Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Month: June, 2012

Strawberry Fields

On the plants were strawberries, and in my hand was a basket. At first, when I crouched in the straw-spread furrow and reached into the leaves, I turned up young strawberries, the sour kind. Lately, food producers have been tugging at our understanding of the berry. My concept of a berry is a tiny, tart fruit. I eat them by the handful. At most supermarkets, the juiced-up strawberries more resemble apples than berries. You eat these fatties in two or three bites. Like peaches, they’re hand fruit.

Strawberries were also on the ground. Friday night’s thunderstorm had scattered them, had pelted my windshield on the ride from New York, and had, I think, caused the farmers at Sussex County Strawberry Farm to spread their strawberry field with hay. When I called the farm from Allie’s, I got a stern message: strawberry-picking season would end today at 2pm. We got in the car.

The city’s concrete and glass receded in my mind as we drove west. On Saturdays, I try to rout the memory of work so that I can relax. But those busy thoughts are firmly entrenched from five days of digging. How can I send them flying? By, on Saturday, making my cubicle the open field, my clock the sun.

I was sweating five minutes into the picking. After seven, my knees ached. It felt good, though I can’t imagine how a catcher crouches for nine innings. Weaving among the rows, I skirted the pickable part of the field, hoping to find a row of perfect strawberries where nobody had searched for a few days. The sun was hot. As a parasol I had the clouds. Busy memories fled to the corners of my consciousness. Better still, many of the sun-warmed berries went into my basket, and the best ones went into my belly.

Advertisements

In Praise of Paper

Their lips pursed, their eyes like pancakes, friends and strangers often ask me, “What do you mean you don’t have a Kindle?” I mean that, yes, I prefer a paper book. Readers of e-books, please tell me your secrets.  By the time I’ve returned from the office, a day’s dose of the computer has jellied my brain, yet you turn on your device, summon chapter 12, and stare at another screen.

When I read books, I am leveling trees. When I’m 70 and my library has ladders, I’ll have leveled a forest. Reader of e-books, you are a better friend to than environment than I am. Now, can you please tell me how, on nothing but air, your digital page buzzes to life?

Click on that digital page. Poof, a dictionary defines the selected word. A handy service, I admit. But when I find a word I don’t know in my paper book, I reach into my pocket and there’s an iPhone. On that phone I have two dictionaries: the OED and the American Heritage. I’d start talking dictionaries, but I want you to keep reading.

On the subway, people bump me while I’m reading. I’d be worried if my book didn’t cost me $3 at the used bookstore on Washington Street. I tuck the book into my bag. Leaving the train, I push through the turnstile and it smashes into my bag on the way back up. Your e-reader? Destroyed.

Turn on a healthy e-reader. Browse the list of titles. Pick one, pay, and a satellite beams the text to your device; skip the intro and start on chapter one. Nobody can beam me a paper book, nobody other than Amazon.com (they beam by USPS), but no matter, because nothing matches the experience of going to a dusty bookstore.

Some of my favorite memories from college were in the used bookstore, Webster’s, where I ate a bagel sandwich, drank coffee, and read almost every day before class my senior year. I’d stalk between the shelves and crack open a tome. I’d breathe in the smell; it opens your mind as the smell of grill smoke opens your stomach. The page’s scant notes? Gifts from a fellow reader. The notes you will add to page? Something to reflect on when you’ve climbed down from your library’s ladder.

Scapes and Shells, Two Ways

On Saturday, I walked Shadow to the farmers’ market on Hoboken’s 14th street. There, sitting in a basket, the stems coiled like green whips, were a bunch of garlic scapes. They were soon in my bag, and I was soon in my kitchen. “Yes, yes!” said my pre-caffeinated mind, “A new food, a new adventure!”

Garlic bulbs grow in the ground. I know this from my days as a garlic farmer. Garlic scapes are what, when a tractor driven by a crazed Italian loosens the clay, you grab to yank garlic bulbs from the soil. I have never cooked the scape, only braided them to make their bulbs sell for more at market. Now I, the customer, had a coil of scapes in my bag and the promise of a rustic dinner in my head.

Food is like writing in that the meals and stories are best when they’re still in your head; put them to plate or paper, and you can hope for at best an echo of your beautiful idea. So there I stood, sharpening my knife, the scapes tangled on the cutting board, about to start my meal and thereby ruin it. The scapes looked like the stems of tulips. If left be, a garlic scape will sprout white or purple petals on its tip. Farmers snip these flowers to shape the bulb’s flavor. Probably flowers had never bloomed on my scapes, and certainly they never would now that I had sliced them to bits.

