Category Archives: Food for Thought

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.

 

A TIME TO BE THANKFUL BUT NOT SMUG

As austere November winds its way down to Thanksgiving, and the days grow ever shorter, people all over the country are bustling to get ready for Thanksgiving, and tomorrow, I will write about my Thanksgiving preparations. During this busy season, some of us even find time to give thanks for what we have. Despite the tough economic times, there is much to be thankful for. This country does not experience mass starvation and famine, as other countries do, and usually even the poorest of us live in a place that has a toilet and running water and electricity. Although our social services could be greatly improved, we do have them, and people are not completely on their own during hard times.

That is the good news for the country at large. Here is the not-so-good news for Maine in specific. In their paper “Hunger in Maine,” Donna Yellen, Mark Swann, and Elana Schmidt cite statistics taken from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Maine is  second in the nation for very low food security and ninth for food insecurity….The USDA definition for very low food security is missing multiple meals during an extended period of time or eating food that is inappropriate for that meal. Food insecurity is defined as the consistent worry about having enough income to pay for household food needs and if not, how to provide food for their family.” Yellen, Swann, and Schmidt go on to note that our neighbor to the south, New Hampshire, “has the lowest rates of hunger in the nation,” and they are somewhat puzzled as to why this should be the case.

To really explore the differences between Maine and New Hampshire would take research, time, and analysis that go well beyond the scope of this post. However, my quick take is that Maine simply does not have enough jobs that pay well enough to easily support families and individuals. Once upon a time, when the great factories were running, it was possible for everyday people to earn enough money to have a comfortable life. Not lavish, but comfortable. Now, for the most part, the great factories are still, either abandoned as ruins or converted into shops, offices, and apartments. What has replaced the factories? According to Down East magazine, retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Target are now the major employers in Maine, and except for a few management jobs at the top, these stores do not pay a living wage nor do they provide much in the way of benefits. In the meantime, housing prices have risen as have the costs of fuel, food, and education.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is close enough to Massachusetts to benefit from that state’s tech industries. A sort of trickle-up effect, as it were. Again, this is just a quick take on a subject that certainly deserves a closer look.

Whatever the reason for the disparity in income between Maine and New Hampshire, in this time of cold and dark, I would encourage Maine readers (and indeed all readers) to think of those who have less than they do and to perhaps make a donation of money or food to their local food pantry.

THROUGH SLEET AND SNOW AND DRIVING RAIN…WE DELIVERED BISCOTTI TO OCCUPY WALL STREET

Tents at Occupy Wall Street
Bad weather at Occupy Wall Street

Let’s just say that when we planned an October trip to go to New York City to visit our daughter, my husband, Clif, and I did not expect to have to cope with a northeaster that alternated between driving snow, sleet, and rain. But, as I’ve become fond of saying, when it comes to the weather, weird is the new normal, and the weather was definitely weird this Saturday.

We knew bad weather was coming, of course, but hearty Mainers that we are, we decided to press on with our plans. It was the weekend of our daughter’s birthday, and we wanted to be there. How bad could it get?, we reasoned. We loaded up the cats with food and water and brought our dog, Liam, to Portland so that he could stay with our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike. All the animals were well cared for.

As if to mock us, Friday, the day we left, was a beautiful sunny day with a bright blue sky. (The same was true for Sunday, the day we came back.)

The sleeping tents
The sleeping tents

But, oh, Saturday—which just happened to be our daughter’s birthday—with its rain, sleet, and snow. We had it all. Despite the bad weather, we decided to “Keep calm and Carry on” with our plans, which included a trip to Zucotti Park to visit Occupy Wall Street and to donate some homemade biscotti.

When we left Dee’s apartment, the rain was coming down hard, and armed with umbrellas that flipped in the wind, we made it to the subway without too much discomfort. Our first stop was Zucotti Park, and after 40 minutes or so on the subway, we emerged from the underground to a pelting, slanting snow, wet and heavy. We were soaked in minutes and very cold. We took pictures, found the food tent, and donated the biscotti. We got a distracted “Thank you and God bless” from one of the volunteers, but it was clear that nobody was in the mood to chat about food, so we left relatively quickly. (I don’t blame the volunteers at all. It was damned cold to be out there in that park.)

The food tent
The food tent

After that it was on to Chelsea Market, an old factory whose downstairs has been converted to a food market. All the stores are indoors where it is warm and dry, a perfect place to recover from weather that had gone from snow to sleet. By then, my shoes were soaked and so were my gloves. My hair was plastered to my head because I had given my umbrella to Clif while I took pictures of Occupy Wall Street.

We wandered about, checking out the various food places, and decided to stop at Bar Suzette, where crepes are meticulously and creatively made with fillings that range from sweet to savory. Dee got a savory crepe with portobello mushrooms, and Clif and I shared one with Nutella and bananas. Very tasty indeed. (I could have one right one.)

A crepe is born
A crepe is born

Because it was Dee’s birthday, we decided to let her plan the rest of the day.

“Well,” she replied. “You know what I would like to do—a movie, dinner, and another movie.”

As Captain Picard from Star Trek would say, “Make it so.”

We saw In Time, had dinner—our treat—at Spice restaurant, and then saw Margin Call. The movies are very different from each other yet both explore the nature of the greed that seems to be running unchecked in our society. In Time, which could fairly be called a “gourmet popcorn” movie, did it in an alternative reality, allegorical kind of way, where the world was divided between those who had time and those who did not. And I mean this quite literally. When your time ran out—there was some kind of clock on a person’s arm to keep track of such things—then you died. Those at the top hoarded time, keeping it from those at the bottom, who had to scrabble constantly to find time to carry on. Sound familiar? Margin Call was more direct, a morality story about the collapse of a firm obviously based on Lehman Brothers, where everyone is so corrupted by money that they do things they know they shouldn’t do and in fact would rather not do. A quiet but powerful movie.

As we were following our daughter around New York City, I had on odd, haunting thought. When I had her 34 years ago, I never would have guessed that on October 29, 2011 she would be leading the way through New York City, her home, and we would be following.

“What did you envision?” Dee asked when I mentioned this to her.

“Really, nothing,” I said. “We just wanted you to grow up to be healthy and strong.” And creative I might have added, but didn’t since I just thought of it now.

Dee is certainly strong, healthy, and creative, and she just had a birthday we will all remember.

Post Script: After the long ride home, Shannon had a hot meal waiting for us—roast chicken with lemon, thyme, and garlic; roasted potatoes and carrots; salad; and bread. It’s not every day that you find someone who will take care of your dog and who will also cook a lovely meal for you on your return. Lucky us!