CHRISTMAS, THE STORM, AND THOUGHTS ABOUT TRADER JOE’S

The year is coming to an end, and for those of who live in the Northeast, last weekend’s blizzard was certainly a dramatic conclusion. For Mainers, the weather was not terribly extreme, and it slowed us down only for a day or so. For New York City, where my eldest daughter Dee lives, it was quite another matter. Twenty inches of snow in a city the size of New York is a real challenge. But New Yorkers, plucky souls that they are, seem to have dealt with it just fine.

The storm meant that Dee had to delay her travel plans back to New York City, and we were happy to have her for an extra day. She had come home a week before Christmas to help me get ready for the big event, and I’m not sure what I would have done without her help. (Unfortunately, my youngest daughter Shannon had the flu and spent the entire week on her couch.) I suppose I would have somehow slogged through if Dee hadn’t been here, but the radiation treatment has left me extremely tired, and even with Dee’s help, I was exhausted by the time Christmas was over.

Anyway, it was a great gift to have Dee help me make toffee and shortbread and ice cream pies and stuffed shells and cheddar cheese soup. None of these dishes are complicated, but they all take time. And energy.

On Tuesday, I brought Dee to Portland, to the bus station, so that she could head home to New York, and I decided to stop by Trader Joe’s, which opened a month or so ago. Because I went midafternoon, parking was no problem, the way it is at the end of the day.

There’s been a lot of fuss about Trader Joe’s, and since I had never been to one, I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be. As it turned out, I had mixed feelings about it. There is a lot of organic food—fresh fruit, vegetables, packaged food, meat. Readers of my blog know that I am keen about organic food and try to buy as much as I can, even though my husband and I live on a modest budget. As someone who has had breast cancer, I feel that organic food is good for the body as well as for the planet.

At Trader Joe’s, the prices for organic food can’t be beat, and for those on a very limited budget, it is the place to shop. I bought three pounds of grass-fed, hormone-free beef, three pounds of organic chicken, a pound of hormone-free ham, organic pasta and sauce, organic eggs, and some other items. The bill came to $59, which was so reasonable I could hardly believe it.

But, and this is a big “but,” as far as I could tell, there was no local food at all—no Kate’s Butter, no Oakhurst—and indeed most of the food seemed to be shipped from across the country, which gives the food a huge carbon footprint. (Readers, if you know otherwise, please let me know.) While I am concerned about my own personal health, I am also concerned about climate change, local food, and local economies.

So…here is what I would recommend for those with a comfortable budget: Shop for local food at other stores or markets and then fill in with nonlocal food at Trader Joe’s. For those on a tight budget, shop at Trader Joe’s and then buy as much local, organic food as you can afford.

There’s no way around it. Food has become a complicated issue. (The Far Right has started grumbling about healthy food and how it’s a socialist plot.) But it certainly gives me plenty to write about, which I will be doing in 2011.

Happy New Year to you all. May you have a year of good cooking, good food, good friends, and family.

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BRINGING REFRESHMENTS FOR BOOK GROUP

Shane-Malcolm Billings

In late summer, Shane-Malcolm Billings, one of the librarians at the Charles M. Bailey Public Library in Winthrop, organized a book group, with September being the starting month. I like reading just as much as I like eating, and with a slight hesitation, I signed up to be part of the group. My hesitation stemmed from the fact that I was diagnosed with breast cancer in late summer, and I knew I’d have surgery in September. A busy time, to say the least, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel or look. But I decided to give it a try, figuring I could always drop out of the group if I didn’t feel up to it.

What a good decision to join this group. As it turned out, I didn’t have chemotherapy, and aside from being tired, I felt pretty well. In addition, book group gave me something positive to focus on—it sure beat thinking about cancer—as each month we read a challenging book and then had a discussion about it.

