Chanting? Really? Yes.

Oscillations of water wash over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Oscillation of water, like sound, washes over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Most mornings, I chant.

I have always been told I couldn’t sing well; whichever octave sits next to me is where I jump, and I waver when unsure if another note might be closer.  I’ll sing snippets with my CD player or part of a hymn I’ve practiced a hundred times, but only when I am fairly confident I will land correctly.

Still, I wibble and wobble.

But at yoga school, chant began our day. I had to open my mouth and make sound come out. On-target or out-of-key, it didn’t matter; first thing, we intoned “the resonance of the universe,” Om, followed by three Sanskrit stanzas of the Student-Teacher Mantra.

Almost sixty of us perched sit-bones on little black cushions while out the window, sunrise pinked the eastern sky.  The mantra song felt strange to many and made them itch in discomfort and wiggle like little kids.   Mountain fog dissipated into the evergreens while our eyes remained closed, or followed the lines on a large-print poster at the front.  Over twelve days the chant became more familiar.

IMG_4024

Clouded Kripalu morning over the mountain.

During the break between sessions, I committed to continue, using a grainy digital video I’d recorded at Kripalu.

At that point, I needed to be led.

By the third stanza, usually my throat hurt.  I tried again every daybreak to coax energy, with a vocalization some mornings tentative and froggy, other times expansively bouncing off the yoga room walls. Breath slowed and deepened out of necessity, and warmed my throat. Warmed my thoughts toward myself.

This was not just a tune.

Then came even deeper breath and movement, heat, circulation and all the good invited onto my mat with those sensations. Finally, my nauseated frustration flirted with comfort. I recognized unwanted thoughts and let them float away.

When we returned to Kripalu, I heard my morning voice steady and confident.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Now out of school, why do I do it?

One afternoon I sat in a kitchen that reeked of the detritus of cooking, home early because my therapist forgot my appointment–what deep things does THAT say? I asked myself melodramatically. Basil stems and onion ends needed to be taken to the trash, cabbage bits and tea leaves laid sodden in the sink, crumbs sprinkled the table and floor.

Earlier I’d stopped at the used book store and found two 25 cent paperbacks for the lake-vacation planned with my best friend.

But at my table I acknowledged it was a vacation she and I would have to put off–because her brother is sick, so she will instead drive five hours back and forth to him a couple days a week, and then to doctors and hospitals in search of diagnosis, prognosis, the plan, whatever-that-plan-might-be, however long it might take. Because of love.

How can I make my life like a vacation without a trip? Give yourself permission, my therapist might say, like the night before, to stay up and crush the basil into pesto, to cut the watermelon and freeze the grapes for hot afternoon snacking, to wash the lettuce–but also to toss the sprouting sweet potato, feel the sticky floor under my feet, acknowledge I ate maybe one too many pieces of the blueberry buckle baked in the beautiful dark. Feel it all.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

I had given the therapist some blueberry buckle as we laughed over the scheduling error. I thought, I would send some to my best friend if I could fly it there. In the midst of her pain, she’d mailed me a royal blue Pashmina shawl; the card read: Wrap yourself in this hug from me.

I want to take her to the lake we’d planned to visit, to hear the loons and go on long photo safaris in search of wild flowers and angles of light, to huff the thickly oxygenated Canadian forest air.  Drape myself like a scarf around her sad, sad shoulders. Feed her blueberry buckle and sip Chambord into the evening, watch the hummingbirds and fog dance in over the beach.

That’s why I chant. I chant to create space, to feel distress and delight. I chant, holding my best friend close, and her gravely ill brother. I chant and remember my friend J who died a year ago this month. I chant love gliding out of me for all of my existence.

I chant into the lakes and ponds and rivers and creeks, up the farmland and mountains, through the cumulous and wispy and mackerel skies. I chant into my cells, lungs, intestines, skin and fat and muscle. Into my toes and fingers. Through my navel: center of gravity, center of balance, center of self. Then out again and out again. Stretch, release.  Expand, contract.

