EARTH DAY IS COMING

As a foodie, I love to eat, cook, and think about food, and my writing and reading reflect this love. (Some might call it an obsession, and they wouldn’t be too far off.) However, I came of age in the 1970s, when the environmental movement was bursting forth, and I caught the environmental bug in my early teens. It has been with me ever since, and writing and the environment have been twin concerns for all of my adult life. A love of food, of course, fits perfectly with environmentalism because all food comes from Earth, and how we harvest, hunt, fish, and farm has a tremendous effect, often for ill, on the environment. With so many of us on the planet—over 6 billion and rising—the issue of how to feed everyone without destroying the environment becomes ever more important. When you add in our complete dependence on oil—from fertilizers to harvesting to transportation—it doesn’t take long to realize that food, along with energy and manufacturing, is at the center of all things environmental.  As Mark Bittman might put it, food matters. And, by extension, what we eat matters, not only for our own health but for the health of the planet as well. 

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, which was started by Senator Gaylord Nelson on April 22, 1970 and was conceived as an environmental “teach-in” to expand environmental awareness and perhaps even come up with some solutions to problems of the times—polluted rivers, smog, and DDT. Gaylord and the other Earth Day organizers were unprepared for the response—“20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated.” (Here is a link to a piece written by Senator Nelson about the first Earth Day.) 

My husband, Clif, and I are lucky enough to live in a town—Winthrop—that will be sponsoring Earth Week activities (April 17th to April 24th), from movies to gardening seminars to a public supper featuring food from local farms. A community garden is in the works. Clif and I are thrilled, and we will be participating in many of these activities. (Here is a link to the town of Winthrop’s website and the list of Earth Week events.) Naturally, I’ll be writing about some of these events, and perhaps Clif will take some photos. And you can be sure I’ll be thinking about local and organic food even more than I usually do, which is quite a lot of the time. 

It might even be fun to plan a mostly local dinner each night during Earth Week. As Ali from the blog Henbogle put it in a recent comment on one of my posts, “Don’t forget the incredible locally made cheeses, the good Maine butter, maple syrup on whatever is to hand…” No, indeed, and these ingredients are certainly a good basis for a mostly local dinner menu.

I’ll be planning and posting. What better way to celebrate Earth Week than with local food?

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BLUEBERRY BRAN MUFFINS AND ICED TEA ON THE PATIO WITH DON ROBBINS

For over a year, I have known Don Robbins through his writing, which is warm, funny, generous, and elegant. My husband, Clif, and I publish a web magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, and Don has written several pieces for us, the most recent being “Look Ahead to Horizon Days,” (I have written about this in my post A Foodie Idea for a Mother’s Day Gift.) Even though Don only lives fifteen miles from where I live, we somehow had never gotten the chance to meet. But I was very keen to become acquainted with this retired schoolteacher who lives “in a dome on Mellow Hill,” and in a recent email I told him to please stop by if he was in the area. There is always tea in this house, and muffins can be made quick as a wink. Don assured me that he would keep this in mind. 

Yesterday the weather was especially fine, and I got a call from Don asking me if it would be a good afternoon for a visit. Indeed it would. Don estimated that he’d be at my house in an hour and a half. Give or take fifteen minutes or so. He was coming by bike rather than car, and it was hard to give an exact time of arrival. 

No matter. There was plenty of time to make muffins and iced tea and even to clean the kitchen afterward so that it looked reasonable tidy. As it turned out, the trip took him an hour and fifteen minutes, and he was more than ready for the muffins and tea. It was warm enough to have tea on the patio, which also allowed my dog, Liam, to beg and run and bark. Three of his favorite things. 

Don Robbins, lean and sprightly, belongs to that group of energetic seniors that Maine seems to have in such great abundance. Is it something about the brisk weather that brings out their vitality? Or, do the less energetic ones leave the state for easier, sunnier climates? Whatever the case, I know many, many men and women in their seventies and eighties who walk, bike, volunteer, and—I know this sounds like a cliché—make their communities a better place. I am always inspired by these seniors, and I do my best to keep up with them. 

On the patio, Don and I drank tea and listened to the birds twitter and sing. The dog begged, barked, and ran. Don talked about his dome in Sydney and his gardens and the “gazebo” of pole beans he constructs for a cool, leafy green place in which to read and relax in the summer. I asked him if we could visit him this summer and take pictures of his garden. I plan to feature various garden in this blog, and his answer was yes. He told me about the 180-mile bike trek he was training for, to help raise money for the American Lung Association. With all the biking he does, Don figured he could help himself to two muffins. With no such excuse, I had two muffins as well. 