Aside from Shane, the group comprises about twelve women with varying opinions on the books we’ve read—Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen, The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall, and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Differing opinions, of course, make the group lively, and there was an especially lively discussion about Cutting for Stone, a book about doctors set in both Ethiopia and the United States. (At book group, a question has emerged over the past few months: Do readers need to like the characters in a novel in order to like the book?)

With all the women in the group, Shane might be outnumbered, but he never seems overwhelmed. His wit, his love of good literature, his good humor, and his outgoing personality help keep him from being overpowered by so many women with strong opinions.

Over the months, I have really come to look forward to book group, to hearing what Shane has to say about the books—sometimes I pop into the library to have a little pregroup chat with him—and what the others have thought. Therefore, for the December meeting, I volunteered to bring refreshments. I figured it was a way to give something to a group that has given me so much.

refreshmentsI made crackers using half unbleached flour and half whole-wheat flour from Aroostook County; a cream cheese spread with olives and rosemary; and toffee bars topped with semi-sweet chocolate and walnuts. For balance, I brought apple cider and clementine oranges. I was gratified to see everyone dig right in, that this book group has good eaters as well as good readers. There were few leftovers, and nothing can be more pleasing to a cook than empty plates.

So thank you, Shane, and thank you, book group. I look forward to 2011’s books and discussions. Speaking of which…our January book is Exley by Brock Clarke, who teaches at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He will be speaking at Bailey Library on January 11—a week before book group meets. It will a bonus to hear him speak about the book before we discuss it.

SOME BRIGHT NEWS FOR THE DARK DAYS OF DECEMBER

As we head toward the darkest day of the year, after a very challenging fall, here’s a bit of bright news for Mainers for the holidays. It’s from Health.com, which is featured on Yahoo!, and it’s a piece about “America’s 10 healthiest grocery stores.” For Mainers, the good tidings are that Hannaford, a New England chain, made number five on the list. For those who live in or around southern Maine, the news gets even better: Whole Foods (no surprise) and Trader Joe’s (ditto) also made the list at #1 and #4, respectively. 

The criteria for healthy included a large selection of organic as well as minimally processed foods without artificial ingredients. Clear labeling also garnered points, and so did locally grown food. 

Now, my favorite places to shop are either farmers’ markets or vegetable stands, but in Maine in December, these places are pretty hard to find. (However, some indoor markets are starting to sprout here and there.) This means that trips to the grocery store are a must.  

As a native Mainer who remembers the old days when supermarkets in Maine had nothing organic, I find it encouraging that they have come so far. I know there are many counterarguments, ranging from concerns about cost to questions about organic food becoming big business. The concerns are real but so is this fact: The more people eat organic food, the better it is for their bodies and the planet. My friend Sherry Hanson, who once lived in rural Illinois, has described the big machines spraying pesticides and herbicides over the fields. A rain of poison leaching into the dirt and water, and what is sprayed in Illinois does not stay in Illinois.  

So this holiday season, buy some organic food. Carrots, oatmeal, dried beans, even popcorn are all reasonably priced and are affordable for people who live on a modest budget.

When you buy organic, you’ll be giving a gift not only to yourself and your family but also to Earth. And that, dear readers, is certainly a cause for holiday cheer.

AN INCREDIBLE CELEBRATORY MEAL AT SHANNON AND MIKE’S

Cornish game hens, salid, and moreThis summer, three of our daughter’s Shannon’s friends came from Washington, D.C., to attend her wedding. Shannon lived in D.C. for six years and made many good friends while she was there. When my husband, Clif, and I visited her, we met and become fond of some of those friends, in particular Matt, Alvaro, and George, the ones who came to her wedding. Matt and Alvaro have even stayed with us in Maine while visiting Shannon.

While in D.C., Shannon earned a reputation of being, shall we say, an indifferent cook. Therefore, at the wedding, when I told Matt and Alvaro what a good cook Shannon had become, they were incredulous. Well, if only they could have had dinner at Shannon’s place on Saturday. It would have made true believers out of them.

fennel and green bean saladAny meal that family and friends cook for me is a good meal. I love to cook, but I also love it when people cook for me, and while I appreciate good food, the act of cooking, the loving-kindness behind it, is just as important to me as the quality of the food. So when Shannon invited Clif and me over for a meal to celebrate the end of my radiation treatment, I immediately said, “Yes, please!”

