Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bread, or Not?

Bread is controversial right now.  A lot of my friends think that eliminating gluten from their diets--and that includes the wheat in bread--has made them feel better. One friend is a bona fide celiac disease guy. For a while, I avoided wheat too.  But apparently I'm not one of the sensitive people, because avoiding it didn't seem to make me better, and loading up on gluten doesn't make me worse, either.  I'm beginning to think that gluten may actually be good for me.  Which is a good thing, because I love making bread.

I've been sort of obsessed with making bread off and on since I was about fifteen.  Bread was one of the few things that my grandmother didn't make from scratch. She made biscuits and corn bread, but yeasted wheat bread is not part of the traditional repertoire of the Southern country cook. This is probably because, here in the South, we grow a soft winter wheat that has little gluten in it. This wheat and its flour are better for biscuits and quick breads than for yeasted breads, which require a high-gluten flour. That high-gluten wheat is mostly grown on the high plains of the western US.

I started out in my teens, as a novice bread maker,  with a bread-making cookbook called The Tassajara Bread Book. It was one of those hand-illustrated funky cookbooks from the early seventies. I still have my battered copy. The cover has fallen off and the pages have dough on them.  The recipe is still a piece of genius: it involves making a sponge of flour, water, and yeast, and letting that sponge (a wet, soupy mixture) rise for an hour before adding the rest of the flour to make a stiff dough that can be shaped. It makes four loaves, a lot of bread, so you always have some to give away.

That book only had a few variations on the basic recipe, so I soon graduated, in the early eighties, to The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. That book had hundreds of recipes for bread, including some weird ones that involved soybeans, a staple of hippie vegetarians back then.  But my particular obsession from that cookbook was, and remains, desem bread, an elusive confection that is difficult to pull off, but when you do, as Laurel says, "Oh my."

The desem bread is a sourdough bread, so it requires a starter. You don't add any commercial yeast to it.  Everything has to be just so:  you need freshly-ground flour, so you have to grind it yourself.  I got an electric grain mill so I could do that.  The wheat has to be organic, to prevent any pesticides on the grain from interfering with the rise.  (It's not hard to buy organic wheat; I used to buy a ten pound bag of it from my food coop.)  The water you use to mix with the flour has to be pristine as well: no chlorine, or it won't rise.  The timing of the rises has to be right.  The rising temperature has to be cool.  The final rise has to be almost hot and humid.  The oven has to be steamy. And so on.

Making the starter is a five-day process.  You start with your freshly-ground, high-gluten whole wheat flour, and add a little water to it. You make a little ball...and then you bury it!  In a crock of organically grown, whole wheat flour.  For 48 hours. At exactly 55 degrees. Then you dig it out and it's risen a little: the ball has cracked. Even at that low temperature, something has been happening: the micro-organisms in your pure flour have begun reproducing, eating the wheat, and exhaling carbon dioxide, which causes little bubbles in the dough!

This process continues for a few days: you keep adding more flour and water, until one day you have a big enough ball of it that you can add some salt (which slows down fermentation), make a big batch of dough, shape it into loaves, let it rise for several hours, and then bake it. Carefully. 
But before you do that, you pull off a piece about the size of a baseball to save for your next batch. That's your starter.

This starter is kind of like a demanding pet.  It has to be kept at around 55 degrees, and it has to be fed every two days or so. When I went to Nashville for a few days at Christmas, I took the starter with me and fed it every night, because it was still temperamental and needed a lot of attention.  Luckily the refrigerator in the house in Nashville can be set for about 50 degrees, unlike my refrigerator at home, which won't go that high. At home, I keep the starter in my darkroom, an outbuilding that stays cool, like a root cellar or spring house, because it has a really thick concrete floor.

Another thing: the wheat has to be really dry when you grind it; otherwise it gums up the mill stones. So I have an electric heating pad in the kitchen with a tray on it, and there are always some wheat berries drying out on that tray, pending their time to go into the hopper of the mill.  In other words: the desem bread requires a lot of paraphenalia, equipment and attention.

I'm not sure it's worth it. There's another kind of sourdough bread that I learned to make a few years ago called "pain au levain" in French. It's a French-style white bread with a starter that looks like the desem starter except it's white and you can use plain old flour from the grocery store!  And the bread is damn good.  The crust is crusty. The inside is soft and melting.  It's how I imagine bread must have been in those romantic pictures of Paris in the 1920s.  When it comes out of the oven, it's hard not to eat the whole loaf.  Toasted the next day, it's wonderful.

But the desem bread has its own virtues.  What if the entire economy collapsed and we had to grow wheat again?  It would be whole wheat, naturally, because we don't have the equipment, whatever it is, that removes the bran and germ from wheat.  And we couldn't go buy yeast.  Desem bread is the bread that hard-core preppers should learn to make!

