Category Archives: Food for Thought

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

On New Year’s Eve, I thought it would be fun for the family to come up with some New Year’s resolutions, which I would then duly record in my calendar book so that when 2013 rolled around, we could see how well we all did. Yes, I know that New Year’s resolutions have a bad reputation. How easy it is to disregard them after a month or so and to keep making the same resolutions year after year. (I have certainly been guilty of this.)

But another way to think of them is as “challenges,” which, if approached with the right spirit, can add zest and excitement to our lives. I do realize that if approached with the wrong crack-the-whip spirit, challenges can drive us crazy, too. But this is the new year, so it is perfectly appropriate to view challenges in an optimistic light.  And if we fall short, well, there’s always next year.

I’m not going to share the family’s challenges, but I will share mine. I came up with three, but there are a couple more that are simmering, and if all goes well, then who knows? Perhaps I’ll tackle them as well.

First and foremost is to finish Maya and the Book of Everything, the children’s novel I have been working on for the past three years. As I am truly coming down the homestretch, I made a really, really optimistic resolution to finish the first draft of Maya by the end of February. Definitely a poke to get going.

Second is to reach my goal weight by the end of the year. Since May, I’ve lost 40 pounds, and I’d like to lose another 40 pounds or so.  I’ll soon be writing more about this in upcoming posts.

I got the idea for my third challenge from my friend Jill Lectka. She wants to bike up the Winthrop Street hill starting from downtown Hallowell. It might be wrong to call this hill the mother of all hills, but it is very long and very steep, and it would take a fair amount of training to be able to pedal to the top of this hill. Somehow, though, when Jill mentioned she wanted to bike up this hill, I couldn’t get the notion out of my head and found I wanted to bike up that hill as well.

Lucky me! I live in Winthrop, where there are hills galore, and some very challenging ones, too. Perhaps not quite as challenging as the Winthrop Street hill, but challenging enough for plenty of training opportunities.

Another resolution, but not recorded: Bike and walk more; ride in the car less. This can be difficult, especially in the winter and especially with a daughter and son-in-law living in South Portland and another daughter living in New York City. We will visit them. That is a given. But perhaps we can cut down on local driving to make up for an occasional trip to South Portland and to New York. This one will take quite a bit of planning as well as keeping track of mileage. But each and every one of us is responsible for our carbon output, and, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. It is time for me to put words into action.

A longer-term goal, perhaps when Maya is finished, is to publish a cookbook for family and friends. Over the years, I have come up with some good recipes, especially for soup. Unfortunately, I am also a rather disorganized cook, and these recipes are scattered everywhere—in cookbooks as scribbled additions, in folders, on this blog, and sometimes even I don’t know where to find them. And though I am somewhat ashamed to admit this, I don’t always correctly translate my own scribbles. Anyway, it seems to me that the cookbook would not only be a nice legacy but also a way for me to become more organized, a goal and a challenge that I am always working on.

 

 

YEAR END THOUGHTS

Christmas is coming, and what a cooking fool I’ve been! On the docket for today are peanut butter balls and lemon-frosted shortbread. Two ice cream pies—with homemade chocolate ice cream—are in the freezer. In keeping with this season of miracles, my husband, Clif, and I have actually been using a fair amount of self-restraint, and we haven’t gained any weight.

All of the treats I make are rather simple, using basic ingredients such as butter, eggs, and flour. What makes them special is that these are treats Clif and I only have very occasionally. Let’s face it. At our age, Clif and I do not need a steady supply of chocolate chip cookies, lemon-frosted shortbread, and peanut butter balls. But how nice it is to nibble on them during this time of long nights and twinkling lights.

I have just finished reading  One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, which is a selection of excerpts and photographs taken from the journals of Richard Proenneke. Devotees of Maine Public Television will be familiar with Richard Proennneke and his movie Alone in the Wilderness, which is a pledge-week favorite in our house. Shot in the late 1960s, Alone in the Wilderness follows Dick Proenneke as he builds a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness and lives a solitary life. (And, yes, Proenneke did all the filming.) Because I am probably the least handy person in Winthrop, and maybe even in Maine, this movie has a special fascination for me. Not only does Dick Proenneke, a mechanic by trade, build the cabin by himself, but he also pretty much makes everything that goes with it—hinges for the door, bunk beds, a stone fireplace, wooden spoons, and bowls. All the work, including felling the trees, is done with hand tools, and not surprisingly, Proenneke has a very lean body. And the man could cook. He makes stews and cranberry syrup and sour dough pancakes. He hunts and he fishes.

