Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Birth of a Foodie

The other day my daughter was reading to me from a cookbook. Yes, we read cookbooks. Not just the recipes either. Many cookbooks actually make for good reading because the authors tell stories about their recipes and food that help to shed light on origins. I recently finished reading "Cool Cuisine: Taking a Bite out of Global Warming," by Laura Stec and Dr. Eugene Cordero.  This book is as much about--if not more so--the negative impact that our industrialized food system is having on the planet as it is about recipes. There are recipes for sure (a few of them I have tried to great success) but the book is also part education/part inspiration about what our eating can do to help reverse or slow global warming. Another favorite good-read cookbook is "Where Flavor was Born: Recipes and Culinary Travels Along the Indian Ocean Spice Route," by Andreas Viestad and Mette Randem. This book, which is a feast for eyes as well as the mind due to the stunning photography by Randem, is rich with history and culture and the part that cuisine has played--and continues to play--in both of these along this exotic part of the world.

The book that Mattie was reading that day was John Sarich's "John Sarich at Chateau Ste. Michelle: For Cooks Who Love Wine." Specifically, she was reading the Introduction. In researching this post I discovered to my dismay that John, in fact, died on October 5 of this year from an aggressive form of thyroid cancer at the the very young age of 67. Damn cancer! I did not personally know John, but I have loved his recipes and have definitely felt his influence at Ste. Michelle winery where he really began--and ended--an illustrious culinary career. At least his public one.  In the Introduction to his book he shares his personal history with food which began at home with what he describes as the "spirited Mediterranean cooking and homemade wines of [his] parents and grandparents, who settled in Seattle after immigrating from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia." As she continued reading I found myself more jealous than intrigued (although I must say also inspired to write a blog post after months of writer's block) by his vivid descriptions. To wit, he wrote, "As far back as I can remember, my family's home meals always had an air of celebration. The Sunday dinners at my grandparents' house were family feasts, where relatives and friends gathered to share lively conversation, homemade wines and succulent food. Indeed, Grandpa's fragrant lamb is my earliest recollection of the sheer delight of eating. He cooked his garlic-studded lamb all day over an outdoor spit, basting it with thick green olive oil and fresh rosemary...the kitchen was filled with the chatter and delectable aromas as Grandma and my mom, sister and aunts turned out mostaccioli, dishes made with sauerkraut and stewed ham hocks, delicious salads and freshly desserts that defy description."

"Stop it!" I thought, "I can't take it any more!" as I remembered mournfully my own lackluster culinary upbringing. In fact, given the paucity of flavor, texture, color and taste of the foods I spent my first 18 years eating, it's amazing that I like food at all! While John and his family were dining on luscious garlicky lamb and rich mostaccioli I was choking down overcooked frozen vegetables, dull iceberg lettuce and tomato salads, and bland boiled potatoes. Our family gatherings were Sundays at my grandpa Pops house where he and my mother turned out overcooked beef roasts, rabbit or chicken served up with grandpa's specialty: iceberg lettuce salad with tomatoes, bananas and mayonnaise. Even though my father helped farm grandpa's 45 acres where we had a vegetable garden; raised chickens, rabbits, goats and cattle and were blessed with an olive grove, apricot tree, almond tree, fig tree and multiple blackberry vines I only remember having to can and jell most of the produce and can't conjure up any food memories that are truly positive. Most of what we ate, I seem to recall, had first been processed, pickled or overcooked. In fact, my mother really hated cooking (probably because the results were less than enticing!) and when my father took over that dreaded task after having to take a medical retirement the results were not any better. Since both of my parents had worked, they were of the grateful generation who welcomed the new time-saving dining delicacies such as Hamburger Helper and Chung King in a can into the kitchen. Being able to open a box or can and create dinner in minutes took priority over good taste. The only fresh herb I remember being exposed to was curly parsley which was most likely used as a garnish on restaurant food. I tell people that I think I actually learned to cook at the age of 12 out of desperation!