What else does Don do with his spare moments? As a Christmas present to an elderly friend, he goes to her apartment and reads aloud once a week. They recently finished Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which they both enjoyed very much. Don’s daughter owns a floral shop in Oakland, and one day a week he helps her out by delivering flowers. He and his mother, who is in her nineties, go for walks on the rail trail in Augusta. 

As Don was getting ready to leave for the bike ride home, I made him promise to come back soon for another visit. In turn, I promised to make more muffins, small enough payment for the pleasure of being in the company of such a buoyant spirit.

Blueberry Bran Muffins
Good anytime, but best eaten in the company of an energetic senior 

¼ cup of vegetable oil
¼ cup of brown sugar
¼ cup of maple syrup
2/3 cup of milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup of flour
1 cup of wheat bran
1 tablespoon of baking powder
¼ teaspoon of salt
¾ cup of frozen blueberries, thawed, or 1 cup of fresh blueberries 

Preheat oven to 400°F. Stir together the vegetable oil and brown sugar. Add milk, maple syrup, and egg. Add combined dry ingredients, just mixing until ingredients are moist. Fold in thawed blueberries. Scoop batter into prepared muffin tin. Makes eight large muffins or twelve small ones. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. 

Note: I’ve used honey in place of the maple syrup, with equally good results

EATING IN ITALY: HOME FOOD

Food lovers hardly need to be reminded that Italy, along with France, is one of the prime countries to visit if your idea of a perfect vacation consists mainly of finding good places to eat. I ready admit to being guilty of this, even when I was a teenager. At sixteen, when I went to France, I was interested in two things—cute boys and food, and not necessarily in that order. 

In the New York Times, Matt Gross recently has written an article with the headline “Mangia, Mangia!” that sure makes you wish you were in Italy. He writes about joining an organization called Home Food, “an Italian organization dedicated to, as its promotional literature states, ‘the protection and increase of the value of typical Italian gastronomic and culinary legacy.’” Membership then allows you to go into actual Italian homes where families cook for you. Gross writes vividly about both the food and the families, and by the time I was done reading the article, I was ready for dinner, even though it was only 9:30 A.M. Ready for “hand-cut triangles of pasta with juicy zucchini, a dollop of sweet roasted pumpkin and a rosemary sauce bound with sheep’s-milk ricotta” and pasta “in a sauce of puréed and whole chickpeas (which the family had farmed itself).” And there was more. Much more. 

Anyway, for a vicarious food experience, here is a link to Matt Gross’s piece

Gross’s article started me thinking about what a Maine version of Home Food would be. Don’t laugh. Yankee food can be good food, and there are other ethnic groups in Maine, including Franco-Americans, my own group. We make pretty tasty tourtière pies, and our pea soup isn’t bad, either. But it seems to me that a Maine version of Home Food would be best as a summer event. When you live this far north, the local pickings are mighty slim in the winter. Of course, there is always seafood, which is good any time of year, and blueberries survive the freezing process amazingly well, which means tender blueberry cake can be on the menu even when there is snow on the ground. But my mind turns to fresh strawberries, corn, and new potatoes. Peas and string beans with a fresh, crisp snap. 

One year, my husband, Clif, invited Jack, an out-of-state colleague, to stay with us. Jack had come to Maine from Utah to help my husband run a seminar. He came in July, and we plied him with Maine’s summer bounty—scallops, lobster, strawberry shortcake, and every other good thing we could think of. At night, Jack’s conversations to his wife revolved around what he had just had for dinner. 

None of the food was fancy, but I think it’s fair to say that Jack left Maine with a good taste in his mouth. And what better way is there to leave a place?

PIZZA NIGHT: HIS VS. HERS

Pizza My husband, Clif, is convinced that a true pizza consists of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and a layer of pepperoni so thick that it looks as though the pizza has been tiled. Sausage is an acceptable addition or substitute. He’s also keen about barbecue sauce and chicken pizza. Basically, if the pizza has some kind of sauce and meat, chances are that Clif will like it. Our daughter Shannon’s fiancé, Mike, pretty much feels the same way, as does our good friend Joel Johnson. Male solidarity?

While I can and do eat the sauce and meat extravaganzas that Clif loves, my favorite kind of pizza is quite different. Usually, it doesn’t have any sauce at all. Instead, it has olive oil, maybe some garlic, sliced tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, maybe some feta, sweet red peppers, and calametta olives. No meat. The sad truth is, when it comes to pizza, Clif and I have a mixed marriage.