In addition to being the ultimate handyman, Proenneke was also a good writer and a keen observer of the natural world. His love of and his respect for nature thrum through One Man’s Wilderness as does his engagement with the world around him. There are even a few dramatic moments, as when he narrowly escapes being mauled by a bear, tries to rescue a caribou calf, and waits patiently for Babe Alsworth, a bush pilot, to bring missionary girls to the cabin for a visit. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by revealing that like the famed Godot, the missionary girls never come.)

Those with a survivalist bent will be impressed with Proenneke’s self-sufficiency, and it is true that this man took doing things by hand to a level most of us only dream about. Yet, self-sufficiency isn’t entirely accurate. Proenneke gets regular supplies, delivered by Babe Alsworth every three weeks or so. Proenneke might be solitary, but he isn’t totally cut off from the outside world and indeed relies on it for some of what he uses.

Instead, what impressed me was Proenneke’s creativity, curiosity, and his utter engagement with his environment, which he measured, recorded, filmed, and wrote about. His energy and his capacity for hard work impressed me as well. I was also struck by his Zen-like attitude toward chores: They are necessary so you might as well take pleasure from them rather than resent and hurry through them. (A good lesson for me!)

On very little money, Proenneke nonetheless lived a “rich” and rewarding life. He did not live a life of squalor or misery. He had enough, and he knew it. (I certainly realize that many in this world do not have enough and indeed need more.) To a large extent, Proenneke used what was at hand to fashion a simple but comfortable life. It seems to me that Proenneke’s example can be followed by those of us who don’t live in the wilderness, that the creative, engaged, thrifty life is available to those who live in the country, the city, and even the suburbs.

As the population of the planet edges toward 8 billion, Proenneke’s lessons and wisdom are still relevant today.

 

AS WE HEAD TO THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR

December this year is green but crisp, and when I take the dog for a walk, I need to dress warmly—hat, down gloves, layers, and sometimes even a neck warmer. As we walk up the Narrows Pond Road, I notice there is often a skim of ice on the little swamp not far from our house, but the water hasn’t even begun to freeze underneath. The winter berries are plentiful this year, and little red dots punctuate the leafless woods. The ground is hard, which I like. When we come back from our walk, the dog’s paws hardly need to be wiped.

I love this cold season of lights and Christmas trees and wreaths, but it would be remiss of me to ignore the Grinches, who unfortunately are out in full force in Augusta this year. They want to stop providing health care for many low-income people, and they want to stop funding low-income elderly folks who are in assisted living facilities. They say that we are “broke” and that we can’t afford such niceties as health care and assisted living for those not making much money. Yet, of course, we can still afford tax cuts for the wealthy. I can only hope that this “Year of the Protester” (Time magazine’s designation) will somehow make itself felt in Maine. It is probably too much to wish that the Augusta Grinches will have hearts that suddenly swell in size. But these Grinches can be overruled, and they can be turned out of office, when the time comes.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe (maybe guidelines would be a more appropriate description) for a bean soup made from odds and ends but was very tasty nonetheless. So, good, in fact, that it would be worth making on its own. It’s a poor man’s soup, and a poor woman’s, too. I made it with meat, but I think mushrooms could be substituted to give it an earthy flavor.

This soup came about because I was making chili for a party where my husband, Clif, works. I had soaked and cooked 2 cups of black beans and 2 cups of kidney beans, and I knew I would have leftovers. Using the water that the kidney beans were simmered in, I made a soup.

But first I chopped some carrots—about half a soup bowl full—and sizzled them in a stockpot with olive oil until they were tender. I added 2 cloves of chopped garlic to the carrots and let it sizzle about a minute. Then I poured in the cooking water from the kidney beans, and I added just as much plain water. I didn’t have any fresh onion—actually, I did, but it was being saved for chicken soup, that soup of soups—so I used a tablespoon of dried onion flakes. From Clif’s chili, I had saved a bit of cooked ground beef and some cooked sausage balls, and into the pot they went. For spicing, I used 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1 teaspoon of chili powder, a pinch of red pepper flakes, 2 pinches of allspice, two or three shakes of soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. I let all of this simmer for about a half an hour then added enough beans for a nice, thick soup and let it simmer a while longer. I also added a bit more water.