I actually did grow wheat a few times, and I'm growing some now. It's not very hard.  Wheat germinates if you just throw it on the ground. You can rake some soil over it, but you don't really have to.  It grows slowly all winter if planted in October, and then in spring starts really growing. By June it is two or three feet tall, deep green, and the grains have started to form. When it turns brown, it's ready to harvest. I cut the dry plants down with a hand sickle, spread them out on the concrete driveway, and beat them with a bamboo cane until the seeds fall off the stalks.  Then I lift off the straw and compost it or something.  What's left on the concrete is a little pile of wheat and chaff. You can use a box fan to winnow away the chaff, or you can float it off in water and then dry the wheat berries.  Again, not that hard.  I found a kind of hard bread wheat that supposedly grows well in the South in winter:  Turkey Red Hard Winter Wheat. It's a few inches high right now, in the garden.  So we'll see.  Even if I get a poor harvest of this wheat, growing it is good for the garden:  wheat, and grasses generally, has an enormous root system that aerates the soil and feeds its life when the roots break down after harvest.  It improves "tilth" as farmers say.

Given that desem bread is the bread of choice for people who believe that economic and social and ecological collapse is imminent, why do I sometimes get fed up with it and park the starter in the refrigerator for a few weeks?  Because it's notoriously fickle.  If your starter is going strong, the first rise will take four hours and the second rise about one and a half hours.  But recently I had to leave the house during the second rise, and that rise went on too long, and the micro-organisms began to break down the gluten, so the bread didn't rise, and it was just a soggy, sour mess when I baked it.  The trick is the exact right balance between keeping the gluten strong and intact, so that it can create a kind of web that holds in the carbon dioxide bubbles that your native wild yeast are exhaling.  That creates the rise.  You need enough wild yeast activity to create enough bubbles, but not so much that they start eating the gluten and destroy the net that holds the bubbles. The dough is like a billion tiny balloons. If the balloons pop, it doesn't work; if they don't inflate, it doesn't work either.

But when it works, you feel as if you've done something a bit miraculous: you've taken the most elemental of materials--brown seeds and water--and made something delectable and something cultured, both in the sense of "cultured milk product" and "the culture of the ancient Celts."  Bread is part food, part art.  It's a kind of minimalist edible sculpture. It's a great gift.

My desem may be a temperamental pet that has to ride with me in my suitcase when I travel.  But it's a cultured companion, a link to our ingenious ancestors who discovered this alchemy that transforms a soggy, unappetizing paste into the foundation of peasant cuisine and subsistence agriculture.   It's impossible for me to believe that this ancient food, when made the ancient way, is not good for me.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Soupe au Pistou, à l'Americaine du Sud

You have basil in your garden. You have green beans.  You harvested some potatoes and carrots a month or so ago, and they are in the bottom drawer of your refrigerator. Maybe you even planted some Southern peas, and they are about ready now.  You can make soupe au pistou!

According to Julia Child, soupe au pistou is made in the south of France every summer when the fresh white beans and basil are in the markets. The market sellers remind you to "faite le bon pistou." We're in the south of the US, but we have everything we need, with a few substitutions. Instead of fresh shell beans, I use Lady peas, which I grew for the first time this summer.  Lady peas are tiny white peas in the Southern pea family, like black-eyed peas. They are not related botanically to green English peas, and they are a lot easier to grow in our hot summers.

They are easy to grow, but they take some time to shell out.  Plus, sometimes they mature unevenly, so that you have some that are hard and dry in their brown shells, and some that are soft and plump in their green or yellow shells.  When you shell them out, you might have some of each. What I do is shell them all out, dry and fresh, and then soak them together overnight in water, in the refrigerator. Then the dry ones plump up and cook just as fast as the fresh ones.

Here's another pea-shelling tip: when you're shelling them out, some bits of the shell might fall in with the peas, and some of the peas will look a little sub-par.  No worries. When you're done shelling, run some water in the bowl with the peas. The "bad" peas will float to the top, along with any bits of dry shell, and you can just pour this stuff off.

It's best to harvest on a dry, sunny day.  The dry, crackly pods are easier to handle than wet ones.  You can let them dry a little more in the house before shelling.  This year I made the mistake of leaving them in the garden too long before harvesting, so some of them even began to sprout in the pod! Don't do that.  Sometimes Southern peas do better with some support; that way they don't lodge.

If you grow a lot of Southern peas, and you need to shell out a lot of them, you can use the bulk method.  Harvest your peas, and let them dry till they are very crackly. Put them in an old pillow case.  Close it with a rubber band.  Put the stuffed pillow case on a hard floor and beat the daylights out of it with a stick.  This shatters the pods, and the peas fall out.  When you open the pillow case, the peas will fall down into a corner, and you can lift off the dry pods and compost them.  You can float off the "bad" peas as usual, then dry them to save for seed or cooking.  Or just save all of them and float off the bad ones when you get around to cooking them.

