Category Archives: Food for Thought

DON’T JUDGE AN APPLE BY ITS LOOKS

Apples for pieLast week at our town’s Green Committee meeting, Gary Dawbin came in with a bag of apples picked from a tree in his yard, and my husband, Clif, and I were the lucky recipients. The apples, as you can see from the photo, would not win any prizes for beauty, but Gary assured me they were good cooking apples, perfect for pies and crisps and, of course, apple sauce. When I got home, I tasted one, and it was indeed very good, a little tart and a little sweet.

On Saturday, a cool, rainy day, I commenced making a pie. I love the whole process of baking an apple pie—cutting the apples, making the dough, and then smelling the apples as they cook.

Making the pie

As Clif just received an ice cream maker for his birthday from our friends Bob and Kate, we decided to make some vanilla ice cream to go with the pie. (I also made bread. A busy cooking day!)

When the pie was done, we were eager to sample a piece. What would these little yellow apples with their bruises and blemishes be like in a pie? After only one bite, Clif and I were in total agreement—this was one of the best apple pies we have ever eaten. Clif got it exactly right when he noted, “The apples have just the right balance of tart and sweet.” (Need I add I was thrilled to make such a good pie with backyard apples?) And the homemade vanilla ice cream just gilded the lily.

Quick as can be, I was on the phone, calling Gary Dawbin to find out more about those apples. Unfortunately, he couldn’t tell me what variety they were, but he knew they were an old heirloom apple planted by Mose B. Sears, one of the owners of the old Winthrop house in which Gary and his wife, Rose, live. Moses B. Sears owned the house in the 1800s, and when I Googled his name, I also learned that Moses was part of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. Apparently, along with being socially conscious, Moses had such a green thumb that with its apples, plums, grapes, pears, and blackberries, the yard around his house was referred to as “the Garden of Eden.” (This last bit of information about Moses’ Garden of Eden came from Gary.)

“I have more apples,” Gary said, “If you would like some. There is a limit to how many apples Rose and I can eat.”

“Yes, please!” I said, and on Sunday, Gary gave me enough apples for at least two more pies.

Now, there is also a limit to how much pie Clif and I should be eating, so we shared some of the pie with Gary and his wife, Rose, as well as our friends Dawna and Jim Leavitt. Next weekend, I’ll be making more pie and will be sharing that one as well.

Once upon a time, Winthrop was full of apple orchards, and all over town there are vestiges of these old trees, one here, one there, the varieties long forgotten. The trees were planted during a time when people grew a significant amount of their own food, and they are reminders of how much food this town could produce if it wanted to do so. (We are not the only happy recipients of Gary’s apples from this one tree.)

I’ll let Clif have the last word here: “Gary’s tree needs to be grafted so that those apples can carry on.”

 

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LUNCH AT THE CORNER ROOM FOR ANOTHER BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

The Corner Room
The Corner Room

Yesterday, I went to Portland-town to meet my daughter Shannon and our friend Kate for yet another birthday celebration. Man oh man do I love birthdays. Not for me the slinking into the corner as I get older, refusing to celebrate the passing of the years. I have no problem telling people my age—I’ll be 54 on Thursday—and especially after last year’s bout with breast cancer, I feel very grateful to still be around. As my book-group buddy Mona Baker has put it, growing old is a privilege, not a right.

Also, being such a homebody, it was a treat go to the “big city.” I parked my car some distance from the restaurant and took such pleasure in the sights and sounds of Portland—the tall stone buildings, the shops, the blue sky above, and the smells of coffee and food mingling with the smell of the dusty street. And the people—so many people!—some dressed in smart dark suits; a pretty young woman wearing short shorts and what in my day we would have called “shit kickers”; two ragged people—also young—on a bench; a little dog lolling outside a shop. All belonged to the life of this small city.

Shannon and Kate were waiting for me in The Corner Room, a compact but cozy restaurant specializing in tasty Italian food. I had been looking forward to trying their eggplant Parmesan sandwich, but for some reason they were out of the ingredients. So I chose the prosciutto panino, and it was very good indeed. Since it was my birthday, I allowed myself a side order of fries, hand-cut but disappointingly lukewarm. Nevertheless, I ate them all.