This made 4 servings—about a half a pot of soup. If I were going to make a full pot, I would use a pound of meat, a full soup bowl of carrots, and double everything else. Or use a big package of mushrooms in place of the meat. (I would probably cook the mushrooms with the carrots and add some water to them so that it would produce a nice little broth.)

And I would taste the soup constantly as it simmered. How else is a cook going to find her way?

 

A THRIFTY BUT ABUNDANT CHRISTMAS

Not long ago, a friend asked me how I managed to make Christmas merry but affordable. He came to the right person for advice. For most of my adult life, I have lived on a very modest budget, so I’ve had plenty of practice with what might called Frugality 101. Nevertheless, our family’s holidays and celebrations are always jolly. We love getting together, eating, and giving presents. You can still do these things on a modest budget, you just have to plan ahead.

Because of our country’s hard economic times, my husband, Clif, thought I should share my response to my friend, so here it is: “I love Christmas, and I love giving presents. It’s the one time of year where I give in to glorious excess. However, because of our modest budget, I have developed a series of strategies. The first is that I’m always keeping an eye out for sales, and this includes books that are in great condition on the Friends cart at Bailey Library. When I see something on sale that I think someone will like, I pick it up. Second, and this goes along with the first, I start early. I don’t save it all for the month of December. I begin in earnest in the fall. Third, I order quite a bit from Daedalus Books, which, as I’m sure you know, has DVDs, calendars, and other small gifts. Fourth, we use our credit card points for gift certificates. Fifth, Reny’s Department Store, which actually shares its profits with its employees! Sixth, I like to make goodies to add to gift bags and baskets. This year we’re going to experiment with chocolate-covered pretzels and homemade cracker jack. Seventh, I go to local craft fairs. Sometimes you can get really cute things at a bargain.”

From the above advice, I’m sure it can be gathered that there is seldom anything big or grand under our tree. (Unless, of course, I found it in mint condition at a yard sale.)  Nevertheless, we have a lot of fun and make the unwrapping of gifts last as long as possible, with one person at a time opening a present so the others can see and admire what was given.

I could have added one more thing to my list of strategies and that is to enjoy simple things. If you do, then you will find many pleasures in this life, pleasures that might even elude those with plenty of money. I know this sounds like a Bob Cratchit approach to life, but you have to admit, he and his family were happy.

THE LET THEM EAT BREAD REPORT: THOUGHTS ON GIVING AND HOARDING

Last month, in the middle of November, I reached my goal of giving away 52 loaves of bread this year, and I decided to stop giving bread away on a weekly basis. I’ll be making bread to give as Christmas presents, and my year-end total should be somewhere in the high 50s.

This has been an illuminating project. Talk of generosity is cheap, and I have been guilty of extolling the virtues of giving without actually doing much. Giving homemade bread away, every week, was actually quite a bit of work. Readers might wonder, how much work can one little loaf of homemade bread be? A fair question, but there are a couple of factors to consider. First, it meant that every week I had to make an extra batch of bread so that my husband, Clif, and I would have enough bread, too. Sometimes the weather was too hot, or I was too busy. Nevertheless, I made the extra bread. I had made a commitment to the project, and neither hot weather nor lack of time was going to deter me. The second problem I had was also a time problem. Because we only have one car, getting fresh bread to the week’s recipient often was not easy. And while homemade bread is perfectly good the day after it is baked, it is best the day it is made, when the bread is soft and fresh. I learned I had to plan ahead to make sure that the recipient would actually be home when the bread was baked AND I had use of the car. A couple of times there were misses, and I had to give the bread away to someone else.

Last night, I went to a party that included a group of women—writers and editors—that I have known for nearly 20 years. One of my friends—Lynne—has turned to a different form of communication and is now an ordained minister. (Lucky the church that has Lynne! She is compassionate, tolerant, articulate, and optimistic yet realistic.)

I told her about my bread project, and she reflected on two human responses to the scarcity we are facing because of climate change and overpopulation. One response is to clutch as tightly as possible to resources, to not share, to not value the community. The other response is to open the hand, to give as much as possible while still maintaining a healthy, individual surplus. Lynne, of course, advocates the second response, using the parable of the loaves and the fish as an example not only of a miracle but also as a story of sharing and feeding people.