The "pistou" part of soupe au pistou is easy: you mash a clove of garlic with some salt, add some chopped basil, and mash that up. Then add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, some olive oil, and some grated Parmesan.  Julia tells you to do this in the bottom of your soup tureen.  I think a soup tureen is a bowl in the shape of something--maybe a cabbage, or a chicken--with a lid that matches it.  Do you have one? I don't. After all, we are servantless American cooks, as Julia would say. They probably have a soup tureen at Downton Abbey. Or six or seven.

Last night we had this with my favorite affordable red wine:  Seven Deadly Zins.  It paired well, as they say.

 It's not necessary to measure the ingredients really, but here's a recipe adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1.  It serves two people for a main course, or four as a soup course.

Soupe au Pistou

1/2 cup fresh shelled Southern peas, such as purple hull, Lady peas or black-eyed peas (or frozen)
1 cup each: diced potato, diced carrots, and diced leek or onions
2-4 T white rice
Water to cover
salt to taste

Simmer these ingredients for about 10-15 minutes.

Then add:

1 cup green beans

Simmer ten more minutes, then off heat.

While the vegetables are cooking, blend the following ingredients in your pestle or food processor to make the pistou:

2 cloves garlic (or half a clove of elephant garlic)
salt to taste
3 T tomato paste
2-4 T fresh basil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2-4 T olive oil

When the soup is ready, serve the pistou on the side and each person can add the amount they want.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What Do Men Want? (American right-wing men, that is)

There are a lot of hunters in my neighborhood, and I like that. I invite them to set up a deer stand on my wooded land, so that they can harvest the bucks, and perhaps share the meat with me. We also have a lot of wild turkeys, and when turkey season comes around in the spring, I hope we will share some turkey meat.

The older hunters in my neighborhood are very careful: they know how dangerous their weapons are, and they never, ever shoot at a deer if beyond the deer, they can see a neighbor's barn or shed. The younger ones, though, seem almost drunk with the power of their weapons: one told me that he wants an automatic rifle because of "the adrenaline rush" of firing many rounds per second, and because of the respect that he would get at  the shooting range toting such a powerful weapon. This is childish, and this young man is in many ways still a child.

The shooter in Connecticut was barely out of his teens, and also still a child, it seems. We don't know what was going on his head--yet--and we may never know. He must have been crazy; we can be pretty sure of that. He must have been pretty angry, and his anger was directed in part at his mother, because he killed her in their home, and then went to the school--in full combat gear--and methodically executed kindergarteners with semi-automatic weapons that fire up to six rounds per second. All twenty of them died, as did five of their teachers.

It's always a man that does this, and usually a young man. He's often described as a "quiet loner," little known to the people in the neighborhood.

Why don't women shoot up schools? Women go crazy as often, maybe even oftener than men. Women have access to guns; apparently the shooter picked his guns from the arsenal in his mother's home. But there has never been a mass shooting where a woman has gone berserk in a mall, a movie theater, or a school. Maybe it will happen some day, and we will be shocked all over again in a new way.

But one has to ask: what is wrong with American men? They shoot their fellow citizens, and even littler versions of themselves, little children, at a much higher rate than men in other countries, who are presumably wired the same way. American men do have more access to guns perhaps than, say, men in Japan. But men in Canada and Switzerland have a lot of guns too, and they don't shoot their neighbors at the same rate.

We can look at our politics and our culture for the beginnings of an answer. Right-wing American men in high places have made themselves famous in the past year for waging a continuous war on women: trying to take away birth control; trying to make rape seem normal and acceptable; trying to force women to bear children conceived in rape; trying to shame women about having sex at all. And they are succeeding: many states have passed laws that make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, or birth control, especially if she is poor. Women who are raped during military service are not entitled to an abortion. The fact that women get raped at all, by their fellow soldiers, while serving in the military is shameful enough; it is beyond shameful to force them to bear the children of those soldier rapists.

Why the resurgence of 19th century ideas about sex and women, at this time? Because, ladies, we are winning. And these right-wing men know that. They are afraid they can't put the genie back in the bottle. Thus the Taliban-like "purity movement," that requires girls to be under the total control of their fathers until their father picks a husband for them, at which time they pass to the control of their husbands. Thus the obsession of the religious right with the sexuality of all women and some men (the gay ones). Thus the passionate hatred on the right against powerful women like Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.

This kind of backlash has happened before. During the Civil Rights movement, whenever the movement scored a victory, it could expect a church bombing or an assassination of one of its leaders. As Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win." We're in the fighting stage now. American right-wing men are fighting desperately to hold on to the last shreds of their male privilege. Their guns are a potent symbol of that privilege. That's why they grip them so tightly and sometimes explode with berserk rage, showering kids and women (in this case) with bullets.