Time passes and I am inhaling, vibrating, exhaling, feeling.

Time passes and I am in my breath in my body so time is inconsequential.

Chanting beckons me back to the mat and back to myself.

Chanting opens me with sound.

So most mornings, I chant.

Electric zing of fall color; energy courses through.

The visual zing! of fall; a path of green revealed by seasonal red.

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The Past, Preserved

The container that got me to thinking.

The container that got me to thinkin’.

In my continuing quest to clean out kitchen drawers and cabinets, today I came across a glass jar. When I lifted its clear pear shape to the light, sediment clumped on the bottom and its once luminously deep red contents read cloudy and brown. The faded Sharpie writing on the lid, in my hand: Sour Cherry Syrup 8-17-03.

That’s 2003, ten years ago this week.

It’s the very last jar, of the very last jars, of my Michigan and Illinois canning years.

I learned to make preserves in 1989, when I lived in mid-Michigan with one small child and another on the way, and a spouse in graduate school (soon to be in medical school). The trees in South Haven and along Lake Michigan were studded with peaches, sour cherries and other stone fruit; I’d drive east as each came into season, or search out flats of fruit in the local market.

Peaches were the first item I mastered how to slice, cook, pack into sterilized jars, and boil in a water bath: peach halves in sugar water, peach jam, peach-apple chutney. Next, I expanded my “putting up” to blueberry and strawberry preserves, then hot sauce, and bread & butter pickles.

But sour cherries were my favorite juicy treat.

After we moved to Chicago, I could still get cherries, thank heavens. Some farmers would bring their wares up to the north side where we lived and from one farmer in particular I would order a 40 pound box of pitted and frozen cherries, available for pickup in mid-August.

Defrosted cherries would bubble along with the pectin thickener and cup after cup of sugar in a huge cooking pot as the canning day progressed. Mason and Ball and “Atlas StrongShoulder” jars were filled with the concoction, screw-tops carefully put on and the jars lowered into the water bath. By early evening, rows of glistening glass had been pulled out and placed on a wooden rack, out of any drafts in the steamy kitchen that could crack a jar that cooled too quickly.

Within an hour, always to my great relief, lids began to thwip down in a vacuum seal; knowing at least a few had been made safe for long-term storage, I’d shower and go to bed as the thwips continued into the night. Next morning the lids were wiped off and, one by one, labeled with that ultra-thin black marker, then placed for storage in cardboard boxes.

In addition to dozens of finished sour cherry preserves, some jars would hold only syrup, scraped from the bottom of my white enamel saucepan, when the solids were gone but there was still thickening ruby-red syrup I couldn’t bear to waste.

This jar was just such a jar.

The week it was sealed was a usual week, back in 2003. My calendar tells me I’d weeded the hostas and wildflowers in the front garden and the kids’ long anticipated beach day was cancelled due to rain. I’d bought the pectin and sugar on Saturday, and picked up the cherries at the Skokie Farmers Market on Sunday after church. A third year medical resident by now, my spouse had been on 24-hour overnight call in the hospital Tuesday and then that Sunday.

Wild geranium from the garden.

Wild geranium (also known as Cranesbill) from my Illinois garden.

The following week 15 clients showed up to my massage practice, martial arts classes and a Renaissance Faire filled the kids’ days, and the spouse was gone for two more overnight calls. All that activity was, I am sure, flavored with the typical couple of jars that–darn! we’d joke–didn’t quite seal and–double darn!–had to be used up right away. We grinned over buttered toast topped with cherry preserves and later each day cherry syrup in seltzer or cola or on ice cream.

I put up preserves and syrup summer after summer until 2009, when I moved our family household to New York, and then the spouse left, to do permanent overnight call, with another woman.

My first response, finding that lonely jar this August? Oh no! This will be the end of it! No more, those golden summers, that delightful food, all gone, along with the family life before empty-nesting, before a new state, before divorce.

In fact, this last jar is probably useless, not safe to eat. I’ll open and sniff it, then pour it down the drain.

