Choosing Beauty in the Every-day: New Dishes

My first plate, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats.

My first plate purchased in July, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats: spinach fronted by fresh mozzarella, tomato, and garden basil.

Last week I bought the (almost) final dish in my new set of Bennington Pottery.

That’s important because three years ago, I found myself suddenly a one-person living unit, every room of the new apartment stacked with bins and cardboard boxes six feet high. I was Keeper of The Household as I had always been, but now with a much smaller Household to manage.  It was simultaneously frightening, sad, and a relief.

The containers spilled over with stuff saved for other people, for future needs and/or disaster: financial papers, cooking equipment, furniture, clothing, decoration–and dishes. Most of it had been purchased already-used decades ago, found on the street, or gratefully acquired as other people cleared out their basements and storerooms. The items didn’t necessarily match or work optimally, but they functioned, and when you are just barely surviving, that’s what matters.

Happy to have a very different life now,  I’ve been learning to go beyond the idea of just-surviving, especially since–as witnessed by the stockpiles of food I’ve been using up–I am releasing myself from the burden of so many belongings, the weight of saving in order to feel safe.

In addition, in the small amounts I keep, I want not only functionality but also beauty.  When my best friend was making a pittance on the front lines in human services, she would still buy a little piece of handblown glass or earrings, telling me:  Beauty is as important as food. 

Since Bennington Pottery is not only beautiful but relatively expensive, I’ve been acquiring the matte finish Elements design over time, buying most of them as “seconds” from the outlet or Potter’s Yard in Vermont (making me much more comfortable with the idea that I might break a piece here or there).  I certainly don’t need all of the sizes, just the couple that work for me ; I chortle over picking four different colors to mix and match, the option to make my table look different at every meal. The quirks in curvature and mis-splotches of color, part of being a not-quite-perfect dish, endear each salad plate and soup bowl to me.

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

During the factory tour on a slow day, one of the fewer-than-ten potters took visitors behind the scenes to see how they smooth and glaze and fire the clay.  To meet the artist-makers of my belongings moves me, and I often relive those discussions when I encounter the objects in my home.

Behind the futon on which I sometimes sit while eating out of my new palm-sized bowls, hangs a yellow-and-red Amish quilt, signed on the back by a northern Kentucky woman named Ella Bontrager.  As I study its shifting geometry, the rainy April afternoon of its purchase returns: talking in Ella’s little farm-shop, hearing how her husband and daughter work with her, why she used a nontraditional “proud” color in this artwork, what is valuable to her and her community.

A corner of Ella Bontrager's Amish quilt

A corner of Ella Bontrager’s Amish quilt

My gaze moves to the purple and green and brown placemats I splurged on at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo.  The nuance in their colors and patterns frequently draw me to thoughts of architecture, simplicity and beauty–same as the quilt and the plates.

In the window, light glows through two tiny hobnail glass vases.  From over three dozen of varying sizes, I have kept only a few; the rest were donated, moving on to other people’s homes for their flowers and their meditations. The mis-matched plates and bowls from my past left in that give-away box, too.

Every day we eat off dishes and placemats, look at interior walls and surfaces, use the items we share our living space with.  How do we make this inside life beautiful?  What choices do we make, what do we get rid of, to add beauty to our lives?

Moments of startling light.

A moment of warm afternoon light.

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To Clean is To Wander is To Meditate

Clean colors of evergreen against the snow, Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

Crisp colors of evergreen against the snow, Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

A few hours ago, my hands were barely able to curl around a knife in order to butter a bagel for dinner. Even now, it’s not easy to grip and flip open the laptop, and type. I plan to do an hour of yoga later, but along with achy wrists, my knees are sore from kneeling on the kitchen floor–not brush-scrubbing; I don’t have Cinderella fantasies–just wiping and rinsing, wiping and rinsing, the layers of dust and dripped food from Christmas and New Year’s and daily living.

And vacuuming–I seem to have lost, or never owned, the extension arm to my vacuum, so the bare-floor attachment clicks to the end of the hose and requires an up-close relationship with the floor to maintain contact. I did manage to squat part of the time but often the angles were too awkward to maintain. Hence the bruised kneecaps and cramp-y hands.

Tools at hand! my vacuum

Tool at hand, back together for the rugs.

It was time. The apartment needed cleaning way before the holidays, but since I had December guests coming, including a large, sweet, and very fuzzy dog, I only disinfected the bare minimum before their arrival, and left it at that.

Until this week, when it couldn’t be put off any longer.

When I thought about each room and how many things needed to be moved in order to de-grime properly, my old surgical aches came back–a wonderful indicator that I need to approach from a different mental angle.