One might ask, why American men? Men in other developed countries are also seeing their male privilege erode as women take more power in public and private life. Why aren't Frenchmen shooting little kids in schools? To understand the peculiar psyche of the American man, we have to look back over the last sixty years. At the end of WWII, white American men were on top of the world: our cities were still standing, unlike the cities of Europe, and our manufacturing had no rival.  We had defeated fascism, so the Greatest Generation men told themselves. Black people were still firmly under their thumbs. Women were herded back into the confines of the nuclear family and locked up there.

But then the sixties came. First black people, then women, and then gay people demanded to be first class citizens along with white men. The struggle for equality is still ongoing, but white American men know that their days as Masters of the Universe are fading. And it makes them angry. To add insult to injury, working-class white men have lost a lot of ground over the last thirty years: their wages have stagnated, and then declined. Whatever sense they once had of themselves as superior to blacks and women has eroded. Women are graduating from colleges and graduate schools at higher rates than men, especially in families of first-generation college students. Women are making as much money, and often more money, than their brothers and husbands. The twilight of the gods is upon us.

European men seem to be making the best of this, perhaps relaxing a little now that they can share responsibility with grown women for the family and the state. But American men, particularly right-wing men, do not like it one bit. They had more to lose, maybe, and like a lot of immature  young men, they don't really understand the down side of war and violence in the same visceral way that Europeans do. Europeans saw their populations decimated and their cities leveled twice in fifty years. The two world wars just made Americans richer and more narcissistic, drunk on military might and economic hegemony.

Essentially what we're witnessing is a narcissistic male culture reacting with rage and fear in the face of narcissistic wounds: loss of white privilege, loss of male privilege, and loss of economic hegemony. We can expect the tantrums to continue for a while. I've just recently realized, in fact, how much American men fear each other. There was a story recently about some men in some states turning in their guns as part of a local government buy-back program, and the reaction of one of my male friends was, "Please don't make public the list of men who have turned in their guns. When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Apparently the only thing that makes this man feel safe in his home is his personal arsenal!  I guess when you have made government small enough to drown in the bathtub, you have to take law enforcement into your own hands. The idea that you might support government--which is another name for the things we choose to do together--rather than being a lone wolf never seems to occur to these men. Lone, invulnerable, heavily-armed wolves are these American men.

 It will take a long time to change this. In the meantime: let's tell our young men that having powerful weapons does not make them men. Learning to do something, having a skill, that is useful to your community: that's what makes you a man. Learning to do something takes some work and some persistence, and a guy might have to get over his laziness. It's easier to take a short cut and just go out and buy a gun.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unpacking Christmas

Now that we've survived one winter holiday, it's time to start thinking about the next hurdle: Christmas.

It struck me today that Christmas is  like that big black pack that Santa brings down the chimney. But inside the pack are a lot of half-truths. Ok, let's call them what they are: lies.  "He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!"

First, there's the lie about the Man With All the Toys; that's an  obvious one. That's the first lie you find out about. Then there's the lie about the Virgin Birth, which you figure out later.  Then finally, there's the lie that you have to go out and spend $700, pronto. Let's unpack Santa's bag of tricks one at a time.

Why do people tell kids that there's a man that comes down their chimney (even if they don't have a chimney, which most new houses don't) and leaves toys for them that were made at the (melting) North Pole? And why do kids believe this patent nonsense? I figured it out this morning: it's a kind of initiation ceremony for kids. About the age of six or seven, you figure out that Santa is not real. Perhaps you discover a drawer in your mother's dresser that has presents in it that are clearly intended for children. Perhaps you find your presents in a closet. Perhaps you just think one day, "This is an improbable story that doesn't conform to the laws of the space-time continuum as we know it."

And what is your next thought?

 "They LIED to me!"

This is the most important part of the initiation. You discover that you can't trust The Man. You discover that every edict handed down by the authorities should be examined carefully for inconsistencies,  illogic, and scientific fraudulence.  It's especially important not to trust those in authority when they tell you that you will get some prize if you are good. Because you will NOT get a prize or reward if you are good.  Being good is its own reward. This is a hard, but important auxillary lesson.

It takes a little longer to shake that idea that The Man is watching you: "He knows if you are sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness's sake." (No, not for goodness's sake: in order to get the toys!)  I didn't fully shake this notion that somebody was watching not only my actions but my innermost thoughts until I was well into my thirties. I remember that I was driving down I-40, and I suddenly realized that it was not true that God or Santa was watching my every thought. Getting rid of that constant surveillance by The Man was really liberating, but I had to keep reminding myself for years that I was the only one who knew my thoughts, and that I could have any thought I wanted to, no matter how blasphemous, and nothing would happen.

