Saturday, March 28, 2020

How to Cook a Wolf

Our current cultural pool of metaphor is dominated by references to war and apocalypse, so I should probably note up front that this post is not about actually cooking threatened species. The wolf in question is the proverbial one, who shows up at one's door symbolizing poverty, starvation, or other calamity. I've shamelessly stolen the title of the post from M. F. K. Fisher, whose book of this name was published in 1942, and of which I acquired a worn, stained copy in 1972, most likely at the used bookstore where I was a volunteer in Philadelphia. I didn't get paid, but workers got books of their choosing for 3/4 off the published price (everyone else got half off), unless the book was marked otherwise, so I must have actually paid about 50 cents, even though it was marked 75.

But I was transfixed by Fisher's prose, and she's influenced my attitude toward food and life in general for the last nearly fifty years. I keep recommending this particular book on Quora to those who ask how to get by on small rations (metaphorically speaking; although rationing is not too much of a far-fetched idea these days). And as we've descended into a morass of uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus and our own futures, I find myself going back to her chapters: "How to be a Sage Without Hemlock," "How to Greet the Spring," "How to Rise Up Like New Bread," and "How to Have a Sleek Pelt" (about keeping pets in dire times).

As I began to reread this book for the umpteenth time, I found a certain prescience in her opening words:
In spite of all the talk and study about our next years, and all the silent ponderings about what lies within them for our sons, it seems plain to us that many things are wrong in the present ones which can be, must be changed. Our texture of belief has great holes in it. Our pattern lacks pieces. (3)
This is, of course, a reflection on wartime, but it does make one stop and ponder our own possible futures. What she's really talking about in this chapter, though, is the equivalent of fad diets and the then-current nutritional guidelines and the notion of "balanced meals," quarreling with the idea that every meal must contain all the necessary nutrients. Her advice is indeed sage: make sure that as much as possible you get a decent balance over the course of the day. Instead of providing everything needed for survival in each meal, just make sure that you hit most of them overall.

It's actually rather amusing to look back at her accounts of the substitutions that food-manufacturers came up with for eggs and custard sauce in hopes of providing desserts and puddings for the evening meal. In her chapter, "How to Comfort Sorrow," Fisher suggests that the best "dessert" is nothing at all.
If the food has been simple, plentiful, and well prepared; if there has been time to eat it quietly, with a friend or two; if the wine or beer or water has been good: then, more often than not, most people will choose to leave it so, with perhaps a little cup of coffee for their souls' sake. (191)
She goes on to recommend "another fine thing for the soul . . . . is one of those herbal teas which French people used to call tisanes."
They are simply hot water poured over a few dried leaves of mint or verbena or lime flowers or camomile. They can be drunk with or without sugar, and a twist of lemon can be added. They smooth out wrinkles in your mind miraculously, and make you sleep, with sweet dreams, too. (191)
Having only recently undergone a cardiac procedure (a stent, after which I went home the same day), and being under the mistaken impression that I would have to abstain from alcohol for the next year while I was on an anti-platelet drug, I had started concocting my own tisanes out of various fruit- and herb-based teas I keep on hand. They're quite refreshing and good substitutes for a glass of wine in the evening, and I'll be drinking them regularly even though my cardiologist has given me permission for a glass of wine with dinner if I so desire. After only a couple of weeks off the sauce, I've discovered that I actually can live without it, and there are other ways to forget who is running the country at the moment.

It's actually a bit ironical that "social distancing" is depriving us of our most traditional means of providing comfort: going out for a drink, taking meals together, celebrating holidays and anniversaries, marking important cultural moments. Only a couple of hours ago I sent my daughter an article from today's New York Times about distance-celebrating the upcoming holidays, only to find out that her father's family (in Minneapolis, where she usually goes for Passover) is already planning a Zoom Seder.

I'm somewhat reluctant to note too enthusiastically the possible bright side of the current situation, because so very many people are suffering so terribly. The clearing of the air and water, the re-connection of families as they're quarantined in their homes, the slight lowering of decibel levels as traffic on the nearby highways. Our exceptionally rainy March has meant that the ground may not dry out as quickly as usual, and the "lakes" may be higher; if folks can't go out and stinkpot or jetski, they may be cleaner as well. There should be scads of wildflowers, but it's harder to get to see them.

I'm also somewhat heartened by the number of "getting through this together" articles focus on cooking, and on involving children in meal preparation. Granted, lots of these  seem to prioritize cookies and other sweets (like this chocolate layer cake from WaPo, from an article on "7 layer cake recipes to help you bake your way through whatever life piles on"), which may not be the best thing for confined folks to be eating, unless they're also following exercise classes on YouTube. But at least there's a concentration on this most important aspect of human survival. We can make it without clothing or shelter (except in extreme circumstances), but we can't make it without food.