Two-thirds went into pesto, the rest into a sautée pan with olive oil, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. I ran the blender when scapes, basil, mint, toasted almonds, and Parmesan cheese were in. In spurts, I drizzled in olive oil, leaving the finished pesto to sit while seeing to the sautée pan. Some pancetta and peas in the pan. Some pasta water. Some grape tomatoes, sweet corn, basil, and ricotta salata after I’d cut the heat.

Above are the pastas: scapes and shells two ways, one sauce raw, one cooked. I’m glad I was able to ruin my meal into something tasty.

On My Doorstep: A Taco-Selling Truck

A truck sells tacos on my doorstep at least once a week. My building’s door slides open, I walk out into the world, and there’s the truck broadside to the sidewalk, marigold-orange and grill sizzling. Deftly, the truck has parallel parked. I know because I have seen these food trucks wiggle into car-sized spaces. Deftly he has parked; every twenty minutes, a new boatload of people too tired to cook are coming home from work via the ferry.

In the past few years, Americans have developed a fierce appetite for Mexican food. Californians have long raved about crema and carnitas, and now New Yorkers and Philadelphians can too. Last September, in Philadelphia, I was thrilled when at a Mexican restaurant, Tequilla’s, the waiter whispered to me about an off-the-menu Oaxacan treat: grasshopper tacos. The tacos were grassy and nutty, pleasantly so. The tacos were a door to another culture, the Mexican-American culture, and I enjoyed how it felt and tasted.

But, zoom out. In the US, the general love for Mexican-American food stands in contrast to how in general Mexican-Americans are perceived and treated. Logic and Compassion tell us we’re out of line here, and so does History. From where do Americans come? One hundred years ago, the immigrants were Italians and Irish, the grasshoppers, spaghetti and potatoes.

Walk through Manhattan’s Little Italy, or Philadelphia’s or Boston’s, and you will see. (Less so Boston; the North End is only more slowly eroding.) When I go to Little Italy in New York, it is because Little Italy is in the way of Chinatown.

Little Italy is two streets wide. Its tenants and their descendants have dissolved into the population and dispersed across the land. Evidence of Little Italy’s erosion stands in Chinatown. On Mott Street, you will see a few lone Italian restaurants in the sea of Chinese shops. The impression is, to the new viewer, that the whole neighborhood was once Italian. The old neighbors have slowly moved out.

On a national scale ( for how else could I be eating grasshoppers at a latitude of 40 degrees North?), new neighbors are moving in. They are bringing red cooking and tacos. Sounds to me like a party.

Reading: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Three summers ago, I read an essay for a class that met in the woods. The class was Wilderness Literature, a fantastic and low-key course offered at Penn State, and the essay was “Living Like Weasels” by Annie Dillard. If you haven’t read Annie Dillard, run to the bookstore. She cuts closely to her subject, trimming away the fat and vanity and nonsense that makes most writing unreadable. She starts slowly, usually observing a small event in nature. Then she climbs and climbs (you can hear the clacking of your car on the roller coaster’s track) before plunging into some ecstatic conclusion. Here “Weasels” whirls at its near-end:

“The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t ‘attack’ anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”

Two years later I bought a book of her essays, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” The most memorable piece, “Total Eclipse,” saw Dillard see a full solar eclipse in the Pacific Northwest. As the moon blocks out the sun and the day darkens, culture evaporates, and Dillard feels as if she’s on the Euphrates and civilization is beginning. It absorbs you. At times you feel that Dillard’s so skilled she oversteps language and directly communicates raw units of information that have not been translated into words.

In 1974, before any of these essays, Dillard wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” It won a Pullitzer. She was 29.

I am reading the book now. It is a 20th-century Walden; having fled to the woods, the author lives a simple life and gives simple advice for living. Unlike Thoreau, Dillard at times veers far into the abstract. Here, when she loses me, I focus on the language and how it moves, knowing that the half-abstract and concrete stuff will be golden:

“Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: ‘This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.'”

She writes about blind people with cataracts, who, having gotten a once-new surgery, saw for the first time. These people saw the world as “color-patches” and could not understand size or depth or, like the baby playing peek-a-boo, the idea that when it object goes out of sight it can still exist. Always, you hear the clacking. You know Dillard’s small, cutting observations are whirling to some grand idea. Looking around on the climb up can be just as enjoyable as free-falling down the breathless drops.