I probably failed as a parent by not setting up this initiation ceremony for my son. I told him from the beginning that Santa Claus was not real, that he was a game that grown-ups like to play on kids at Christmas. It was interesting to find that he did not believe me at first, because all the other grown-ups and kids told him that Santa was real.  After one particularly bounteous Christmas with a lot of remote-control robots and cars, he told me that now he knew Santa was real, because I could never have gotten him all that stuff! I reminded him that he was the only person under thirty in our family, and people over thirty love to buy toys  that they wished they could have bought for themselves when they were six. This did not fly. He believed in Santa for a whole nother year. And there was never a satisfying "I told you so" moment. It just went unspoken that I was the only grown-up in the universe who had not lied about Santa to him. Well, maybe I reminded him a time or two when he was older.  In the end, though, it worked out ok, because he is reasonably cynical about people in power now.

On to the second lie: the Virgin Birth. This disturbed me a lot as a kid.  We were always told as girl children that after you get married, God puts a baby in your stomach, and that's how you get pregnant. But, for mysterious and scary reasons, there were some girls who got pregnant BEFORE they got married!  We learned this because my mother was a volunteer at the Florence Crittenton Home for Wayward Girls. Apparently sometimes God got the sequence of things backwards, and when this happened, you had to leave your family and go live in this home until the baby was born, and then you had to give it away!  This thought was terribly frightening to me. I knew that somehow going to that home was shameful--you were "wayward"--but yet, God had done it, so...And then it happened to Jesus's mother too! For her, the whole thing worked out better:  Joseph took her back despite the fact that somehow she was at fault for being pregnant with Jesus. But the Bible clearly said that he had at first planned to "put her away quietly."  At age eight or so, I knew exactly what this meant: it meant she would go to the Florence Crittenton home. If it could happen to somebody as good as Mary, could it happen to me? Would everybody be so understanding? Or would I end up a wayward girl?

This lie clearly has to go.  The idea that you can get pregnant without having sex, or that a bodiless spirit can "overpower" you without your consent while you're asleep and get you pregnant, and that then you would be blamed and punished, is just pre-modern and unfair. There's nothing nice to say about it. The fact that Mary is idolized for the fact that this happened to her, while ordinary girls are punished for it, just makes it a more confusing, and thus pernicious, lie.

Growing out of this lie is a little different from growing out of the Santa Claus lie. First, you find out that ordinary girls don't get pregnant by the Holy Ghost; they get pregnant from sex with boys. But there's a kernel of truth to the old fears you had about impregnation by God: it turns out that you CAN be overpowered, and then blamed and punished! (And you can't necessarily "shut it down," as I hope everybody now understands.)  But the perp is always just an ordinary guy, not a god.  Apparently for this reason, you don't get a pass like Mary got, although it's not clear why there's a difference in culpability.

Finally, there's the lie I wrote about last year: the lie that $700 must be spent by every grown-up in America before December 25, or else. (Some people are clearly spending a lot more than that, because I'm spending a lot less.) I will link here to my previous analysis of this lie.  The only thing I will add is that this year Walmart employees decided that they did not want to be stampeded to death by Christmas shoppers on Thanksgiving night, and they took a stand against (among other things) the earlier and earlier encroachment of Christmas shopping onto everything that is sacred about Thanksgiving, namely food and a day off. I think this is great. I did not shop at Walmart on Thanksgiving or the day after, in order to support the  destruction of this lie about compulsory spending.

This is the lie that we need to work on outgrowing now. And like the others, outgrowing it is ultimately healthy, although embracing the reality around it can be hard. It may be true that some people will get mad if we stop spending so much money on them at Christmas. (Others might be relieved because then they can scale back as well.) It may be true that some retailers might not make as much money in December. But what is NOT true is that less shopping in the month of December will collapse the economy. What is bad for our economy is borrowing and borrowing from China, in order to buy their plastic gizmos.

Let's face it: Santa doesn't bring the toys, there are no Virgin Births, and we can't keep borrowing like this. A reality-based Christmas could be a perfectly wonderful winter holiday. Could we try it this year? A few used books, a photograph or two, a hand-made card, some cookies will be plenty. Maybe some real toys for the people who are still actually kids.  The rest of us could treat the holiday as another round of great food, music, and visiting.  The real magical miracle would be if everybody really got several days off to rest, eat too much, and just hang out.  It would be something you never have to outgrow.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cut-out Cookies and Icing

After months of nothing but hamburger meat and vegetables, a girl can start hankering after some flour and sugar. But there was none to be found in the house, so I made a trip to the wonderful Main Street Market in Algood, TN. Of course they had flour and sugar, but they also had lard! Unhydrogenated lard. But that's not the subject of this post: I didn't put lard in these cookies!  However, the moral of the story is: you don't always have to go to Walmart. And, if you can't find it in Algood, you can probably get along without it.