Lynne then went on to tell a story of giving. A parishioner in her church, an elderly man who has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment, recently approached her. He wanted to donate $500 to the church’s special needs fund, money that is given to those who find themselves in a tight spot and need a little extra to help pay for rent, food, or fuel. He wanted her to chose 5 people, who would each receive $100. He wanted to remain anonymous, and he wanted Lynne to do the choosing. In fact, he didn’t want to know who received the money.

Lynne came up with 8 people and was debating whom she should choose. When the man found out, his response was, “Well, why not make it $800 then?” Eight very grateful people received $100, and when the man heard how much the extra $100 had helped, he said, “Let’s do it again for Christmas.”

As I know from personal experience, cancer treatment is no fun at all. Yet rather than turning inward, this man has turned out and is giving.

We all can’t give away $800. My husband and I certainly can’t. But just because we can’t give a lot, doesn’t mean we can’t give a little. A loaf of bread? A few jars of peanut butter to the local food pantry? A gift basket full of good things to eat to a friend who is struggling?

Just as important, we need to give as a society so that all people have health care, a good education and other things that are beyond the capacity of individuals, however generous they might be, to provide wide scale on a societal level. Unfortunately, our country has a very hard time with this concept.

See how lessons from loaves of bread can ripple outward?

A BRAND NEW SIGN AT THE FLAKY TART

The new sign at the Flaky Tart
The new sign at The Flaky Tart

Today, I did something I have never done on December 1—I went for a bike ride. After last week’s snowstorm, I was sure there would be no biking on the road until next spring. Both Clif’s bike and my bike went down cellar, as we Mainers put it, and I had resigned myself to the exercise bike. But what a difference a week can make. Even in our shady yard, the snow is nearly gone, and all the roads are bare and clear. As soon as I discovered the temperature was relatively mild and the sun was shining, I decided to go for a ride.

With great effort, I hauled the bike out of the cellar via the bulkhead, and off I went, feeling as giddy as a school girl playing hooky. Could I really be riding my bike on the road on December 1? It seemed that I was. I looped through town, stopping to admire the brand new sign at The Flaky Tart. What a beauty! The sign and the shop really spiff up downtown Winthrop. To celebrate the new sign, I went in, bought a whoopie pie for Clif, and chatted with Kim, one of the owners.

Charles M. Bailey Public Library
Charles M. Bailey Public Library

On I went, past the library, and I decided to take a picture for the blog. Richard, the director, saw me taking pictures, and even though the library was closed, he told me to come in to pick up some books I had ordered through interlibrary loan. In the library, we chatted a bit about politics, wood stoves (this is Maine, after all), and how, at the Red Barn in Augusta, the owner actually pays her employees a living wage. (Richard once worked there.) Maybe that’s why the atmosphere is always so upbeat at the Red Barn. Happy employees bring about good Karma. Clif and I have always loved going to the Red Barn, and now that I know how well the employees are treated, we will make a special effort to support this restaurant.

Then came the ride by the lake, and it was a brisk one. How odd it seemed to be riding with the sun so low in the sky. There was a slight wind, and Maranacook Lake was choppy and deep blue.

Blue Maranacook
Blue Maranacook

When I got home, I was cold but invigorated, and my noontime green tea with honey tasted especially good.

My bike will not be going down cellar until the next snowstorm comes. I will be putting it in our little shed, where I can easily get it out. And if tomorrow is nice, I’ll be back on the road.

GIVING THANKS

Yesterday, despite the heavy March-like snow, we did not lose our power and our New York daughter made it to Maine without incident. I was able to make pumpkin bread and green bean casserole to bring to my daughter Shannon’s home for Thanksgiving.

And yesterday, despite the slippery roads, three dedicated food pantry volunteers—JoEllen Cottrell, Mike Sienko, and Charlie Gove—opened the Winthrop Food Pantry. A food truck from the Good Shepherd Food Bank was supposed to come to Winthrop with boxes of food, but because of the bad weather, they canceled. JoEllen, the food pantry’s executive director, was concerned that there might be people who were counting on that food, and therefore she decided to open the food pantry, even though the weather was bad.

It turns out her concern was not misplaced. Eleven families came to the pantry. In the past, when the weather has been bad, most food pantry recipients have waited until the following week to come to the food pantry. (We are open only on Thursday.) It’s a sign of these hard times that so many people came out in a storm so that they could get food.

What I want to say is this: Charlie, JoEllen, and Mike, you make the world a better place. I am both inspired by and thankful for the example you set, not only for me but for the rest of the community as well.