Perhaps it is true that frequently art is inspired by struggle. In spite of my lack of a culinary upbringing, while I might never reach the gastronomic heights of the likes of John Sarich I at least can say that I have been able to hone my skills over the years and can put out some pretty mean dishes. I am making up for lost time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Spring Release

Every year on the first weekend in May we trek across the mountains with good friends to partake in the Walla Walla wine region's annual Spring Release Weekend. Most of the 120 plus wineries located in appellation are open to the public and pouring from bottles of their newest releases, the wines that have been aging and building character in the bottle that are now deemed ready to at least taste or drink.

But on a walk through the neighborhood recently I observed some different "spring releases." From a big old Maple tree in a neighbor's yard suddenly, as if blown by an invisible puff of air, a "flight" (the official term for a flock) of barn swallows was released into the air. On cue (perhaps by the threat of a scavenging bald eagle) what seemed like hundreds of the small dark blue and creamsicle-orange birds with their telltale forked tails and curved wings "blew" into the air around the tree, lifting off as one and then flitting off to another perch down the street. Spring release. Signs of spring. Birds en masse where there had not been for months.

On another part of my walk I frequently pass by a vacant lot--though not really vacant. Only vacant
in that it has not been filled with structures by humans; nature has developed it quite completely with alders, evergreens, native shrubs, blackberries and the like and filled it with wildlife--rabbits, opossums, grey herons and other birds to name a few of the residents. At one street-side corner resides a magnificent honeysuckle vine, a perfect tribute to Dionysus (Walla Walla's wine not withstanding) luxuriously draping itself over the tangle of blackberries, horsetail ferns and other lower shrubs and falling back into the arms of a sturdy fir tree. The vine returns every spring without fail, with no help from the fertilizing or pruning hand of a gardener. It is quite simply--obviously--happily situated in the perfect environment, no doubt protected from frost by the hardier ground-cover pressing in around it and fertilized by wild animal excrement and plant decay. I could only dream of growing one even half as big and beautiful. And all of its masses of flowers, like a mantle of strawberry blonde curls, fill the air along the street for 50 feet or more with the most delicious scent, tantalizing enough to cause one to want to stop and stay in that place for eternity or to find a way to somehow capture and transport the perfume home, not to be bottled up but to effuse the air always. Spring release. Intoxicating scents where there had not been for months.

Source: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
While stopped the other day, filling my lungs and nostrils with as much of the honeysuckle scent as I could, I turned and looked through the trees beyond it where a ray of early morning sun found a pathway through the thicket in time to see another release--cottonwood pollen. Fluffy white puffs of sinus-aggravating airborne seeds were drifting down like a late season snowfall. Spring release. Trees and plants showering the earth with the hope of life continued.

Spring release...the collective sigh of nature let go from wintery shackles.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


“I wish I could write. I get these ideas but I never seem to be able to put them in words.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Writer Writes

I've been caught red-handed! Last night I went to my first-ever writers' group and felt a bit like I'd been found out. During our time together I wondered if any of the other members of this new group could see through my fa├žade. Would they guess that I was an imposter?

First--and perhaps most pertinent of all--I am not a writer. I suspect that one of the two gentlemen there was clairvoyant.  As we went around the table telling our personal stories by way of introduction, he jotted down several notes and questions, which he posed at a break in the conversation.  The first was: "What is a writer?" Had he peered into my soul? Indeed, what is a writer. From what I've heard, a writer writes. That is to say, a writer is defined not by who she is but what she does. Well, that immediately precludes me from the title. I don't write, at least words on a page. I mean, I do write words all day long in my head. But I don't think that activity qualifies me for such a title. Somehow I judge that a writer is one who not only frequently does so but who can--and does--sit often in front of a blank page and begins to actually set to print what is on her mind. She doesn't find reasons to avoid the activity altogether. 