I used Mark Bittman's "Refrigerator (or rolled) Cookies," from How To Cook Everything. It's a basic sugar cookie recipe, made with butter, sugar, flour, a little baking powder, and a little vanilla flavoring. I mixed up the dough last night (just using a fork, not the electric mixer) and refrigerated the dough overnight.

This morning I surveyed my cookie cutter collection. I have some great ones!  I got out the heart-shaped one of course, it being almost Valentine's Day.  Valentine's Day is associated with the ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia, which I like because it involves running naked through the streets, shepherds, wolves, and fertility. Makes sense to me! So I got out my coyote cookie cutter too. Also, I have two Star Wars cookie cutters: Boba Fett and a generic storm trooper.  I used the storm trooper. It doesn't have anything to do with Valentine's Day. Also, I used my wooden Buddha cookie mold. 
These are apparently traditional in China for making mooncakes. There was a very impressive full moon last night, so it seemed appropriate. It's useful for using up extra dough too: you simply press it into the mold, then rap it on the table and a Buddha pops out. Then you cook him and eat him.

I used all those cutters and baked the cookies about 6 minutes. The Buddhas took a little longer because they're thicker. The coyotes' tails mostly fell off.

Then I did something that was pretty challenging for me. I made icing and piped it onto the cookies! I used a recipe for "decorative icing," from Gourmet. 
I didn't have any Just Whites powdered egg whites, so I just used real egg whites and decreased the amount of water. That is, I didn't add any water. This turned out to be a mistake: the icing was way too thick and wouldn't pipe easily onto the cookies. I added some more water to it (I did use the electric mixer this time) and voila! Icing you can draw with! So point taken: to draw with icing, it can't be too stiff.

It's fun to draw with things other than pencils. Once I got to draw with a free-arm sewing machine at the Quilt Show in Houston. So alternative drawing media are attractive to me. To draw with the icing, I had to get it into one of those pastry bags with a metal tip on it. My sister gave me one of those cake decorating sets years ago, but it has taken me years to figure out how to screw on the tips. Today I got it working, and it was really fun. I put the "writing tip" on the bag.  I found out why cakes always have cursive writing on them instead of printing: when drawing or writing with icing, you can't really stop and start too easily. You have to go with the flow.

As for the coyotes, it was a little harder to figure out what to draw on them, so I just kind of scribbled:

The storm trooper got some highlighting on his eyes and helmet, and the buddhas just got scribbles too.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Do You Know What It Means: Conviviality in New Orleans

Tom and I just got back from a trip to New Orleans. When we first alighted in that fair city, we made a trip to Audubon Park, on a Sunday afternoon. It was lovely: the weather was mild, and citizens of New Orleans were disporting themselves next to the lagoon, full of twittering ducks. (Yes, the ducks there don't quack; they twitter.) There's a track that goes around the park, and one side of it is for cyclists, and the other side for walkers. People were out on trikes and bikes, with dogs and babies, all kinds of people.

"The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people passing by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They're really saying, I love you.
I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

I went back to Audubon Park every day while we were there, in good weather and bad, and it was always wonderful, although during the week not blessed with so many of the good citizens of New Orleans. On some days it was cold and rainy, and only the hard-core joggers were there, and the ducks. You walk past huge, rather opulent-looking houses that face right onto the park, though, so you don't feel alone: you are in somebody's backyard! I thought how unusual it is to have a public park right next to the houses of rich people, and they don't fence the park out! On one side of the park, some of the houses have a fence or a hedge between their yard and the park, but on the other side, the big Victorian houses' porches open right onto the park. They have put swings in the trees in front of their houses. One swing had the word "Saints" painted on it. You can sit in that swing and think about the fact that the Saints won their game the day before. Maybe the resident of the house will come out and chat with you about the game.

Sorry to be mean about this, but this would never happen in Houston. For some reason in Houston, rich people are afraid of everybody else. And really, the crime rate in Houston is probably much lower than in New Orleans. But the huge houses on River Oaks Boulevard have walls around them so high that you can hardly see the houses. And they aren't anywhere near a public park.

We have public parks in Houston, of course, but they are almost all hard to get to, separated from neighborhoods by the high-speed parkways that run alongside the parks, with inadequate or expensive parking, traffic jams on nice days, and little access via public transportation.   By contrast, anybody in New Orleans can get to Audubon Park easily on the street car that goes up and down St Charles Avenue, to and from downtown. It costs $1.25. You can open the windows on the street cars. It doesn't go very fast. Getting to the park is almost as good an experience as being in the park itself. The streetcar runs down a grassy "neutral ground" area that is used by joggers when the streetcars aren't there. The streetcar is not particularly big: it's on a human scale. It makes a sort of rumbling noise as it trundles down the track, but it doesn't belch toxic diesel fumes like a bus does. You don't have to wait long for one to come. I was reminded of that old axiom, or maybe it's a song: "Pretty girls are like streetcars; there's another one along every few minutes." I think it's something you say to a guy when his girlfriend breaks up with him. There were a lot of pretty girls, and handsome guys, as well as just happy-looking old folks and interesting dogs, in the park every day I was there.Not to mention the variety of ducks and waterfowl in the lagoon.

