Monday, November 30, 2009

Home Fires

Friday, after the previous night's lovely Thanksgiving meal at our daughter's loft, we celebrated my night off (I usually teach my Visual Anthropology class from 6-10 pm) by building a fire and enjoying the balmy evening.

I had been out with the camera taking shots of frolicking squirrels (to be posted next Friday for Skywatch) and when the Beloved Spouse came out bearing my evening adult beverage, he suggested that we just enjoy the weather and use up some of the brush pile while we were at it.

This fire pit (the successor to the one our neighbor's tree demolished) has been the centerpiece of several enjoyable moments when the weather's been cool enough. But we don't burn things frequently because as peaceful and primal as they are, wood fires pollute. The only thing that justifies the occasional pit or hearth fire is the fact that we try so hard to reduce our particulate emission elsewhere. In addition, all of the wood we burn comes from this property: mostly fallen pecan branches, but other trees contribute as well.

So we sat sipping wine, and later I brought out a plate of Grandma's dinner rolls, cheese, and apples. Despite the three huge streetlights in the neighborhood, the main illumination came from the waxing gibbous moon, and quite a few stars were visible. They were the usual culprits, but at one point we noticed a star-like object moving across the sky rather quickly. I remembered the satellites my Grandmother and I used to watch from her porch in Lone Pine, and wondered if that's what we were watching. Then it struck me: this was the International Space Station, which a bulletin from Space Weather had noted was going to be visible in our area over the next few days.

After it was gone, I went in to check, and sure enough, according to the Flybys page, we had been treated to something I hadn't seen before, and will be looking forward to spotting more frequently. Too bad we missed the double-flyby when Atlantis was still in the vicinity of the Station. But this was good enough for now. It'll be clear again tonight, so we may get another chance--but the temperature has dropped significantly, and the evening won't exactly be as amenable to sitting out.

I think that what strikes me about noticing tiny details in the sky is the rather poetical connection with our distant ancestors. Hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists all over the world were far more aware of the night sky than we (who can't often even see much of it), and relied on it, surely wondered about it, and were probably quite a bit more amazed by it than folks are in so-called civilized modern times.

Never mind that the object I was watching is a product of our highest levels of technology: it's still a wonder, and it still amazes me. When I can get out where there aren't three gi-normouse mercury vapor street lamps generating another kind of pollution (light), I have a hard time not gazing for hours at the heavens.

The low-tech pleasure of sitting next to a wood fire ties me to our primal past. But I'm also reminded of Jack London's melancholy tale (To Build a Fire) of a man in the wild, realizing the enormous value of fire to human survival. And I can't help but cheer for the dog at the end of the story, who doesn't need the fire and who knows instinctively how to make it through the cold.

As comforted as I was as I sat enjoying the company of my husband and my own dogs, I also knew that the following day I'd be reading about political squabbling and human misery, and would undoubtedly wonder (as I'm doing now) about whether or not we really know any more of real use than we did when we were still few, fragile, and much more mindful of the environment in which we lived.

The fire pit itself points to another irony. We bought it from Smith & Hawken, which was originally focused on craftsmanship and sustainability, but was sold to the Miracle-Gro people a few years back. By then it had gone through several owners and ended up a kind of cartoon version of itself. It's now being closed, which it richly deserves, and so if another tree falls on this one, I guess I'll have to just bang it back into shape and make do. Had I realized that the original owners of the company had urged a boycott after it was acquired by an outfit that espouses chemical pollution on a grand scale, I probably would never have replaced the first one.

Still, there's something unmistakably pleasant and reassuring about enjoying a fire, even when it's burned down to the coals and is getting ready to go out. The warmth abides, and follows us back into the house. I'm pretty sure I sleep better afterwards, too. And there are still a few Sunday-morning fireplace moments to look forward to over the winter--even though we limit those as well.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Autumn Evenings

I haven't been posting much on Skywatch Friday lately, but this single meme has changed the way I look at the sky--and increased exponentially the amount of time I spend paying attention to what's going on above me. I couldn't possibly be more enthusiastic about the team and its efforts--thanks, as always.

A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was rather "interesting" (read nasty and brutish), I looked out my window at a golden evening, with apricot-colored light glowing against a solid background of cloud. The cloud cover persisted for the next twenty four hours, but began to break up just as it started getting dark.