I have watched Shannon’s progress in the kitchen and have tasted the results, so I knew I was going to get good food. However, I was totally unprepared for the meal she (and Mike!) made for us: Cornish game hens, moist and delicately flavored with lemon and fresh thyme; roasted carrots and fingerling potatoes; a fennel and green bean salad with feta and olives; and, the grand finishing touch, a homemade chocolate cake (Shannon’s specialty).

celebration cakeThere couldn’t have been a better meal at any of Maine’s good restaurants, and we have quite a few of them, especially in Portland.

This fine meal also goes to show that where there is a will there is a way. Shannon and Mike live in a very small apartment with a tiny kitchen. They have an oven that cooks on screech—suitable for roasted dishes but not so much for a cake. Therefore, Shannon had to make the cake in two batches and cook the layers one at a time in her toaster oven. The results were everything you could hope for in a cake—light, fluffy, and, most important, not dry.

So when people whine that they can’t cook because their kitchens are too small or they don’t have the right equipment or something isn’t working quite right, I think of Shannon and one word comes to mind: balderdash!

Time and time again, Shannon has proved them wrong.

LAST DAY OF TREATMENT: LUNCH AT THE SENATOR WITH ESTHER

Baskey of goodiesYesterday, I earned my reputation as a good eater when I went to The Senator in Augusta and had lunch with Esther. Not only did I eat every bit of a lobster sandwich (not roll—this one was made with bread) and a pile of fries so large that it makes me blush to think that I only left a few, but I also ended with a thick chocolate mousse topped with real whipped cream, beat stiff just the way I like it. How did I feel afterwards? Full but great.

Yesterday was also the last day of radiation treatment for breast cancer, so my indulgences, seemed, well, fitting. I brought in a tin of homemade toffee bars for the radiation-oncology staff—mostly women—who have been so cheerful and full of loving-kindness these past six-and-a-half weeks. There is no way around this—it is both intimidating and scary to lie topless on a table day after day and get zapped by large doses of radiation. But Jane, Barbara, Roxanne, Becky, Alyssa, and Juanita made all the difference, and I am so grateful for the good care I received at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta. As I left, the women gave me fond hugs and wished me well.

After that, it was onward to coffee cake and tea at Barnes & Noble and then to the Senator to meet Esther, a dear friend of my mother’s and a dear friend of mine as well. (My mother passed away two years ago.) Having lunch with Esther would have been treat enough, but she also brought me a basket of goodies—apple wine from Sweetgrass Winery in Union, Maine; a box of toasted green tea that I’m crazy about; homemade apple sauce; and a bright pink cyclamen.

Tonight, my husband, Clif, and I will be going to our daughter and son-in-law’s home for a celebratory meal, and I’ll bring the apple wine with us.

What a way to end treatment!

MONDAY NIGHT AT JOYCE’S HOME

Friends at the tableAs I promised myself, this has been a week of treats, ranging from donuts to pancakes to coffee cake and then back to donuts again. (Yes, there is a trend toward donuts.) But Monday’s treat has been the best treat so far—a yearly holiday get together with six women I have been friends with for nearly twenty years. At one point, we all belonged to a group called Maine Media Women, which is where we met and became friends.

I can’t remember when we decided to get together for a yearly holiday gathering, but it has been for quite a few years. At first, we went to restaurants, but then Joyce kindly offered her place for a potluck, and we have been meeting there ever since. It’s so much more comfortable than a restaurant. At Joyce’s home, we can nibble on appetizers and chat, move to the dinning room for dinner and more chat, then go back to the living room for little presents. The whole evening has a wonderful flow.