Hand-cut fries and prosciutto panino
Hand-cut fries and prosciutto panino

There were more presents—a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated magazine from Shannon and a beautiful glass bowl made from recycled glass from Kate as well as a little bluebird for my bird collection.

A note about presents: Over the past few years, my husband, Clif, and I have made a real effort to limit the amount of “stuff” that we buy. (If you came into our home you’d never know it, but that’s because, as I like to joke, our house is like a black hole—what comes in doesn’t go out.) Our decision to reduce the amount of stuff we buy is both a financial one and a philosophical one. With Earth’s limited resources and an ever-growing population, we feel as though we should live as lightly as possible.

But here’s an unexpected bonus—when you don’t buy very much for yourself, you really, really appreciate the presents you receive. While I realize this is not true for everyone, affluence and excessive shopping can combine to produce a jaded attitude toward presents. I have seen it in some people who have everything they could possibly want and are therefore hard to please. In our more affluent days, I don’t think I was ever jaded, but when I was shopping frequently, getting new things was not as special as it is now.

Does it really need to be said that the best presents are love and friendship from family and friends? Sure, it does. In short, I am thankful for all presents, tangible and intangible.

WHAT I DID FOR TWO AND A HALF WEEKS IN WINTHROP: INCLUDES RECIPE FOR SALMON PATTIES WITH BASIL AND GARLIC

Salmon patties on red plateYesterday, I helped my friend Sybil pack and sort as she enters the final phase of moving from a condo to an apartment. Because my husband, Clif, and I are a one-car family, I had to take him to work so that I could use the car. On the way, I noticed a couple of new things—a portion of the road was torn up, and the Burger King was completely demolished. (Naturally, a new one is being built to replace it.)

“Do you know,” I said to Clif, “that I haven’t been out of Winthrop in two and a half weeks?”

He just shook his head and smiled. “If I didn’t have to go to work every day, the same would probably be true for me.”

Clif and I certainly are prime examples of homebodies. When I mentioned my two-and-a-half week stint to a friend, her response was, “My, Lord! What did you do?”

This started me thinking. What did I do in Winthrop—population 6,000—for two and a half weeks? Every day that it was nice, I went on a ten-mile bike ride, on a route that takes me by a shimmering lake where loons call to each other. Clif and I went to the town’s book sale, art show, and lobster roll luncheon, all of which I wrote about in a previous post. I went to an author talk—given by Sarah Braunstein—and to book group at Bailey Public Library. I volunteered at our local food pantry. I made bread for family and friends. I met my friend Barbara Penrod for lunch at a restaurant in town where the food is not great, but it is good enough. I wrote pieces for this blog, and I made good progress on the children’s fantasy novel I’m writing—Maya and the Book of Everything.

While I didn’t physically go very far, I kept in touch with family and friends via the Internet. I read about Ali’s garden at the blog Henbogle, and I got suggestions for good books to read from Nan at her blog, Letters from a Hill Farm. I traveled through various books to an unnamed city in England where the battle between good and evil is fought not only in a boarding school but also in families (Charlie Bone and the Shadow by Jenny Nimmo); to Pittsburgh where I followed an old woman through the seasons as she deals with aging, family matters, and the inevitable disappointments that life brings (Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan); and I explored the nature of “tick-tock” time and “time alive” in The Magicians by J. B. Priestley.

Then, of course, there was Irene to prepare for and the resulting power outage.

I even developed a couple of new recipes, one of which I’ll share in this post. This recipe—salmon patties with basil and garlic—came about because I had leftover garlic and basil mashed potatoes. I decided to make salmon patties out of them, and Clif and I liked them so much that we both agreed it would be worthwhile to make the garlic and basil mashed potatoes especially for the patties and not just because we had leftovers.

All in all, it was a busy two and a half weeks even though I didn’t leave Winthrop.