Twice a month or so, usually on weekends, I make pizza and invite Shannon and Mike to join us. Normally, I make the tiled-pepperoni pizza, but last weekend, I was in the mood for my kind of pizza, and I informed Clif, as gently as possible, that this pizza was going to be more Mediterranean than what we usually have.

Clif’s reaction was admirably stoic, and as I assembled the pizza, he uncomplainingly fetched his camera so that he could take some pictures for this post.

Pizza toppingOn went the vegetables and cheese. Click went the camera. Olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried oregano followed. The camera clicked some more. Suddenly the clicking stopped, and the room was quiet for a few moments. Clif lowered the camera.

“You mean there isn’t going to be any sauce?” Clif asked, in the manner of someone who has just discovered that he’s been horribly tricked.

“No sauce,” I admitted softly.

Without comment, Clif raised the camera to his face, and the clicking continued, but it now had a half-hearted sound. I knew that for Clif, dinner had lost its usual glow. (Clif loves his dinner the way some men, say, love baseball or football, with a fervor that goes way beyond mere enjoyment.)

PizzaForty-five minutes or so later, the pizza, a glory of vegetables, creamy cheese, and crisp crust, came from the oven. Clif didn’t complain, but instead of his usual two or three slices, he only had a slice and a half.

I sighed, knowing what the next pizza would be like. To paraphrase the writer Don Robbins, “all is compromise here on Narrows Pond Road.” But maybe in three or four months, when the memory of the usurping, sauceless pizza has faded from Clif’s memory, I’ll slip in another one. Or who knows? Maybe I’ll even make two—a Mediterranean one for me and a saucy, pepperoni one for him.

A FOODIE IDEA FOR A MOTHER’S DAY GIFT

My husband, Clif, and I publish a web magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, and I just posted a piece written by Don Robbins, a retired school teacher who lives in “a dome” on Mellow Hill in Sydney, Maine. Don’s piece is called “Horizon Days,” and it’s about a present he made for his mother, who is in her nineties and doesn’t need any more gewgaws or artwork. As Don puts it, “To the contrary, she has been zealously divesting herself of many of the decorative items that crowd her small apartment.” 

But on special occasions such as Mother’s Day, we want to do something for our mothers (and fathers, too!) even if they don’t need any more clutter in their lives. So Don put together a booklet with the title Look Ahead to Horizon Days, with lists of favorite activities for him and his mother to do throughout the year. Don writes so well and so charmingly that rather than go into any detail about his project, I’m just going to provide the link to his “Horizon Days” piece

As my mind quite naturally turns to food, I started thinking about how much fun it would be to put together a Mother’s Day booklet with promised gifts of food for each month. This could be a wonderfully flexible gift. If the budget allows, and Mother lives some distance away, the food gifts could be delectable treats ordered from the Internet. (Chocolate, of course, immediately comes to mind.)  If Mother lives within driving distance, the best thing to do would be to make and deliver a special homemade treat once a month. There are lots of possibilities, ranging from bread, spiced nuts, and, when I think of my own mother, an apple crisp, which she just loved. Frosted heart-shaped sugar cookies for February. Strawberry shortcake for July. Marge Standish’s delectable blueberry cake for August, and for this cake it is always best to use wild Maine Blueberries. Main meals, too, of course. Scalloped scallops was another of my mother’s favorite dishes. And cheddar cheese soup, a perfect gift for a winter month. 

Don decorated his booklet with his own original artwork. For those of us who are not quite as talented in that department, collage would be a snappy alternative that could even feature pictures of the promised treats on each page. 

My own mother died two years ago. Nevertheless, it gives me pleasure imagining what kind of booklet I would have made for her and remembering the things she liked to eat. 

Finally, this is a gift that could be expanded to other gift-giving occasions—birthdays, Christmas, even anniversaries. Homemade treats can fit into even a very frugal budget, and some of the most delicious ones, say, bread, hardly cost anything at all to make. What this gift involves is time, that will-o’-the-wisp element that nobody, especially Americans, seems to have enough of. 

But what better gift to give?

SUNDAY JAZZ BRUNCH AT OUR HOUSE

Waffle stationMy husband, Clif, and I enjoy feeding family and friends. Our daughter Shannon and her fiancé, Mike, frequently come for dinner, and once or twice a month, we have friends over either for an appetizer night or a meal. In the summer, we love to be outside on our patio, and we entertain out there as often as we can from June through September. But this time of year, until the weather is really warm, we like to host Sunday brunches. Few things are cozier than to invite some friends over, set the dining room table, put on jazz, and haul out our little “waffle table,” which we place next to Clif’s seat. Onto the waffle table go the ladle, waffle iron, and batter bowl. Onto the big table go the maple syrup, butter, and homemade blueberry syrup and caramel applesauce. Also, an earthenware pitcher of sweet apple cider from a local orchard.