People in New Orleans love their city, and it shows. We had supper with some friends who have spent the years since Katrina rebuilding their city, and especially its schools. Their passion for the city was palpable, and admirable. They talked of the terror and insanity of the days immediately after the hurricane, when everybody was "wigged out," and doing any sort of productive work seemed impossible. They talked about the sadness of children who were exiled from their city and their friends for months. They talked about the deep fissures and dysfunction that the catastrophe of the hurricane brought to the surface, and even more about their efforts to heal those revealed wounds. The new charter school movement in New Orleans is actually trying some exciting new things, and although the process is politically fractious, new schools are opening all the time. People are getting together across race and class lines to make sure that kids get what they need.  I was so happy to see this.

We went to the Lower Ninth Ward, which is still empty, largely, although inhabited by ghosts. Brad Pitt's new houses there form a little exuberantly-colored village in the midst of the vacant lots. The new Industrial Canal levee looks pretty strong, and there are new houses defiantly erected right next to it, as if daring the water to come in again. We saw a photography show where the photographer, Kevin Kline,,  celebrated his neighborhood's inhabitants by thumb-tacking photographs of them to the outside of his house, in a new form of street-blogging. This installation brought up the sadness of the street-blogging of the Katrina days, when residents spray-painted words like, "F@ck you, Katrina!" or "Defend New Orleans!" on their houses, and the even sadder marks spray-painted by rescue teams that indicated whether a drowned person was in the house. But these photographs on a rather run-down shotgun house in a working class neighborhood of New Orleans were  different: a hopeful statement that people were still there, including some young people growing up in a new New Orleans.

New Orleans is a city with a lot of inequality, just like Houston. But somehow the people of New Orleans manage to think of themselves together as citizens first. That love of home is a kind of universal solvent that doesn't dissolve all their differences and conflicts, but it prevents the kind of balkanization that happens in Houston, where people lock themselves into neighborhoods of identically-priced houses and drive around in steel bubbles so that they never have to touch or speak to another person. Does car culture cause the kind of rampant individualism that kills civic spirit, or does rampant individualism, and disregard for place, cause car culture? I don't know. But people in New Orleans have protected their parks and their great neighborhoods, to a large extent, from being fractured by freeways and automobiles, and as a result they have a real city, not just a chaotic jumble of individuals.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Occupy Christmas! Just Say No to Shopping!

                                                   Billy and Martha, Jacksonville, Florida, circa 1931

Yesterday I had the occasion to use my battle cry again: "Just say no to shopping!" A friend invited me to go shopping on Black Friday.  I think it's fine for her to enjoy bargain-hunting on Black Friday. I just don't want to.

For years now, I've been trying to scale back the Christmas Machine, as Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli call the orgy of shopping  that happens at this time of year.  One of my friends  succeeded in doing it years ago: he just stopped celebrating Christmas or giving presents, and eventually, over many years, people stopped giving him presents too. At first he couldn't stop them, he said, but eventually, when they saw he was serious, they stopped giving him stuff at Christmas.

I don't want to stop celebrating Christmas altogether: I like Christmas music and some of the food. I like Christmas dances a lot. I like seeing my family at Christmas, and I love the deep quiet and long, dark, winter nights at my farm. When you are out in the country, and you go to bed early on Christmas Eve, and you lie in bed with absolute silence all around you in the cold air, it really is a silent night, a holy night. I love to have some rest at that time of year.

I read once that in the Upper Cumberland, where I live (most of the time), there used to be a long winter holiday. There wasn't much work to be done on the farms and in the woodlots, because it was cold. People had to bring in wood to burn, and cook, and feed and water animals, but that was about it. Men went rabbit hunting; maybe women visited each other and played with their needlework. It was a real rest period, and a long one, before the frenetic farm work of the spring began. It went on for a month or more. In medieval times, there were the twelve days of Christmas, a long rest period that ended on January 7th, at least for women, who went back to their spinning on that day. That day was called Rock Day. "Spinnrocken" is an old word for a spinning tool called the distaff, which holds the fibers to be spun. Spinners nowadays sometimes have group spinning parties on that day.