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Frying the patty

 

 

 

 

MORE STORMY THOUGHTS

Is there any sound sadder and sweeter than the chorus of crickets in late summer? Yesterday, when my husband, Clif, came home from work, we had drinks on the patio and listened to the crickets sing. We know what their song means—summer is coming to an end and with it warm weather, barbecues, and drinks on the patio after work. Fall has its blaze of glory and winter its cozy consolations, but in northern New England, summer is short and therefore greatly cherished. Clif and I are always sorry to see it end.

Along with lamenting the end of summer, we naturally talked about Hurricane Irene and the horrible destruction in Vermont and New York. Roads, crops, and livelihoods have been flooded and smashed, and I expect recovery will not only be costly but also slow. Money is tight during this recession, I know, but I hope that farmers, towns, and states will get enough help from the government to rebuild and to regroup. I might be a naive idealist, but like Mark Bittman, I expect government to “work for the interests of the American people.” And this means pitching in, both collectively and individually. Why this is often a matter of contention is beyond my comprehension.

Let me be clear about personal responsibility—I believe that individuals should do everything they can to prepare for emergencies. (I wrote about this in yesterday’s post.) Every household—not just the ones with wells—should have an emergency supply of water ready and waiting. In addition, they should have extra batteries for lanterns and flashlights, oil for lamps, and even a little camp stove for cooking should the power go out for an extended period. Then, of course, there is food, and all households should maintain an “emergency pantry” of food that is easy to heat—soups, baked beans, spaghetti sauce, pasta. Peanut butter and crackers—things that keep—are also useful to have in good supply.

If individuals are thusly prepared, then they can still eat and drink when storms come and the power goes out.

However, there are certain things individuals cannot prepare for—washed out bridges and roads, destruction of crops, flooded houses. To recover from these things we need collective help, the help of the state and federal government. This has been my philosophy for all of my adult life, and Hurricane Irene just reinforces this belief.

Hurricane season is not over yet. Not by a long shot. Clif and I will continue to monitor our supplies so that we are well stocked and ready should another hurricane hit. That way, we can have our eggs, toast, and tea, real comforts when the power goes out, and we have no idea when it will come back.

Eggs, toast, and tea

 

 

 

 

ONE YEAR AFTER BREAST CANCER: SOME MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT ORGANIC FOOD

A year has gone by since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A whole year! Time is funny. In some ways the year passed quickly, but in other ways, especially this past winter as I dealt with the fatigue that comes with radiation treatment, time moved very slowly. Even now, my stamina is not what it was before breast cancer and radiation. When I have people over for a meal, I am really tired when they leave, and I just don’t have the energy for long-distance bike riding, the way I did last year. I can only go ten or eleven miles, but the good news is that I do this daily. And I’m glad to be on the road, biking through town and by the shimmering lake.

At the beginning of August, I had my first after-cancer mammogram, and I will admit that I was nervous out of my mind. What a relief to find out that the mammogram was “normal.” Right around that time, I spoke with a woman in town who has had breast cancer.

“Does it get any easier?” I asked, referring to the mammogram jitters I had.

“No,” she answered. “It really doesn’t.”

How could it?

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I vowed to buy as much organic food as possible, and to be truthful, it has taken a great deal of effort to do so on our modest budget. Organic food is always more expensive than food grown with harsh pesticides, and sometimes it is much more expensive. It helps that we are mostly vegetarian because organic meat is especially pricey. But, still! I have always been a frugal shopper, and during the 1990s, I was able to feed five people on less than $100 a week, usually $80 or so. Now, it is a rare trip to the grocery store when I don’t spend at least $50—I usually go more than once a week—and we don’t eat extravagantly—I cook from scratch and buy very little meat.

Nevertheless, my commitment to organic food remains strong. When I was a young teenager, hardly anyone I knew had breast cancer. It was very uncommon and not a cause for concern. (What teenager could say this now?) Then, in the mid-1970s, things began to change, and my own family experienced this firsthand when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was on the vanguard, the first wave of women that would really be hit by this disease, a wave that would only get bigger and bigger over time.

What changed? Certainly mammograms play a role in detecting cancer earlier, but I will again make the case that when I was young, few women I knew, regardless of whether they were 50, 60, or 70, had breast cancer. And I lived in a multigenerational home. I would have heard about it if my grandmother’s friends had had breast cancer. (Only one did.)