But my second response? I’ll dump and wash that jar and store it with the others up in my closet, boxes and boxes of clean empty jars waiting for fruits to ripen.

Perhaps something novel should be put up in those Masons and Balls and Atlas StrongShoulders: plums? pear butter? cinnamon applesauce?

Or maybe I’ll call that farmer who delivered in Skokie, and ask if he ships to New York.

This season's blueberries, floating on top of home-made blackberry preserves blended into Greek yogurt.

This season’s blueberries, floating on top of Greek yogurt blended with some home-made blackberry preserves.

Open to Change: Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes spill over the counter top.

Cherry tomatoes (and one teeny carrot) spill over the counter top into late summer sun.

As a small child, I hated tomatoes in any form. I particularly remember hating spaghetti sauce; it seemed so sour, so acidic, stinging my lips and hurting my stomach. Like many green vegetables at that time, tomatoes also made me gag.

In one of the few food compromises I recall from childhood, my mother made a separate dish for me when spaghetti was served: Buttered Noodles. Soft, squishy, chewy, buttery, salty, peppery, heaping bowls of elbows; it was delightful to surreptitiously poke my tongue into one end of a noodle, split the bent tube and then stick that noodle-covered tongue-tip out at the others around the dinner table.  When finished playing, I could then chew it, and slurp up a few more, since butter didn’t show on my face like splashed tomato sauce might have–all of this presuming no grownups were around.

Comforting and simple, I loved buttered noodles’ starchy blandness–though I didn’t consider them bland;  I considered them delicious beyond words.

**

Then one evening I bravely tested a worm of vermicelli with tomato sauce and my head jerked up, “What?! You’ve been keeping this from me? I LOVE spaghetti with sauce!” My mother, I am sure, rolled her eyes. This particular jarred sauce was savory and didn’t make me feel icky at all. So I left the buttered noodles of childhood behind as my tastes matured.

But I still didn’t like all tomatoes, just spaghetti sauce. No fresh ones, too watery, and my mother agreed–there is no tomato like a New Jersey farm tomato; having none of those available in our Midwestern kitchen, she didn’t press the issue. As a teenager, I tried small quantities of chopped tomatoes on Mexican food, to cut the heat. Then thin slivers of tomato on a burger, or in a salad.  Over time I diversified, and now even love thicker sliced tomato with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. Every once in a while I get that childhood gag reflex, but not very often.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots and bacon.

I changed my mind, I grew my tastes. I didn’t have to force liking tomatoes either–my desire for them came on my own terms, without someone else’s requirements.

Along with tomatoes, I now eat all kinds of green vegetables–they are some of my favorite foods! and in another area, I have expanded past my color palette of jewel-like purple and blue to appreciate earth tones, browns and even oranges. (My kitchen is painted a dull historical green and accented with red, of all colors, with mud- and rust-colored rugs.)

Preferences shift, and I want to be open to that–not too rigid, in food and color choices, or relationships, or beliefs about the world. “Curious” is the word they use in Kripalu yoga.

As I increase my practice in preparation for Yoga School, I learn to be curious as I study the edge of my likes and limits. Ready to laugh at myself and my foibles.  Maybe I will grow to love huge dripping slices of tomato raw in my mouth–maybe I will grow to love the burning ache in my hip during Pigeon Pose or every damned time I lose my balance in Tree Pose.  Who knows?

Frozen tomatoes from the garden--part of the clearing out cooking!

Frozen tomatoes from the garden–part of the clearing out cooking!

….So all that serves as an introduction:  I used up some tomatoes the past couple weeks.

I’m pretty exhausted from weight lifting, walking in the snowstorm that arrived yesterday, and Yoga Flow sessions, so I will share the photos and leave references if you Gentle Readers desire the recipes. Every one of them used tomatoes.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the counter.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the butcher block table.

Cabbage and sweet potatoes formed the basis of Cape Verde Vegetable Soup.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

The carrots and peppers filled out vegetarian chili.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

My favorite adapted recipe, Green Chili and Corn soup, used tough late summer Community Garden corn softened by the freezing process, and more black beans.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, waaay more green chilies) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, no potatoes, plus black beans and waaay more green chilies than originally called for) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Plenty of tomato based soups and chilies to go around this frozen month of February–though I think I’ll make some buttered noodles, very soon.