I love the bare branches of trees against the sky anyway, but the changes from evening to evening are worth watching.

The sun broke through enough for a sunset--albeit obscured somewhat by bare pecan trees.

The opening shot reminds me a (very) little of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings evoking the sublime, like this one, Abbey in an Oak Forest:

That's it for now; Thanksgiving breads are in the oven and I've got to keep an eye on them. My daughter's cooking this year, and all I have to do is make the dinner rolls. Talk about sublime!

Images: all shots taken with my Nikon D80 on auto exposure. The Friedrich painting comes from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back to the Pantry

My brain is getting overcrowded these days: a consequence, I think, of aging. As memories pile up, something has to go, but before we have a chance to sort through it all the jumble catches up and tends to overwhelm us.

The pantry-cleaning effort became an exercise in metaphor as much as tidiness, because it involved making sense of the past: discarding what is no longer necessary to make room for what is still important.

So out went the ten-year old packets of Bird's Custard mix and a tin of sardines of the same vintage (what was I thinking?) among other archaeological finds, and in went a new dog food bin that allows me to close the door for the first time in six years or so. Not that I'd want to, because the whole thing looks so good now that I amuse Beloved Spouse by standing in the little room admiring my work.

I did end up putting cork on the shelves, which required putting a bar tray under stuff like honey and molasses so they can't leak onto the porous surface. I still have to re-cover the upper shelves, but they've been cleaned off and spiffed up, awaiting my next trip to Home Depot. The cork is a bit pricey, but it seems to take the edge off all the angles, and actually quiets the visits to retrieve tinned tomatoes for a sauce.

The plan is to inventory supplies every six months, and to be much more conscious of how long things remain. If I ever get serious about food preservation, I'll now have room for more stores of pickled garden veg, jam, and tomato sauce.

The photos are a bit blurry because I don't have the patience to set up the tripod and didn't want to use a flash. But I'm happy with the way it all turned out. I actually feel less overcome by my things-t0-do list as a result of having accomplished this one small thing, so perhaps it's a harbinger of better days. After all, the Museum of Unfinished Projects has also recently been catalogued (more or less), and I can actually get in there as well, so excavating the study can't be far behind.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pantry Matters

I have (another) confession to make. I am easily seduced. By chefs, that is, and by chefs on television especially. Occasionally the stars and planets will align properly and the local PBS station will string a number of really good cooking shows on a Saturday afternoon, and I'll pour a glass of wine before 5 pm and sit back and enjoy them. The current lineup includes old Julia Child and Jacques Pepin episodes, and a newer entry, Avec Eric ("We cook, therefore we are"), which I just love. But I also delight in people who simply cook and write about cooking.

By far my favorite foodie is Mark Bittman, whose book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating provided my Saturday morning reading this week. A couple of weeks ago the combination of a bit of extra cash and a 40% off Borders coupon produced two amazing additions to my cookbooks/books-on-cooking library: the Bittman book, and the companion to PBS's Spain: On the Road Again, Spain: A Culinary Road Trip, mostly by Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow--but Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols were both along for the ride. Beloved Spouse and I enjoyed the show enormously, and I'd wanted the book ever since.

So, snuggled down with the puppies (the BS is in New Haven coaching this weekend), I bit into Food Matters (sorry) and came away--as often happens when I conduct my Sabbath business of reading all morning--inspired.

Nearly ten years ago, when we first looked at this house, two things sold me: the half-acre property with a huge compost bin (useless as it turned out) and a fence full of blackberries (now long gone), and the pantry: a pantry just about the size of the one in my grandmother's kitchen at Cottonwood, where she used to put pies to cool, and which always smelled fabulous. If I ever come across that smell again, I'll undoubtedly swoon with pleasure.

My pantry, alas, doesn't have much of an odor, and if it did, it would probably waft up from the dog food bins. It's also occupied by a large hot water heater (artfully omitted in the photo; it's to the left of what I shot) that takes up way too much space. We had planned to replace the original heater with a tankless job, but the old one died on us last winter and we couldn't afford to wait the two weeks it would take to get the tankless version installed, so we had to simply replace it with a traditional, though more energy efficient, model. Some day we'll donate this one to charity and do the right thing, but for now I have to live with The Hulk.