The second notion that occurred to me as we talked around that table is that a writer also can identify sound writing and why it fits that category. Toward the end of the evening we experimented with critique (a pompously French, polite sounding word that oozes euphemistically while really waiting to stab you in the back!) by listening to one member read a few lines from the book she's been working on. Oh no! I thought. They'll find me out for sure now when they see that not only am I not a good judge of the best writing but I also can't articulate what I like and why. Writers, I surmise, can do a much, not only with others people's writing but also with their own. My secret would be out as soon as it came time for me to share my criticisms.

Apparently being an imposter does not preclude one from being a member of a writers' group. In spite of my lack of qualifications they spoke as if I am invited back. Maybe they see something salvageable here or maybe they just feel sorry for me. Either way, I'm game...until they decide we should impose a writing exercise on ourselves during a meeting!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pure Bliss

Have you ever sat and pondered what it is that brings you joy?  And more to the point, what it is that you do, when you do it, that you feel pure bliss in the doing of it and, perhaps, even in the results of the doing?

Bliss.  I like that word.  More so than joy.  Joy seems temporary to me, a flash in the pan, a candle flame that is easily extinguished or fades the moment the candle has melted.  Bliss, on the other hand, feels more permanent, something that actually becomes a part of you, that lasts well beyond the end of the event or task that brought it on.  It is a word that you don't seem to see much.

I was reintroduced to the notion of "bliss" about 20 years ago in a magazine to which I subscribed, "Victoria." "Victoria" magazine was--and once again is as it went out of circulation and now is back--a tribute to fine living, inspired not surprisingly by its namesake.  It represented everything that I wished my life could be--gracious, beautiful, elegant, tethered to a romantic past.  I was raising 4 boisterous children--three of whom were boys and every bit the antithesis of that life.  But I could dream couldn't I?  Sometime in the 10 years that I was a subscriber the magazine editors began a series of articles that then morphed into a book entitled Bliss, which was dedicated to applauding women who started/owned their own businesses doing the very things that brought them bliss. The supposition was that a woman could do what she loved, that thing that not only allowed her to demonstrate her creative abilities but also was something that she enjoyed doing and make a living doing it.

A little history here:  I have spent my whole life, it seems, seeking that which brings me bliss and have managed to also spend my whole life working at occupations that don't fit that criteria.  The idea that I could contribute to the family budget while also doing something I loved was terribly appealing.  The first problem was uncovering my secret gift: that creative thing that I was good at--good enough to make a living at it--and that brought me bliss. That was the sticking point.

Take note: I'm not talking about doing just what one is "good" at.  There are plenty of things that I can--and have--done because I am quite capable of (perhaps even gifted at) doing. But many of those occupations at best bring some momentary satisfaction and at worst seem like a drudgery, something I have to do because no one else appears capable or willing.  No, I'm talking about a pursuit which one genuinely desires to pursue, that which the doing of, no matter how much hard work it represents, is so worth the doing because it brings pure bliss.  It is something that you want to do even when you find that you have to do it.

I am reminded here of the historical novel about Robert Louis Stevenson--Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan--that I just finished reading. RLS or Louis (as he was referred to by friends, family and colleagues) was not a healthy man his entire, short-lived life. He seemed to spend a great deal of his adult years in bed just trying to stay alive. Yet, he was a prolific writer, often eschewing sleep and sustenance at times, while scribbling furiously his multiple manuscripts. That is bliss; when one can even rise above impending demise to pursue one's passion.  I can't imagine what that must be like...or maybe I can just imagine.

Don't get me wrong; there are many things that bring me dog, my cat, my children and their many creative accomplishments, my husband, a sunset, the noise of the waves at night, moonlight on the water, an afternoon spent with a friend, cooking a fabulous meal and having it enjoyed...the list is seemingly endless.  But joy, to me, is short-lived; it comes in spurts, explodes like fireworks and then is gone...except perhaps in the memory...until the next time.  Bliss seems deeper than that; bliss is a slow, steady stream, changing sometimes, yes, but a constant all the same.  Bliss sustains you, even in tough times.  At least this is my image of bliss; I do not think I've experienced it myself.  I'd like to think I'd know.  Bliss should be an undercurrent in one's life, not the leaf carried along in it.  Pure bliss...would we know it if we found it?