I hated tomatoes and then I loved them, but only in some forms. What does that say about changing your mind? Being open? What happens when you don’t force things?

To Plan a Garden, And a Life

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

It flew in through my postal slot this week, a stiff green mailer I’ve received twice before: Continuing Gardener Sign-ups. It means that in February, I’ll toddle down to the public library, pay my small fee, re-read the rules, and confirm my plot.  Ok, so I knew the mailer was coming since I am a Garden Coordinator, but it’s satisfying to jot the date on the calendar anyway, marking the beginning of my fourth growing season with the Capital District Community Gardens.

We are in the midst of deep winter here in upstate New York; when it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves the minute you step out of doors or else risk wind-burned and skin-split fingers; when billowing road salt coats our cars and our street and our pants when we lean over those cars, even flies into our mouths if we are thoughtless enough to open them before tossing ourselves shivering back into our homes.

The standard picture of Gardener Dreaming About Spring is someone escaping that salty, snowy weather, cardigan-wrapped and hugged by an overstuffed recliner. The silhouetted figure, plush-slippered, pores over seed catalogs by a roaring fire, sipping hot chocolate or spiked cider as the wind screams outdoors.

I’m not exactly like that. Don’t own a recliner, fireplace, or seed catalogs, and slippers make my feet sweat. I clomp around the apartment in old socks and clogs and mostly I’ve used the seeds that are donated to the Community Gardens office or buy plants when the mood strikes me or they are on sale during the growing season.

However, this year I’ve been thinking hard about my planting choices. For example,  cherry tomatoes dominated my rows in the past–round red, little snips of yellow, some shaped like mini-butternut squash. I kept them because they volunteered from the first summer my garden was planted for me while I was recovering from surgery.

Now I think I want plum tomatoes instead.

The carrots were such a roaring success last summer, those tasty sweet morsels; if started early enough, multiple harvests would be possible.

I desire green beans, but don’t want to mess with the strings. Maybe I’ll grow lacinato kale along with my rainbow chard. And broccoli-one of my fellow gardeners shared broccoli with me, I could do that! I love broccoli. Perhaps I’ll plant the whole damn plot in flowers to cut for my dining table–then again, zucchini are not only traditional but useful.

I am practicing making choices, not just doing what I did before, not doing what is merely expected.

Last summer's zucchini shredded...

Last summer’s zucchini shredded…

...to make chocolate zucchini cake!

…to make chocolate zucchini cake!

Another envelope arrived this week, not through the mail slot but in my email queue (the way of so much these days), announcing my acceptance to a yoga teacher training program. Another spring planting to look forward to, drowse with by the metaphorical fire–though a more active drowsing, as my challenge now is not only to plan but to become physically stronger and more disciplined in my yoga, before I arrive mid-April. I also must battle my demons of self-doubt, in order for the A+ student to go back to school in a new and different way.

Like the garden, what do I plant?  What do I discard because it doesn’t work for me? How can I be publicly not-perfect, in a setting (learning) where I was so driven before? The plan: to be relaxed like I am about my garden plot: not the best and not neglectful, something in-between.

I’m going in as probably the worst student in Sanskrit names for poses, as well as a mediocre memorizer of everything else, with a life-battered body that hasn’t been doing yoga for very long. But my true subject matter will be one of the themes of Kripalu yoga: compassion. I will learn compassion toward myself.

When I am “not successful” at a particular physical or mental task, I will attempt to be successful at compassion for myself, and gentle even in discovering my lack of compassion. This I can do, and it is all I need to bring.

I vow to break out of my old gardener habits and make new ones, different ones, not sure what the harvest will be, but trusting it will be–something–something wonderful. Storms will come, and drought, and interruptions by the personal and political and societal–and the skills I’ve acquired in the garden will get me through what I’m calling “sleep-away camp” at Kripalu.

