explain this: Tomatoes and basil. I can't get enough of either, and they grow all summer long right in my own backyard.

But this summer the bounty is even larger. With the help of my friend Melissa and the good folks at the County Cooperative Extension office, I've learned how to can. This weekend I canned blackberries from the farmers' market. I now have seven lovely half-pint jars staring at me from my mantle. If the food supplies run low this winter, we'll survive on jam.

My deep freeze is starting to fill up, bit by bit, with produce from the backyard and local farms. This morning I picked lima beans, blanched them, and popped them into the freezer, where they joined the strawberries we picked mid-May at a nearby pick-your-own place, green beans from the garden, and all that lovely spaghetti sauce I made last week.

Later this week, I'll be canning blueberries and, if I have enough tomatoes, tomato-basil sauce.

This makes me so very happy in so many ways. I feel self-sufficient and practical, not to mention thrifty (all those beans from a $2.99 pack of seeds!). And, very importantly, it all tastes amazing.

My taste in food runs to the simple. A salad with freshly picked lettuce, homegrown tomatoes, and a few leaves of basil leaves me humming for hours after eating it. I love bread and cheese, unsweetened tea, and peaches. There are very few things I love to eat that I couldn't make or grow myself, with the exception of Fritos.

I currently have in my possession the supplies I need to make mozzarella cheese. Which is what I might do this afternoon, since nothing else is going on, and it's going to be 100 degrees outside and a cool 76 degrees inside. I have a recipe that claims I can make mozzarella in thirty minutes. Just think, thirty minutes, and then I can have some fresh mozzarella topped with a slice of tomato and a basil leaf. Doesn't that sound like a marvelous snack?


(This is a marigold we grew from seeds from Thomas Jefferson's garden. The plants themselves are about three-and-a-half feet tall and quite unruly, but I've grown to love their sprawling, awkward ways. Photo credit: The Man)

I am continuing with my campaign to put aside all concern for my children's happiness. It's very liberating, I must tell you, and they don't seem to be suffering from my lack of interest in whether or not they found their doctor's appointment to be a jolly good time or if their playdate was all they dreamed it could be.

The trick now is to keep in mind that any job I am currently engaged in--folding the laundry, say, or weeding the garden--is actually one my children could be doing. I keep forgetting. But I will get better at remembering, fear not!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Happiness--or Not

I am no longer concerned with my children's happiness.

That, of course, is the Zen Buddhist me talking.

But it's true. I'm concerned with the boys' physical and mental well-being, their general education, their spiritual formation and their personal hygiene. If they are injured or appear to be unduly sad or anxious, I will seek treatment for them. If they appear ignorant, I'll hand them a book, and if they seem spiritually waylaid, I'll say a prayer.

If they're unhappy? Well, that's just tough.

Here's the thing: I don't even think it's good to try to make your kid happy. Okay, maybe on his birthday, you ought to bend over backwards, but every day? Looking back over my parenting career, I have spent too much time worrying about whether my children are happy. And here's my question: How much time have they spent worrying about making me happy?

Not enough, ladies, not enough.

It is time for the tables to turn. It's time to make Mom happy. Plan No. 1: My children are going to do all the chores I hate to do. Plan No. 2: They're going to quit saying, "But that's not fair!" whenever I ask them to do a chore not on their regular chore list.

My goal is no longer making my children happy. It is to ensure they are not a burden on society. Or me.

Stay tuned.


Yesterday I made spaghetti sauce out of fresh tomatoes. I added garlic and basil from our garden. I processed the tomatoes with my new food mill, and I kept stealing spoonfuls of the tomato juice as it collected in the pot. Heaven!

Today I'm making curtains and working on a quilt. And making my children do the chores I don't want to do. You know what's weird? The more I make them do stuff they don't want to do, the happier they seem. Go figure.