I used to be very list-driven. The lists always started out long, and even as I circled jobs-done, more got added, seeming to approach infinity.  Now the inventory is general: “clean kitchen, clean bedroom, clean front room, clean dining room.”  I wander from space to space, trusting that the big job will get done through all the little jobs I feel called to do.

The question I ask: What will make it enjoyable, and let me do something I’ve secretly really wanted to get to? 

The speed I go, even with the compulsion to rush, since there’s so much to do? Slow.  And when panicked? Even slower.

Yup, house cleaning as meditation.

Today’s answer as to what I secretly want to do?  Put on my bed the new blue and white batiked duvet cover from Ten Thousand Villages. Well, have to change the sheets and sweep the floor first. Doesn’t that feel good, crisp sheets and plumped pillows? Oh, but I have to dust all the surfaces before doing the floor!  All right, leisurely pull every piece of jewelry off the hanging organizer, wipe the hooks and smile over the beads, the iridescent bangle, which earrings went with the sparkly outfit, for that delightful community dinner on Christmas Eve–and for the raucous snowy romp with the dog on January First….

Objects hold memories and I remember, as I handle them.

A bit of feather-down, fallen into snow at Dyken Pond.

A bit of feather-down, fallen into snow. Remember the snowy walk?

Another answer to the question about what brings joy for me today: organizing all the snowshoeing gear, after drying my trekking poles.  Ok, better stack the grocery bags to go out to the car, which reminds me–start the shopping list.  There’s the camera–upload the photos from the latest walk at Dyken Pond, where I got the gear wet in the first place. And wasn’t it a great walk?

A third job to bring relief:  moving the red chair into the front room, exchanging it for the reading chair, whose awful green checked cushion at last gets covered with a deep purple fringed blanket. Vacuuming the dining room wasn’t so bad, I can finish this quickly and after moving the chairs, pull out different candle holders–look, there’s the battery charger I’ve been missing!

All day, for days, I’ve wandered and somehow along the way become motivated to do the hands-and-knees cleaning that has now transformed my living space.

Finally, all those wonderful negative ions have been moved around, along with my belongings. I learned last year how to rearrange photos and sculptures so I see them again, how to shift the tchotchkes endowed with history and stories so I recognize and appreciate; after sitting in the same-old-same-old spots, my eyes would no longer be caught and would pass over them–along with that slight layer of dust that faded everything.  Now I’ve cleaned the dust, I’ve re-seen the objects, all is new again.

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Now I can see the art glass tray, the ceramic lotus, the dried flowers still bright with pink and yellow.

A confession: the bathroom only got a quick wipe down, and it will take a couple days to really scour the kitchen.  But wood is glistening and lights shining brightly, surfaces are clearer and paintings placed in new positions of honor.  A votive flickers in the window.

Tomorrow morning as the tea water comes to a boil, I’ll do more smaller-scale wandering in the kitchen:  washing dishes, wiping down cabinets, reading recipes. I’m cleaning, I’m dreaming, I’m wandering; I’m meditating my future life into being.

The rhododendron blooms are already set January 8th; they need only wait for spring.

The rhododendron blooms are already set here in early January; what does that say about being more ready than you think?  about not needing to rush? about trusting in Spring?

Phyllo, and Preparedness

Lemon that has been cooked in syrup for baklava: honey, water, orange blossom water

Lemon that has been cooked in syrup for baklava: with honey and orange blossom water

Mom, is there any GOOD STUFF in here? 

Sweetie, some guys from the lab want to have a party, just a little one. What do we have for appetizers?

She’s not eating meat anymore–well, maybe sausage, but not pig-sausage.

Ten people from the social justice group will be coming by post-conference for dessert.

Your apple cider cornbread is scrumptious! 

The church needs platters of cut-up vegetables for a funeral reception.

His unemployment check is late this week; do you have a couple slices of  bread for the kids’ sandwiches?

Can we drop by and talk at dinner time? I’ll bring wine…

Yes, a vegan birthday cake–how about that carob one with peanut butter frosting that you made for last year’s party? Oh, and some of the kids can’t have wheat.

Mom, is there any GOOD STUFF in here?

**

I loved meeting people’s food needs. And I still do.

But I had a different life before; my personal food requirements have changed, even though my buying and supplying habits have not–yet.  Hence the recent challenge to make dishes with what I have in the house, and then face the world empty-handed, empty-casseroled.

Don’t get me wrong–vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores still visit; I welcome the gluten-intolerant, yeast-free, soy-sensitive and low-fat, the teenager-like appetites, but also smaller appetites as well.  Tasty comestibles invite people to come and relax, and I want to create a comfortable place for not only myself but others as well.

However, it’s crazy, even as a personal chef, even as someone who likes to cook to special dietary needs, having this much food around.