Here at the end of January I open the seed catalog of my life, once again dreaming the future into being.

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the end of winter, and then spring!

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the rest of winter, and then spring! Who knows what transformed things will come out of this ground?

Winter Solstice At Home, with Rice Noodles

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

I’m having a hard time settling in this week, as winter holidays come and go, approach and recede, as personal and national losses do the same.

So I go to the kitchen.

The hills and bare trees and apartment roofs that stretch to the east bear witness through the windows. I write as I do my little jobs–if I think of them as little, building like snowflakes into larger things, they are easier to begin.  I jot down thoughts, recipe ideas, insights that spring on me like the birds who dive past.  Sunrise glows dimly through the clouds.

Since the rest of the world feels sad and chaotic, I create order in my corner of it: there are the clean dishes dried and warmed by the gas stove pilot lights. Now to stack the mixing bowls by size and slip them into the cabinet, organize the post-Cookie Party baking pans, and ponder which ingredients are to be used up next out of the freezer and fridge. Here’s the softness of a purple dish towel, water splashing everywhere while I clean the last of the teacups, and that final step: wiping down the counters and sink, sweeping the floor. Now to the cooking.

**

Frozen chicken thighs started me off, and some of the Community Garden string beans I had managed to harvest and de-string and freeze before my last visit with J–and a rock-solid jar of cooking juices, added to each time I’d roasted or baked chicken since June. When defrosted, the glass was golden-full of olive oil, salt, floating bits of garlic, Pappadew sweet piquante pepper seasoning, and chicken fat.

The broth blended with milk and sautéed dried onion on the way to my mother’s Curried Chicken sauce. The original recipe appeared decades before curry was a household word in the U.S., in Redbook, or Good Housekeeping, or some other 1960s ladies’ magazine; I’m sure they promised an exotic meal, able to be put together in 30 minutes or less, conveniently utilizing leftover cooked poultry.  Originally the sauce was served over rice (red-boxed “Minute Rice” in Mom’s kitchen) mixed with dried parsley, always with a side of canned pineapple chunks.

But horrors!–the bag of brown basmati rice (standard in my interpretation of the dish) was empty, and so I hurriedly dug through the cabinets to find rice noodles, purchased for another, more modern curry dish–Thai coconut and Kaffir lime.  Since the comfort-food sauce was almost finished, I quickly boiled the noodles like a wheat-based spaghetti, and they turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

After eating, I walked into the rest of the apartment where chores awaited patiently: the end of year budget, memorabilia to be sorted, work research and networking to be initiated.  I brought in the sense of order from my clean kitchen and home-cooked meal, lit a candle, later burned some incense, and calmly did small parts of huge projects.

I drank tea, cried about tragedies, and thought about some joys as well.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoon.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoons.

Later in the week I wanted to use up the rest of the dried noodles, so I hot-soaked them and then stir-fried with a jarred Pad Thai sauce I’d bought for “some day when I wanted Thai but didn’t want to order out or cook from scratch.”  I managed to employ this sauce, the rice noodles, about ten frozen raw shrimp left from Thanksgiving appetizers, some eggs and broccoli and aging celery, even had salted peanuts hiding behind the dried pasta; only had to buy fresh cilantro and bean sprouts.

I trust that if I eat up all the food I have, there will be more.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf. Oh, and broccoli and celery and bean sprouts. And a little egg.

This week, in the spirit of being empty, I even skipped a writing deadline, deliberately watching the clock tick down and observing my reactions. The piece I wanted to submit just wasn’t ready yet, so I didn’t force it.  I trust that it’s stewing inside me, and I’ll know it’s ready, if I keep close watch on the pot.

So instead of indulging the A+ student, I hiked for hours along the Niskayuna Bike Path, on the last sunny afternoon predicted for a while, then hunkered down for the blowzy day on Friday.

I trust there will be other opportunities in my writing life; that missing this one won’t be the end of me.