So here's something to try. Fisher says that she remembers liking it so much that she dreamed about it at night, and it does sound both simple and good, as long as your supermarket hasn't run out of whole wheat flour. This is my slightly modified (and commented upon) version.
War Cake

1/2 cup shortening (you can use avocado or coconut oil, but butter is really nice)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp other spices (cloves, mace, ginger, etc.)
1 cup chopped raisins or other dried fruits (prunes, figs, etc.)
1 cup sugar, brown or white (I suspect that you could get by with 3/4 c without consequence)
1 cup water
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp soda
2 tsp baking powder

Sift flour, soda, and baking powder.
Put all other ingredients in a pan and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, then cool thoroughly.
Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix well.
Bake 45 minutes (test for doneness) in a greased or parchmented loaf pan at 325-350F
Fisher calls this "an honest cake" and "one loved by hungry children"--although she didn't miss it after the war and when she was all grown up. (194)  It's reminiscent of my grandmother's applesauce cake, which was probably pretty fundamental at first, but got richer--and chocolaty-er as the economy improved.  And if you want to form memories with your children during this fraught moment in our history, getting them to help you make an "honest cake" (as opposed to a pretty, rich, and frivolous cake like the one I linked earlier) might offer you one such opportunity.

I've spent a great deal of time over the last couple of months transcribing the letters my maternal grandfather wrote to his young wife while he was stationed in France at the end of the Great War. And I'm about to start doing the same thing with letters my father sent to my grandmother while he was serving in the South Pacific during WWII. Reading their words and understanding their hardships makes it fairly simple to be grateful for my own current sheltered existence. The larder is full, the freezer(s) are well-packed, and we only have to go out every couple of weeks for a top-up of fresh fruit, veg, and milk. Folks at the turn of the twentieth century, and in the 1940s experienced as little certainty as we do now, and still faced it with ingenuity and resourcefulness. There are flashes of those same qualities in some of the stories I'm reading in the papers and that come over the interwebs. I just hope that we don't get so scared or--even worse--so complacent that the virus gets the best of us.

As the caption on the political cartoon I opened this post with says, "One of you pesky critters comes around here about every twenty years; but this is the gun that gits you!" This time, the gun will have to be a syringe with a vaccine in it, or some sort of effective treatment for those already infected. But I'm not so much of a curmudgeon or a pessimist that I can't hope that, as a species, we'll prevail once again.

Meanwhile, it's time for a tisane, and perhaps to bake a loaf of War Cake. Be safe, People, and take care.

Image credit: The chromolithograph, Uncle Sam (to the Wolf at the Door)  is from Puck, v. 35, no. 892 (April 11, 1894). The image was obtained, initially through Wikimedia Commons, from the Library of Congress collections. The original copyright was held by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1894, but the LoC is aware of no publishing restrictions, so I felt free to use it. The linked page includes this information: Print shows a wolf wearing a red cape labeled "Hard Times 1893", standing on a rock outside a gate labeled "U.S." with Uncle Sam standing inside the gate and pointing a rifle labeled "Business Revival" at the wolf; hanging on the wall of a building in the background are hides labeled "Hard Times 1819, Hard Times 1837, Hard Times 1857, [and] Hard Times 1873". Columbia, carrying a rifle labeled "Prosperity", is rushing to aid Uncle Sam.

    Thursday, March 19, 2020

    Finding Things to Celebrate: The Vernal Equinox

    It's a bit early (the 19th rather than the 20th or 21st), but Spring has arrived, and even in soggy, potentially plaguey, North Texas, there are signs of its presence--despite the absence of any real winter weather during December, January, and February.

    I went out a couple of days ago looking for phenomena (from the Greek phaino, to appear), the subjects of phenology: the study of things that appear (in this sense, as signs of biological change according to climate). Having already been sequestered indoors by the extended period of rain we've endured in north Texas, I was happy to get out for the few minutes during which the sun managed to make its appearance. It was encouraging to see how many members of my garden community were getting ready to burst forth with flower and fruit.

    The holly next to our front porch was headily fragrant and abuzz with bees. Our backyard fig is leafing out nicely (with this weather we should get two crops this year), and our scraggly little redbud tree is putting forth valiantly. It gets smaller every year, but I keep hoping that its prolific seed pods will allow one or two more to spring up elsewhere. 

    The wisteria that we let grow wild on the property was only beginning to bud then, but today, as if to herald Spring, it was blooming well and had begun to perfume the yard behind our garage.