Of course, we've lost this leisurely approach to the solstice holiday. Most people only get one or two days off from work, and the days before Christmas are spent in a flurry of frantic shopping for presents and food. It's especially hard on women, who feel under a great deal of pressure to "make Christmas," and to make it special for their children and families. For many grownups, Christmas just adds to their already intolerable and unhealthy stress load. And for children, the day of Christmas itself is sort of disappointing sometimes: there's a big build-up to a few hours of frantic consumption, and then it's over.

I have nothing against small presents for children. I think everybody under the age of 12 should get at least one present. When my son was little, I bought several little, inexpensive presents, and gave him one each day for the 12 days. This went over really well. He would play with a $2 puzzle all day sometimes. And then the next day there was another cheap little trinket, which seemed very special that day too! I did this when my nephews and niece were little too. They liked it, but there were some amusing snafus: once Jack found my present stash in the closet, and he came and found me and said, "When are you going to give me that little man on the parachute?"

My compromise these days is to find some universal present, usually involving family photographs, that I give to everybody on my list. I can't yet divulge what that present is this year, but it's very affordable, and it's personal, and it involves photographs. I also usually make some knitted things, mainly just to spend down my yarn stash and try some new knitting techniques. That, too, costs very little.  I make jam in the summer to give away in winter. (For birthdays, which are spread out around the year and are thus easier, I go "all out." Or what seems like "all out" to me.)

Bill McKibben and his friends in Vermont now celebrate what they call the Hundred Dollar Holiday, where they pledge to limit their spending to $100 for Christmas, per family. I set a limit like that too. This time it went a little over $100, but not by much. (I don't count travel expenses, but you could: your presence could be the present.) At that level, you might buy a big feast (my choice some years!), or a fancy Christmas tree, or a trip out of town, or a few presents, but you can't buy all those things, and that's the point.  Some sort of limit on spending also actually limits your stress. You can't do everything, so you just do one or two things, and that's easier and better, and you enjoy those one or two things more.

Another resource for scaling back Christmas is the wonderful book already mentioned above, Unplug the Christmas Machine. (Bill McKibben has a book too called Hundred Dollar Holiday.)  I have to re-read that book every year. The authors explain that the idea of presents for adults only began about eighty years ago, in the aftermath of World War I. Economists were worried that since the American economy was no longer bouyed by war, it might sink!  Demand might fall off for goods and services! What to do? They came up with the idea of convincing Americans that they must buy a lot of Christmas presents for each other every year!  Genius!

Before the 1920s, adults just got little notions in their stockings: needlework stuff for women, tobacco for men. Kids got presents, though. I can see that in my grandfather's photographs from the 1930s: there are a few toys under the rather bedraggled, definitely home-made Christmas tree, but no presents for the grown-ups. It was after all the Depression, but more than that, the habit of massive spending before Christmas had not yet been entrenched in American culture.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and the rising tide of consumerism generally. Now the idea that grownups should buy big presents for each other for Christmas was thoroughly "traditional," people thought. Nobody could remember it being otherwise. Suggesting that the present-giving should be scaled back was tantamount to being a Grinch.

McKibben makes some interesting comments in his essay, "Hundred Dollar Holiday," about this Grinch character. In fact, the bad guy in the story--the Grinch--is the one who believes that Christmas comes from a store. He thinks that if you take away all the toys and store-bought food, Christmas won't exist. He is proved wrong: by singing.  This is the most beautiful and insightful part of Dr. Seuss's story: that the real essence of Christmas is people singing together. This is the part that has been crowded out of our American Christmas: holding hands in a circle singing "wahoo, dores."

Ok, I have no idea what "wahoo, dores" means. But Christmas songs are wonderful, as long as they are not played ad nauseam for weeks leading up to Christmas.  You don't have to be a Christian to love these songs, like "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night." I remember Garrison Keillor talking about the tears streaming down the faces of old Norwegian Lutherans as they sing "Silent Night" in Norwegian every Christmas Eve in their church. The same thing happens to me; I don't know why.

We used to go caroling in our neighborhood in Nashville for years; now nobody seems to do it. That was my favorite part of Christmas, but it was often shoved aside on Christmas Eve by some people because they "had too much wrapping to do." This is how it starts: the really good parts are sort of gradually phased out until all that remains is the shopping, wrapping, and opening of presents. One Mexican person in Unplug the Christmas Machine describes her village's elaborate, days-long round of parties, dancing, fireworks, and feasting, and she says, "You Americans just have presents. We have Christmas!"

Now that nobody can afford much of anything any more, we have a big opportunity: we can get Christmas back. The banks and corporations took it away from us decades ago, way before the present Crash, or even the one before that. Occupy Christmas! You can start now by not shopping for "bargains" tomorrow, and you can start talking to people in your family about scaling back the solstice holiday, at least the presents part. As McKibben says, it may take years of gradual change to get where you want to be, but the effort is worth it. As Fuzzy demonstrated, sometimes it requires one person to unilaterally withdraw before the Christmas truce can really happen.