When we were in the process of bringing the house up to code after we bought it (it had space heaters in every room, some freestanding and some built in), a safer central heating unit had to be installed, and the contractor wanted to put it in the pantry. Good thing for me that there was another alternative--a large closet adjacent to what is now the study--and he tucked it in there. The closet also houses the Beloved Spouse's tennis things, so everybody won out; and I got to keep my pantry.

Over the years, however, the pantry itself has become something of a mess, and it perennially attracts moths, so that anything not completely sealed (such as boxes of cereal or pasta) ends up with extra protein in it. The other problem now is that as I try to reduce the number of processed foods we consume, the tired shelf coverings are beginning to show, and the whole room screams for an overhaul.

What Bittman's book did for me this morning was to add direction to my already-recognized need for reorganization and general spiffing up. Little in the book is really new to me, but his approach is straightforward, no-nonsense, and a bit of a smack upside the head for those of us who preach something and don't always practice it. I do need the occasional kick in the bum to keep me honest, and Food Matters has provided the latest one.

If anyone else needs a nudge, I recommend Jane Goodall's Harvest of Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating as well. Surrounding oneself with inspiring philosophical and practical advice is one way to keep interest and energy focused on a worthwhile project.

For advice on what to put in a pantry, Aglaia Kremezi's beautiful The Mediterranean Pantry can't be beat in terms of recipes for condiments and seasonings, but a more complete list can be found in the pantry section of Clifford Wright's A Mediterranean Feast, my current food bible.

Whilst scooting around the internet on the topic of pantries, I came on Everything Pantry--a bit cute here and there, but there are sections on vintage pantries and butler's pantries. My breakfast room, which connects the kitchen and the dining room, shows signs of once having been a butler's pantry, which would have made the current pantry more of a scullery. I'm grateful for the built-in sideboard that would have held cutlery and crockery in the years after the house was built, and still does.

The Perfect Pantry is a blog focused on this very topic, with some nice entries on how to stock and use ingredients, plus a nifty continuing exploration of "Other People's Pantries"--for the food voyeur. For stocking and preserving advice, nobody is better than Sharon Astyk on Casaubon's Book. Her philosophical approach meshes nicely with Bittman's and Goodall's books.

So here's the plan: I'm tripping off to Home Depot today for better shelf paper, or perhaps some cork sheets. BS and I bought floor tiles last year to be used in the pantry and the back-porch laundry room, so I'll probably spend some time figuring out how best to install those. Since I painted the room white when we moved in, it doesn't really need to have that re-done, so I can concentrate on reorganizing shelves, rethinking contents, and simply cleaning up. I'll post the results eventually, but don't hold your breath. Inspiration comes and goes as the work load increases, and since I have grades due on Tuesday, I'll undoubtedly run out of steam as soon as I have the shelf covering in hand.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Drive-by Skies Part Two

Now that we've enjoyed pleasant weather for over a week, I'm beginning to buck up a bit. My good camera is still in its bag, though, so I've had to rely on the iPhone and more "drive-by" shots when interesting stuff appears spontaneously.

This week's opening photo was taken yesterday morning at 7 am CST just after I got to school for my 8 am class. The sun appeared rather dramatically, peeking through the new student parking garage (it was taken from the old one, where faculty members still park). But because my 2 mp resolution is so crappy, the sun looks like a blazing fireball coming at me. Still, I thought it was fun, especially since the early-morning sky is also reflected in the building windows.

The second image was taken on the first really sunny day after weeks of rain, in the same parking garage, but on the sixth floor, looking up the ramp to the roof spaces. The Simpsons theme song was going through my head as I shot it.

The day before that, the weather had started to break, and I should have had the Nikon with me to capture the incredible skies that followed me home. As it was, I only got one chance, through the car window at a stoplight.

On Halloween we went to a party for the tennis players at the head coach's house, and whilst the Beloved Spouse was building up a bonfire in a paddock, I caught the moon rising over north Texas.

Alas, it's midterm madness time once again, so this will have to be it for now. Happy Skywatch Friday, everyone. Have a terrific weekend.