For example, I discovered that I had all the fixings for a recipe out of an old Country Living Magazine, involving leftover Thanksgiving turkey and half a pound of phyllo dough.  The other half-pound of phyllo went into baklava –for which I also happened to have all the ingredients.

A little ridiculous, but indeed, I am the kind of person who often has phyllo dough (and a thousand other odd ingredients) in the freezer; I respond to any possible incredulity–well, I might have a spanakopita emergency!

When I mentioned this at a writing group recently, thinking I was the only crazy one there, four out of four of us had the makings at home, at that moment, for spanakopita (spinach pie with feta).  Along with ingredients for Indian curries, pesto, and multiple varieties of soup.  So does that just mean we are all foodies? Or that amazing numbers of people are now conversant with multicultural foods? Or do all four of us happen to regularly host huge numbers of last-minute get-togethers?

Some or all of those theories might apply, but it’s bigger than that.

We women are taught to have plenty, to be plenty.

We are called on to make miracles with what we have on hand, so we learn to have a lot on hand: in our pantries, in our emotional capacities, in our organization of tasks large and small, in our intellectual understanding and knowledge of the world.

We utilize our reserves over and over again, often struggle to keep a brave smile, a “full pantry” all the time, without opportunity for rest and rejuvenation.

**

In performing my usual writerly vocabulary-check I asked:  For my title, does “preparedness” differ from “being prepared”? The dictionary answered: Preparedness is the state of being ready, especially for war.  Ah! so this is like war for the keepers of the larder: under attack, scarcity approaching.

Apparently, this incipient battle requires phyllo dough at-the-ready.

And guacamole and salsa and four kinds of crackers for the various demands that might present themselves. Humus, tabbouleh, pita chips. Chicken, hamburger, mozzarella, edamame. And ingredients for phyllo poultry pot pie, and baklava.

Sautéing in my enamel pan, for pot pie

Sautéing pearl onions, carrots, parsley in my enamel pan, for pot pie

As a belt-and-suspenders person the message is:  be ready for emergencies, don’t be caught unaware, unready, especially if you know it is a possibility–and so many bad things are a possibility. 

Lately I am learning instead: Yeah, I’ve had it scarce, but I am learning to trust if the world falls apart, my community and I will work it out.  I’m prepared but don’t need to live in a state of fearful preparedness. I am acceptable with my hands empty; I will not go hungry. 

In addition, I can choose when and where my arms are open and gifts are shared, to choose without incurring exhaustion or potential resentment–claiming my right to decide what I want to offer, and when.

Even though it is tasty and fun–I don’t always have to have phyllo dough in my freezer.

Phyllo chicken pot pie

Phyllo chicken pot pie, with peas in gravy

RECIPES, WITH ANNOTATION

Chicken (originally Turkey) Potpie with Phyllo Crust, adapted from Country Living Magazine, November 2010, page 112.

I cooked in a large skillet over medium heat: splash of olive oil, 10 oz fresh pearl onions (boiled for 2 minutes and plunged into cold water for two minutes so you can cut the ends and squeeze out the center portion without hand-peeling), cooked them until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Added 3 community garden carrots, diced, and garlic from the fridge. I cooked all that about 5 minutes, until the carrots were just tender, and stirred in a handful of community garden parsley. Sprinkled vegetables with 3 tablespoons of flour and cooked a little (the original recipe called for flour to turn golden brown, but it was too easy to burn it).

I added 1 1/2 cups chicken broth–made from chicken pan drippings (including Pappadew seasoning, salt, pepper, garlic, olive oil) AND a cup of 2% milk, a squeeze of spicy brown mustard (the original recipe called for Dijon, didn’t have it, oh well), salt and pepper. Cooked until mixture thickened, about 6 minutes. Stirred in 2 1/2 cups shredded roasted chicken, 1 1/2 cups frozen peas (rinsed since they’d been in the freezer so long), and broken up Community Garden dried sage. I used half a box of phyllo with butter softened by sitting in the hot kitchen.  Don’t have a pastry brush so used fingers to brush butter here and there between the sheets, and on top, baked in regular oven at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, watching the phyllo turn medium brown.

The Baklava recipe came from The Joy of Cooking, and I even had essential oil of Neroli (orange blossom) in my aromatherapy supplies to make the called-for, very dilute orange blossom water. It added a subtle, delicate aroma to the syrup.

I used local honey, a fresh lemon left from Thanksgiving, half the butter the original called for, cinnamon & cloves, sugar, chopped pistachios, walnuts, almonds–and a half-pound of phyllo dough.

Plated baklava, glistening with honey and crystals of sugar

Plated baklava, glistening with nuts in honey-syrup, and sugar crystals on the edge