50 Before 50 #9: Grow tomatoes as good as the ones grown by my grandparents & father in law

Using the perfect tomato.

After five years of growing tomatoes, I have finally grown a tomato that is damn near perfect. It happened in a year that has not been a particularly good tomato year, in which I have failed to fertilize adequately. It was a hybrid, not an heirloom. I did not baby it in the least, and Mr. Husband had to point out that it needed to be picked. It sat on the counter for two days, and then I sliced into it and realized what it was, and it became one of the best things a tomato can be: an open-faced sandwich with a light blanket of broiled cheese. It was marvelous, and it was exactly like the ones I ate all one summer for breakfast, a summer that was full of tomatoes that grandpa kept hauling over to the house.

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old but still so right

I get up in the morning. My topic feels like hell. I sprinkle it with water, brush parts of it, rub it with towels, powder it, add lubricant. I dump in the fuel and away goes my topic, my topical topic, my controversial topic, my capacious topic, my limping topic, my nearsighted topic, my topic with back problems, my badly behaved topic, my vulgar topic, my outrageous topic, my aging topic, my topic that is out of the question and anyway still can’t spell, in its oversized coat and worn winter boots, scuttling along the sidewalk as if it were flesh and blood, hunting for what’s out there, an avocado, an alderman, and adjective, hungry as ever.

from “The Female Body,” Margaret Atwood

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What Work Is

— Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

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The Summer That Was

We drove 4,000 miles to San Antonio and back for RSA, where I chaired a SuperSession on Machine Rhetorics. There were so many smart, hilarious friends and fambly.

I hadn’t been back to the South in four years. There was tex-mex and charcuterie and bbq and papusas and mescal mojitos. We found handmade brooms and comb-in honey.

We also went to Faulkner’s house, where I last visited just as I was starting this whole odyssey in academia.

Then we came home and drove around the state once a week or so. We visited dairies and I ended up with dairy t-shirts. Total summer milage: somewhere around 7,500.

And there were friends with wonderful gardens and magic sheds.

Sometimes dear ones gave me plants. We expanded the front beds and put in a huge stone birdbath.

Everything broke. We replaced major appliances one by one. Mr. Husband did dishes by hand for almost the entire summer. We started cooking with cast iron and black clay pots a lot more.

We put out a hummingbird feeder and found out that we like feeding birds.

I sat out on the deck with the birds and read and read and read. Then I came inside and wrote and wrote and wrote. Sent a couple of revised articles back out the door. Signed a book contract and started revising the manuscript.

When we moved in five years ago, I insisted on writing in the smallest room in the house. My procedure for setting up my study involved hauling boxes and a desk in and getting to work. There were still unpacked boxes everywhere in there this summer. I sorted them, donated a bunch of stuff, and finally painted the walls. And discovered that the best view in the room is from the closet, which I turned into a reading nook.

We froze berries and herbs. I grew a lackadaisical garden and made only the jams that I really wanted to make: strawberry and spiced plum. More writing, less preserving during the late-summer harvest season this year.

We got addicted to Lark Rise to Candleford and rationed episodes all summer. We continued working our way through the available canon of Godzilla movies.

And then it was time for the cabbage harvest and Labor Day.

We summered. I am not usually a fan of the season, but this was a wonderful one.

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Recipe Project #171: Asado de Puerco (or Pollo or Carne) a la Veracruzana

When we came home from San Antonio in early June, we hauled all of the Mexican cookbooks out of the cookbook bookcase and started paging through them, and then Mr. Husband also ordered up a copy of the truly marvelous Border Cookbook. It’s been all salsas and migas and tacos and enchiladas and chilaquiles around here. When he came home from the butchers with a very nice bone-in pork butt last week, we immediately decided to make it into Asado de Puerco a la Veracruzana from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico since we already had all the other ingredients. (We became people who always have banana leaves in the freezer back when we became addicted to Puerco Pibil.) I made up the two separate but simple marinades, rubbed it all into the meat, and then wrapped it up until it looked like this:

And then it went into the fridge for a day, and then into an oven for awhile, and then it was marvelous. We wondered if the marinade would translate well to a whole chicken, particularly one cooked in a cast iron dutch oven over coals. It does. We ate the chicken breasts the first day, and then the rest of it became various sorts of chicken enchiladas and a big batch of broth that is now bagged in the freezer for future reference. Today, we’re trying it with a chuck roast, and I suspect it will be just as marvelous.

5 pounds (2.5 kg) pork roast on the bone, preferably butt
6 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
6 ancho chiles, seeds and veins removed
4 morita chiles, or 1 chipotle or 1 mora
½ cup (250 ml) water, approximately
4 whole allspice, crushed
Banana leaves sufficient to wrap the roast in a double layer

Pierce the meat all over with the point of a sharp knife. (Or pierce it with a jacquard.) Mash the garlic with the salt and moisten with the lime juice. Rub this mixture thoroughly into the roast and set aside to season while you prepare the chile mixture.

Lightly toast the ancho chiles on a hot griddle or comal. Cover them with hot water, add the whole, untoasted morita chiles, and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the chiles to soak for 5 minutes longer.

Transfer the chiles to a blender jar with the water. Add the allspice and blend until smooth. Add a little more water only if necessary to release the blades of the blender.
Coat the meat liberally with the chile paste. Hold the banana leaf over a hot heat until it softens and wrap it around the meat. Let the meat season overnight in the refrigerator. (If you are not using the banana leaf, simply leave the meat unwrapped.)