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

I conversed on the day of solstice with author E.P. Beaumont (http://epbeaumont.com).  E.P. describes late fall as “the end of things, the beginning of things, a gateway time, where the gates to the other world are wide open–and remember the other world includes The Past, as well.”  This is a time for processing, meditating, mulling. It reminds us of other darknesses that will inevitably come, and trains us to hold on to the memory of light and lightness, which will also inevitably return.

Though deeper cold chills the landscape and bits of snow flew outside this morning, winter solstice has come and gone and the days increase, even if imperceptibly for now.  I will continue consuming my culinary caches, making order, making messes, identifying my life’s work through my daily work. Lighting candles and cooking noodles.  Drinking tea. Trusting I carry my peace and emptiness with me, into the darkness, as I seek the growing light.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

Mom’s Curried Chicken Recipe:  Saute 1 1/2 tsp curry powder and 1 TB instant minced onion in 3 TB of margarine. Remove from heat and add 3 TB flour, 3/4 tsp sugar, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ginger. Stir until thickened. Add 1 cup milk and 1 cup chicken broth. Put back on heat and bring to a boil. Simmer one minute, Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup cooked cut up chicken, 3/4 tsp lemon juice. Serve on top of rice mixed with parsley flakes.

I usually double all the ingredients, thoroughly mix in more flour than recommended so the sauce will be thicker, and whisk the roux incrementally with the liquids, before heating, to avoid lumps. This time I also added 32 oz of cooked Community Garden green beans along with the chicken. And more chicken than recommended. Of course.

Shrimp Pad Thai. I used a whole jar of Thai Kitchen Pad Thai sauce, and followed the instructions on the label for stir-frying 2 eggs first, then the shrimp, then the sliced veggies, mixing in bean sprouts at the end, topping with crushed peanuts and cilantro. I followed the directions on the rice noodles for hot soaking, then stir fried them with the sauce, again per the Thai Kitchen label. Nice and easy….

Remembering Commodity Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Today’s Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Once again, Some Day came for a food item in my house–this time in the category Leftover Bits of Cheese Saved in the Freezer, Intended for Macaroni & Cheese Some Day.  The double wrapped packages included slices of dill havarti left from late summer sandwiches, chunks of Colby-Jack, and a half-used bag of shredded cheddar preserved from potential spoiling before a trip out of town.

This assortment made me think about cheeses of the past, specifically, a lack of variety in days gone by…

When my former spouse and I lived in student apartments, we received Commodity Cheese. The distribution of this calcium and protein source, otherwise known as Government Cheese, dated back to World War II when it was fed to soldiers; in the 1980s, we were told it served to purchase excess milk from American farmers (in order to stabilize prices), and also to assist the hungry. Our family income, clearing the high four figures, qualified us as hungry, or potentially so. Other commodity products included powdered milk, greasy pork and canned vegetables. But the most common item, and the rubbery backbone of the program, was the cheese.

It was so ubiquitous that the local grocery store sold keep-fresh containers for the 5-pound blocks of what looked like American or Velveeta, but was actually a variety of cheeses blended together with emulsifiers. A whole set of recipes grew around using this hunk o’ dairy, since each month we received at least one block. Several times we received two huge bars of cheese (ten pounds total), along with ten, count ‘em ten, pounds of butter. What the hell? we laughed. And they can’t figure out why poor people might have weight problems?

Sometimes that wrapped slab was the biggest thing in our fridge. We were lucky–relatives sent us grad-school care packages, and for years we’d been part of natural foods buying co-ops, so we were able to spend our very limited food budget on other, healthier items. In addition, our family received WIC coupons, which enabled me to vary the kids’ meals with cereal, juice, eggs, peanut butter and milk.

We used up our Government allotment in grilled cheese, cheesy rice, cheesy grits (for the southerners), cheesy potatoes, cheesy eggs. My favorite recipe, shared around by the industrious Moms, Dads & Tots Group, was “Pasta Salad.” Not many fancy ingredients—a box of white store-brand elbow noodles; diced Commodity Cheese; a chopped green pepper; if you had it, chopped up Spam; and a dressing made of equal parts mayonnaise and mustard. Sounds a little scary, but it actually tasted pretty good; served cold, it was a nice side dish, and heated, a filling dinner. Of course, we all had our recipes for macaroni and cheese.