Home friesSoon comes the buttery smell of home fries, made from cold potatoes cooked the day before. But the brunch revolves around Clif’s waffles, made fresh, one by one, at the dining room table, and passed around so that guests can help themselves to a section. Simply put, Clif’s waffles are soft, tender, and utterly addictive. I know this is bragging, but I can’t help it. His waffles are so good that it seems senseless to go to a restaurant to have breakfast. (His thick yet fluffy pancakes aren’t to be sneezed at, either.)

Waffles fall under the category of simple food involving a little extra preparation that takes them out of the category of everyday food. After all, what’s in a waffle? Flour, eggs, milk, baking powder, salt, and oil. That’s about it. But there is something special about sitting at the big oval table and watching Clif as he pours the thick batter into the waffle iron, closes the top, and then waits. In turn, we all wait in eager expectation for the golden hot waffle, and in the beginning, Clif cannot keep up with our appetites. The waffle plate goes around, and it comes back empty before the next waffle is ready. But eventually, aided by home fries and, say, a quiche or chili eggs, the time comes when the waffles pile on the plate faster than we can eat them, and then finally we can eat no more. Clif continues cooking the waffles until the batter is gone, and there will be toasted waffles for breakfast for the next week or so. What a wonderful thought!

Last Sunday, our friend John Clark came over for brunch. Unfortunately, his wife, Beth, was working and couldn’t join us, but  their daughter Lisa was visiting from New York, and she came with John. There are few things nicer for middle-aged folks than to be graced with the company of a young adult. I might be getting old and soft, but it seems to me that younger people just shine, and how nice it is to bask in their glow. Lisa teaches school in the Bronx in New York City, and she spoke of the joys and the challenges of teaching children raised in a tough, gritty neighborhood. John, who is the librarian in Hartland, Maine, is also a scrounge extraordinaire, and he finds treasures at the local transfer station to add to the library’s collection. He also swaps, via the Internet, to get books, DVDs, and CDs for the library, and as a result, the shelves are pretty much full. I am a sucker for scrounging stories where resourcefulness, cleverness, and creativity are employed so that what would once be thrown away becomes something useful and of value. If more people were like John (and his daughter Lisa, who is a chip off the old block, as the saying goes) then the world would certainly be a much greener place. And a better one, too.

Our friends Dawna and Jim Leavitt also came over, and they told us about their photography projects. (Dawna is working on an “Our Town” project, and she brought me some lovely photography cards she took of Hallowell, surely one of central Maine’s most photographic towns.)

Then, as late morning turned to afternoon, the talk went from the personal to the political and the societal. Clif made the insightful comment that nowadays, “Stuff is the opiate of the masses.” Who could argue? Our country is awash with cheap stuff, which in turn seems to pacify people who labor in low-paying jobs that offer no benefits. (Maine has a service sector economy, and many Mainers work in such jobs.) However, soothed and buttered by waffles, quiche, and home fries, we couldn’t really whip up ourselves into our usual state of progressive indignation.

Maybe what the world really needs, is brunch, sweet brunch, to make it a mellower place.  And, of course,  a little jazz to go with it.

RICE DREAMS: A PIECE IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

This morning, I read an article in the New York Times that vindicates what organic farmers have been saying for years. That is, you can’t separate growing crops from the health of the soil, and commercial fertilizers and pesticides kill the living things necessary for that health. The article features Kurt Unkel, a third-generation farmer from Louisiana who has been growing rice for thirty years using conventional methods. But then he noticed something alarming: “[I]t got to the point where you could plow 100 acres and you wouldn’t find one earthworm.” So he and his wife, Karen, decided to go organic with the brown jasmine rice they were growing. It was costly, and it took a long time, but Unkel did it. In a state that only has twenty-three organic farms, this might seem more than a little maverick. But who knows? Maybe Unkel will inspire other farmers in his area. Also fascinating was Unkel’s realization that with conventional farming and government subsidies, the money would be the same, no matter how much rice he grew. As Michael Pollan and other writers have suggested, it is high time we revamp the laws regarding agricultural subsidies.  

For the full story, here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/magazine/28food-t-000.html?ref=dining

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