Preheat the oven to 325 F (165 C) [or prepare your coals.] Please the meat in a dutch oven or casserole with a tightly fitting lid and bake for 2 hours, by the end of which time there should be plenty of juices at the bottom of the casserole. Remove the lid and continue cooking the meat, basting it from time to time, for about 2 hours longer, or until soft.

Serve hot, with fresh corn tortillas.

Note: Rather than reheating this pork the next day, Kennedy prefers to eat it cold. We also found this to definitely be the case, and it makes excellent cold pork sandwiches. It does not freeze well, she writes.

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by Muriel Rukeyser, from The Speed of Darkness, Vintage Books, 1968

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

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Recipe Project #167 – 170: Meyer Lemon Sour Cream Ice Cream, plus other ice creams

For almost all of our time together, Mr. Husband has been the official ice cream maker in the house. My job has been to purchase and read Lebovitz’s canonical book on ice cream and then point out things we should make. This year, for whatever reason, I just hauled out the ice cream maker and got to work. We’re surrounded by outstanding dairy farms, and some of their products have been turned into a constant round of ice creams. The freezer is half-full of various half-liter Weck jars now, each packed with a different flavor. So far, I’ve made:

Vanilla Ice Cream (excellent by itself, with homemade strawberry syrup, and in root beer floats)
Cinnamon Ice Cream
Strawberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

I also made a couple of rounds of a Meyer Lemon Sour Cream Ice Cream that was inspired by that last recipe. Lebovitz provides a regular Super Lemon Ice Cream that plenty of bloggers have adapted for Meyer lemons, and I further adapted it to include homemade sour cream. It’s possible to mix it entirely in a blender or food processor, and I suppose you could also chill it in it as well. We decant ours into an old, very clean darkroom developing tank and put it in the coldest part of the freezer with a darkroom thermometer in it to chill until it hits the freezing point. Then and only then does it get churned.

2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Meyer lemon juice
1 cup milk
1/2 cup thick sour cream
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pinch salt

Zest lemons directly into food processor. Pour in sugar and process until the sugar is faintly lemon-colored and the zest is finely ground. Juice the lemons and straining out any seeds. Pour the measured juice into the sugar/zest mixture. Blend until the sugar dissolves.Add milk, cream, and sour cream, then blend.Chill for about an hour; the product may break up, but just stir it back together. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s directions.

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Recipe Project #166: Tortilla de Plátano Maduro (Ripe Plantain Frittata)

Back in late May, we took a long road trip down to San Antonio for the RSA Conference. We hadn’t done this sort of multi-week trip since 2010, when we drove from Syracuse to West Lafayette for the Computers & Writing conference, then over to Minneapolis for RSA, and then on down to North Little Rock to see my family. This year our route went through Pittsburgh, Lexington, Memphis, Baton Rouge, San Antonio, back over to Lafayette, and then on homeward. One of the things I’ve missed about this kind of slow, car-focused travel is the unexpected opportunities that pop up alongside the road. This time, one of the more memorable ones was a South American restaurant in a converted gas station somewhere between Beaumont and San Antonio that we happened upon right at lunchtime. And lo, there were pupusas, curtido, and horchata:

It was a revelation. And of course now we are interested in Salvadoran and Columbian food, despite the fact that we’re not entirely sure where to start. Not that this has ever stopped us before. One way in is this ripe plantain frittata, which is swiftly becoming a breakfast mainstay. It reminds me of a dish described by my Venezuelan Spanish teacher many years ago, back when I was thoroughly confused by the idea of plantains and cheese together. We’ve been finishing it with comb-in honey that we picked up at Henson Brooms in Symsonia, KY on the way back home.

Tortilla de Plátano Maduro (from My Columbian Recipes)

3 very ripe plantains, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons honey
2 cups grated queso fresco or queso blanco, plus more for garnish

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a nonstick fry pan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the ripe plantain and cook, stirring occasionally, about, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar and queso together.Place the cooked plantains in a baking pan.
Pour the egg mixture in the plantains and place in the oven and bake until golden on top, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Drizzle with honey and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Serve warm.

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—by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

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2013 Leisure Reading

Over the years, it’s become a tradition of sorts that Compatriot G and I both post the past year’s reading. He includes all the books he read for work or for play, but this is just my evening reading during the pre-sleep hour when I give myself permission to read whatever I want. I have no idea what my actual total would be, given that I also read for two doctoral seminars that I was teaching and for the book that consumed my summer months.

  1. Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of a Cook by Jacques Pepin
  2. London, the Biography by Peter Ackroyd
  3. The Private World of Tasha Tudor by Tasha Tudor
  4. Henry the Explorer by Mark Taylor and Graham Booth
  5. The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot
  6. Cooked: A Natural History of the Senses by Michael Pollan
  7. Whole Larder Love: Grow Gather Hunt Cook by Rohan Anderson
  8. One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell
  9. The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater
  10. Berkeleyworks: The Art of Berkeley Breathed
  11. Clarissa’s England by Clarissa Dickson Wright
  12. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  13. Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
  14. Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Vol I
  15. Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Vol II
  16. Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Vol III
  17. Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Vol IV
  18. Metamaus by Art Speigelman
  19. Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie
  20. Some of the Words Are Theirs, by George H. Jensen, Jr.
  21. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
  22. The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
  23. The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow
  24. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  25. The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick
  26. Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions by Guillermo del Toro
  27. Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
  28. Hellboy: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola and John Byrne
  29. Newton, by Peter Ackroyd
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