I say “we” because it was a community blessing and curse, that cheese. Almost everyone in the cinderblock apartments received it. I don’t know what the international students thought of it, if they ever got used to this strange, squishy, egg yolk-colored American fare. Our other cheap go-to food (at five cents a package), Ramen Noodles, was at least familiar to some of them, albeit originally in a spicier, tastier form.

The parents’ group also hosted International cooking nights. We learned how to make dishes from Burundi and Pakistan, Ethiopia, China and Peru. We U.S. natives cooked our regional specialties and holiday recipes.

I don’t remember Commodity Cheese appearing in any of these showcases.

We used it when we had to, but weren’t thrilled with it; we might have been materially poor, but we were proudly not culturally or creatively poor.

Nowadays I don’t yearn for that situation of having fewer ingredient choices, but I do miss the comradeship of the particular community that received and dealt with those yellow bricks.  I am reminded of what can be accomplished when people of different cultures and backgrounds come together in a mutual task–whether that is making food you can stomach out of something odd, or greater goals.

****

My macaroni and cheese in 2012 is made with with more vegetables than carbohydrates, and carefully chosen smoked mozzarella, chèvre, Muenster, and so on–certainly none requiring a special Keep Fresh container. The carrier for these artisanal cheeses is Tinkyada brown rice pasta, or locally made Flour City noodles, accented with fresh garlic and herbs.

This sounds like food snobbery, but isn’t intended to be so; when given the option, of course we crave variety and subtlety in our food, to please our particular palates–and if we don’t have options, we humans make do, often with inventiveness and humor.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Here’s what I made the other day, with those odds and ends. I brought back chopped sweet peppers from the good ol’ “Pasta Salad” days.

  • 8 oz Pizza Pasta from Flour City Pasta
  • 2 oz dill havarti slices, 4 oz Colby Jack slices, and 3 oz shredded cheddar
  • 1/2 diced green pepper and 1/2 diced red pepper
  • basil, Community Gardens dried parsley, garlic salt
  • 1 cup 2% local milk
  • 2 eggs (of course–brown, free range, local, from the farmers’ market!)

Cook the pasta according to directions but deduct a minute or two from the boil time, mix all the ingredients, and bake at 350 for 15 minutes in a toaster convection oven, until the top noodles are getting a little crispy and the cheese is all melty (adjust as necessary for your oven). Serve with big heaps of steamed sliced broccoli.

If you are wondering, it’s four servings @ 475 calories each.

And it's so good heated up the next day, too!

And it’s so good heated up the next day, too!

Saving Food/Wasting Food

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Kitchen window, cup of tea and colored glass

Last week’s blog did not get finished or posted–all because I made an inedible pot of soup.

In a hurry; measurement ignored; ingredients tossed together; forgot to break up the frozen chard so instead of tasty green bits, slimy strings floated; didn’t realize the pinto beans had been freezer burnt by a crack in the container until they were already in the stew; frugally used up an open beef bouillon concentrate, but the whole thing tasted too dark and earthy, not savory.

Finally I admitted to myself that beef base just didn’t work here, and neither did anything else.  Staring at the congealed mess in the stockpot: How did I come to make this lousy food? 

Fear. The word bubbled up, like the greenish-brown liquid in the pot.  It’s fear. 

A discussion before Thanksgiving at a local barbecue restaurant prompted this reaction. One friend had grown up in an Italian family, but not one that stuffed him like a manicotti; plenty to eat, but no forcing, “take however much or little you want.” Therefore, few food issues emerged afterward, and he is able to enjoy a bit of protein, or a bit of sweet, knowing pretty instantly when he might be over-eating. My other friend grew up with nutrition from the pantry at her church, sometimes shamed by charity, and sometimes sending back food that was so unpleasant her family couldn’t accept it, for others more desperate than them. Later food allergies made meal preparation tedious and very limited.