While there might be a variety of causes for the increase in breast cancer, one big change—starting in the 1950s—is how we grow our food. According to Sandra Steingraber in her book Living Downstream, after World War II, all “the technologies developed for wartime purposes…changed chemistry and physics forever….The multitude of new synthetic products made available after the war altered how food was grown and packaged…” Welcome to the world of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Steingraber calls herself “a member of the most poisoned generation to come of adult age…” and I am also of that generation.

Now, I know that food is only one piece of what might be called the “poison puzzle.” Our water and air are also contaminated, and pollutants don’t stay in one place, traveling even to the arctic circle, which is far away from factories and crops grown with pesticides. In short, I realize I can’t control everything that comes into my life. But when it comes to food, I can, and so I am.

I am developing strategies to keep the cost of organic food as low as possible. I’ve already described how I cook from scratch and don’t buy much meat. That’s a good start. I’ve also begun compiling a price book listing the cost of the food I buy at various stores. Just as it is with nonorganic food, the prices range from store to store. Once a month, my husband and I go to Trader Joe’s to stock up on food we can’t buy locally. (We also visit with our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike, thereby efficiently combining shopping and visiting with family on our trip.) But even at Trader Joe’s a price book is essential. While there are real bargains for organic food at Trader Joe’s, occasionally I can get a better deal at our local Hannaford.

On the home front, joining a CSA has  been a relatively thrifty way to get organic vegetables. Plus, I like supporting Farmer Kev. I also make a great effort to waste as little food as possible. Food thrown away is like money thrown away.

So eating mostly organic can be done on a modest budget, but it takes a fair amount of work. However, to me it is time well spent, a gift not only to myself but also to the planet and to future generations.

 

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

On Saturday, we had two sets of very good friends—Beth and John Clark and Dawna and Jim Leavitt—over for a barbecue on the patio in our backyard. The weather was hot and humid, but by the time they came, around 5:30, the backyard was in shade, which made it pleasant to sit on the patio.

As usual, as hostess, I was too busy to take pictures, but here is what we ate: For appetizers, grilled bread dipped in olive oil, cherries, rice crackers, and an artichoke spread (thank you, Kate, for the link to this Smitten Kitchen recipe). For the main meal, hamburgers made with ground beef from Wholesome Holmstead, chickpea patties, a big green salad with homemade dressings (thank you, Dawna, for bringing these things); and a carrot, blueberry, and sunflower seed salad. For dessert, Beth’s delectable blueberry cake, of which I never can get enough. Whenever Beth asks me what she might bring to a dinner, my prompt reply is, “Blueberry cake.” It’s a Margery Standish recipe, and Beth has a special touch with this cake.

Sitting on the patio on an August evening was a fine thing. Hummingbirds whirred among the bee balm. In the woods, a thrush sang, its ethereal song adding such beauty to our meal, and the crickets’ high-pitched arias blended with the song of the thrush. The woods at the edge of our lawn became darker and darker, and although they stayed well out of sight, I could imagine the night animals coming out from the places where they sleep—the bats, the owls, foxes, and coyotes. All on the hunt.

Clif and I have known the Clarks and the Leavitts for many, many years. We have watched their children grow and get married, just as they have watched ours do the same. There is a comfort that comes from knowing friends for such a long time, and conversation settled as easily among us as night settled over the backyard.

As we are all good liberals, the talk inevitably turned to politics and world events, such as the famine in Somalia. I mentioned how on the Diane Rehm show, I had heard that drought, brought on by climate change, was partially to blame for the famine, but that bad governing was also responsible. All of Somalia is suffering from the drought, but only in southern Somalia are people dying from starvation. Apparently, Somalia is governed by regions, and southern Somalia, unfortunately, is in the grip of Al Shabib, a militant Islamist group that has mounted a formidable insurgency against Somalia’s transitional government. (For more about Al Shabib, read this article in the New York Times.) Basically, southern Somalia is run by thugs who want to ban music, TV, and bras, and they keep people in line by chopping off their hands. Not only has Al Shabib stopped starving people from leaving the country, but they have also forced out many Western aid organizations. In short,  Al Shabib has made a bad situation much, much worse. Truly, a cautionary tale for the planet as the population continues to grow and water becomes ever scarcer.