Some people have a “touch” when it comes to making a house beautiful but cozy, and Joyce has this touch. Candles were lit and there were vases with fir and pine and red carnations. Everywhere, there was some pretty little thing to admire, but Joyce’s home is neither cluttered nor busy, as my home has a tendency to be.

LaneySome highlights: I heard about Lynne’s trip to the Middle East, Peggy’s upcoming trip to Colorado, and Sherry’s little beach cabin in Oregon, where her son lives. There was also the hilarity that ensued over Joyce’s presents to us all: fake animal noses that lit up. But for me the real highlight was Laney, my friend Perian’s nine-year-old daughter, who came to the party with her mother.

Now, I know all children are special in their own way, but, to me, something about Laney seemed extra special. I talked to Laney about horses—like many girls her age, she’s crazy about them; about what she wanted for Christmas—horseback riding lessons and a hamster; and about school. Her father is a skilled photographer and seems to have passed some of this on to Laney. Not only did she use my camera to take a picture of all of us, but she also showed me how to retrieve images that were previously taken. (I admit it. I’m not much for technology.) The icing on the cake, so to speak, is that Laney is a little foodie, and she made the brownies we had for dessert.

Thinking of Laney’s love of horses, I asked her, “Do you like kitties, too?”

“I like all animals,” came the reply.

Good answer.

pig nose funWe all brought little presents for Laney, and it was such a pleasure to watch her open them and then stash them away in a bag. (I noticed Laney nipped one of her mother’s chocolates and add it to her own bag.)

When we were all getting ready to leave, I said to Laney, “Come next year, too.”

“I will,” she said.

In a few years, Laney will not want to come to a party with a bunch of middle-aged women who wear lighted animal noses and giggle themselves silly. That’s how it should be. Children need to go their own way as they grow older.

But we’ll have the pleasure of her company for another couple years, at least.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 4TH: TREAT OF THE DAY

Lobster SandwichYesterday’s treat was actually a double treat. Not only did I have a lobster roll at the Winthrop Congregational Church Fair/Luncheon, but I also, by chance, met my friend Debbie Maddi. Her husband, like my husband, had elected to stay home. Fair/Luncheon events are not the sort of things most husbands like to attend, which meant both Debbie and I were on our own. It was a happy coincidence that we just happened to arrive at the fair at the same time, and it took only a matter of seconds before we decided to have lunch together.

The basement of the Congregational Church was divided between fair tables and lunch tables. The latter had checked table clothes, and the room was full of people either eating or shopping. Each table had a little menu, which included lasagna and, most important, lobster rolls.

I am a lobster roll enthusiast, and I can never eat too many of them. Summer, winter, fall, and spring. All are a good time for a lobster roll. The best ones have chunks of lobster just barely held together with mayonnaise, but lobster salad, made with more mayonnaise, is perfectly acceptable, too. Not surprisingly, the Congregational Church lobster rolls were made from lobster salad. No complaints from me, and more than worth the $6 for the plate, which included chips and homemade pickles.

Debbie and LaurieAs we ate, Debbie and I chatted about books, family, and breast cancer. When she heard I was heading down the homestretch with treatment, she generously paid for my lunch.

“To celebrate,” she said.

Yes, to celebrate!

After lunch, we poked around the fair, where I resisted the impulse to buy a lovely old blue and white porcelain serving dish, complete with lid. Dishes are one of my many weaknesses—I suppose this makes perfect sense, given my obsession with food—and our little house is overflowing with dishes, old and new.

Then Debbie and I walked around Winthrop, stopping in at the Bailey Public Library, which was having an open house. Shane, one of the librarians, was working at the front desk, and he just happens to be the leader of the library’s book group, to which I belong.  Book group is coming right up—December 15—and we couldn’t help discussing, just a little, the book we’re reading—Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. (I’m looking forward to hearing about what others in the group think of this fascinating but flawed novel.)

So I guess really it was an afternoon of triple treats—meeting Debbie, the lobster roll, and then talking with Shane at the library.

A blog about nature, home, community, books, writing, the environment, food, and rural life.