I grew up with meals measured out carefully, only intermittent seconds or extras, and desserts strictly regulated–even though the cupboards and Frigidaires were full, a practice dating from the blizzard-on-the-farm days of my mother’s teenager-hood. We had enough, but the equal-sized and small portions of meat, starch, vegetable, fruit, though nutritionally well balanced, usually tasty, and not bad looking on the plate, combined with later skirting with poverty during grad school days to create an enduring sense of scarcity, and lack of knowing what my body actually needed and craved, aside from “more.”

After sharing our stories, we three studied our plates and take-out containers in shock, individually mulling over alternate universes–What would it be like to live with his relationship to food? With hers? With mine?

Weeks later, this led to my realization and then extended thoughts about fear, as I stood over my unpalatable potage, but a different fear interrupted–about meeting the Friday writing deadline. All this thinking is taking too long!

Then I remembered the book I’ve been slowly reading lately: Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big Life, wherein she says some very cogent things about Running Out of Time and  Attachment to Outcomes.

With a sigh, I went back to page 36. Susanka reminded me to not make the end product the goal, but rather the process; the process of figuring out what I wanted to say, the process of understanding myself–that was the goal.

The A+ Student in me got sent to a time-out, to cool her proverbial heels for a week, and I lived my life and read my book and wrote pages and pages about my childhood and young-married life, and my relationship with food.

J's crazy-cats keep me company.

J’s crazy-cats keep me company while I write and ponder.

Now multiple essays are emerging, all linked by a challenge I’ve set for myself.

Don’t worry–it’s not a challenge that will cause the A+ Student to come roaring from her room with fangs out and lists streaming behind her. It’s just a challenge to gently help me and the A+ Student identify what ideational platforms I’m standing on, where they come from, and ask:  Are they true? Are they helpful?

So…I now take a vow to clear out old food, to undo the feeling of scarcity in my eating life. No more stuffing the freezer and shelves with food because I am worried about not having enough. 

In fact, I am going to “spend down” my supplies. I will buy the fresh things necessary for daily use, or specific ingredients to make something fun or follow a recipe, but no more stockpiling. If a food item is past due, or icky, it’s gone. After cooking, I can put an extra portion away, but will share it or eat it within a short period.

Reminding myself: it’s one person for many meals, little amounts of food, not like when I was cooking for a family of four, which with teenagers makes it more like six, and their friends, plus leftovers for the food needs that will come a few hours or a day later– Whoops, better cook for eight or ten.

Homemade pizza with a big family used to mean two 9 X 12 cookie sheets. Today I eat one piece, with salad and fruit. Lasagna in the past? Twelve pieces for today, twelve pieces for the freezer, regardless of the future texture. Who cared about that? It was speed, availability, and quantity!  Nowadays, lasagna is layered with vegetables, a delicate sauce, fresh cheeses, and no more than two or three servings over several days. Yes, life is different and the action I’m taking will be accompanied by meditating and writing.

A list is posted now in my kitchen, what’s kept cold and what’s kept frozen and what’s kept waiting in the pantry, along with a few lovely potential recipes.  A month of this, and the new year has a chance to begin fresh and open.

How will it feel to have emptier cabinets, an almost empty freezer?

***

Approaching frozen containers was too daunting after the soup fiasco, so I started by opening a can of sweetened condensed milk whose “best by” date I can’t even admit to.  It tastes fine, the texture is merely thicker and the color more caramel than usual, and I am using it instead of the standard turbinado and milk to lace my morning tea. It’s beautiful in J’s cat-covered mug, and stirs up nicely. A good start, I say.

Next week the menu includes Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese, and a side of My Personal History with Commodity (Government) Cheese. Soon to come: Phyllo Chicken Pot Pie accompanied by Women & Preparedness; Losing Books and the Purpose of Stuff; a dessert of Poverty, Pie, and the Possibility of Blizzards.

See? I tell myself. There’s still fullness, and not just of food.

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Creamy and filling, the tea with sweetened condensed milk–whose time had finally come!