From there, the conversation turned to peak oil and the rising price of food and gas in this country. Then came the question, how much is enough? How much do people need to have a good life? There was a general agreement that even though we three families are not rich by American standards, we all have too much stuff.

“But people do need some kind of surplus,” I said. “If they don’t, then an emergency can sink them.”

John replied, “In Hartland [where he lives] too many people, especially young adults, don’t have a surplus at all.”

So how much is enough? Naturally, we didn’t resolve this question, but Beth spoke about how freeing it was to go on vacation, rent a little cabin, and live very simply.

“Within a half hour,” she said, “everything was tidy and clean, and the rest of the day was ours to do with as we pleased.”

But could she live that way indefinitely? Would “stuff” start creeping in?

Beth shrugged. Who knows?

As the evening came to a close, and the Clarks and the Leavitts were getting ready to leave, Dawna said, “I’m so full! Next time, let’s just have the grilled bread, a salad, and maybe a couple of other appetizers. That would be enough.”

A very appropriate remark, especially in light of the conversations we had been having.

Would such a meal be enough? It probably would. I hope that before the season ends, we will host a meal with grilled bread and appetizers and find out.

 

THE MAINE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: PART ONE—FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Popcorn machineFor the past ten days, my husband, Clif, our daughter Dee, and I have been going to the Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) in Waterville, Maine. This is an annual festival that features movies, movies, and more movies. It encompasses two weekends, where the movies start at noon and can end at midnight. On those days, it is possible to see four movies, if the right choices are made. On the weekdays in between, the pace is a little more decorous, with the first movies starting at 3:00 or 3:30.

By my count 102 movies were shown at this year’s film festival. Naturally, it is not possible to see 102 movies in ten days, so filmgoers must study the program and try to choose movies that suit their tastes. Because all the blurbs in the festival program are written to entice moviegoers to each particular film, deciding which movie to see is not an easy process, and rash decisions are often made. As in, “Oh, what the heck! We have an open slot. Let’s just go see this one.” This path can lead to stinkers and clunkers, yet even these movies are not without value.

I’m not sure if The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye falls into the stinker or clunker category*. It was certainly amateurishly made, a documentary that spent far too much time allowing its subjects to mug it up in front of the camera. With its focus on bondage, sex, “pandrogyne,” and gender issues, the film came very close to being too explicit for my taste. (The program’s description of Ballad delicately skirts this focus.) The subjects of the film—Genesis P-Orridge and his wife and “artistic partner,” Lady Jaye, decided to show their devotion to each other by having their faces surgically altered so that they would more closely resemble each other. Genesis P-Orridge, who likes cross-dressing, took it one step further and had breasts implants as well. Not your average married couple and certainly not your average film.

However, despite this movie’s many flaws, I am not sorry I saw it. Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye’s concern with androgyny seemed, well, sincere. For whatever reason—my guess it’s biological—some people do not feel comfortable with their gender and do not fit into the traditional notions of what it is to be male or female. Unfortunately, most societies have little tolerance for such people, who are often tormented and bullied unmercifully. The message I got from the film is that this unconventional couple wanted to show the world that gender can be fluid and that to embrace this fluidity is a form of enlightenment. I don’t know if I agree or disagree, but it certainly has given me something to think about.

Only at a film festival would I see a film like this, and it is one of the reasons I love MIFF.**  We tend to bump along in our own little worlds with our own little circle of friends who, by and large, live as we do. Seeing The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye reminded me that there are other ways of thinking and being.

You might even call it food for thought.

*A clunker is a movie that merely falls flat. A stinker is a movie that’s just plain rotten. And, yes, I coined the terms.

**We also saw many good movies, including Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie; In Good Time, The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland; Ito: A Diary of an Urban Priest; An Uncommon Curiosity: At Home and in Nature with Bernd Heinrich; and The Grove.