    This isn't much, I know, for a Skywatch Friday post, but it's part of my effort to find the small, beautiful things that I wrote about yesterday. Although the rain is due back this evening, next week promises several clear days in a row. Conducting local phenological research is balm for the spirit in these fraught times, so I thought I'd offer these examples up, despite their scanty views of skies, in celebration of the equinox and a new season. Be well, be careful, and enjoy what you can. And Happy Skywatch Friday.

    Image notes: I hope to start using the Canon Eos again soon; I used my aging iPhone 7 for these, hence the scruffy quality. But I was anxious to get a few shots before the rains returned, so settled for what I got.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2020

    Hope, Springing

    This post was begun about three weeks ago, before I knew that I'd be undergoing yet another invasive coronary procedure (an angiogram) that turned even more invasive when the doc found the expected occlusion of one of my old bypasses (now 25 years old) and transformed the scan into an angioplasty. The catheterization team inserted a shiny new Onyx drug-eluting stent into the offending vessel, and all the while I was wide awake with only mild sedation. As uncomfortable as it was, it sure beat the hell out of having my chest cracked yet again. I had four bypasses in 1995, and my aortic valve was replaced by a mechanical one in 2009. This time I left for home only a few hours after the cath, and got to sleep in my own bed. The only really negative aspect of the whole experience is that, for the next year, I'll be a teetotaler because of the anti-platelet therapy being added to my current drug mix. 

    If you add the mechanical valve to the two artificial corneas received in cataract surgery a couple of years ago, this new stent ramps up my membership in the Borg club bigtime. So far, though, nothing shows except under appropriate scanning technology, so I'm no Seven of Nine in that regard. Well, in most ways I'm no Seven of Nine.

    Anyway, I'm feeling fine and it should be a spell before I have to undergo another of these little encounters, even though it seems inevitable that I will. I'm certainly not getting any younger, and my genes aren't getting any better.

    All this drama began just about the same time the bad news about COVID-19 was coming down the pike. In fact, the day of the procedure was the last day before the hospital (which I came to call the Baylor Heart Hospital, Hotel, and Spa after the valve job) began to institute new protocols for both patients and staff.

    We've managed to do most of our home-prepping (and no, we didn't buy toilet paper) which has consisted of stocking up on a few things, but mostly just doing our weekly shopping. This week we're also getting most of our doctor visits (including the vet) taken care of, so that we won't have to do much getting out and about over the next month. We're looking into a local farm supplier for later needs, and once the food panic has subsided it may be possible to pop into Trader Joe's or Whole Foods for what we can't easily get online, or maybe get it delivered.

    The truth is that as someone who reads and writes about depletion and abundance, and about non-capitalist political economies, I've been something of a prepper for a long time. We've also been revising our various impacts on the environment and economics in general by buying little and living as lightly as we can. So doing without has become a way of life with us, and except for an odd obsession with high-resolution television, we're not as technologically plugged in as our children are, and as long as the electricity stays on and the water keeps flowing, we'll be about as comfortable as we need to be. We can muddle through, abide in place, and (mostly because we're essentially hermits anyway) be able to handle social distancing quite well.

    This is where the post I was originally preparing comes in.

    Every now and then I get inspired by something that sets me off in a different direction. Sometimes that something is so transformative that it makes me rethink my current trajectory, shift gears, re-focus, and move on.

    Such an event occurred when I read Margaret Renkl's lovely article in the New York Times last month (Feb. 23, "One Tiny Beautiful Thing") about surviving a bleak, soggy winter in the South. One particular paragraph struck home with a force I seldom experience in editorial writing. She is, of course, talking about politics, but her essay also resonates with the current, even more problematic situation.
    Paying attention to what is happening in Washington is a form of self-torment so reality altering that it should be regulated as a Schedule IV drug. I pay attention because that’s what responsible people do, but I sometimes wonder how much longer I can continue to follow the national news and not descend into a kind of despair that might as well be called madness. Already there are days when I’m one click away from becoming Lear on the heath, raging into the storm. There are days when it feels like the apocalypse is already here.
    But on a walk through a park, she noticed a small green sign of spring in a knot hole in a tree that completely changed her perspective. In order to survive the political (and climatic) moment, and instead of giving up watching the news for Lent,  she's going to be looking for more tiny beautiful things.

    Now, as anybody who comes by The Farm even once in a while knows, I am not by nature an optimistic person, and by no means any kind of believer. But Renkl's column stirred my philosophical juices to such an extent that she provided a kind of intellectual epiphany, and made me wonder why it is that I can let the political climate, with its egregious absence of reason, drive me into the particular kind of malaise to which I seemed, when I read her piece, to have fallen victim.

    Just yesterday I read another of Renkl's essays and sent it on to my children. It's about comfort food and making it through dark times: "Cornbread. Now, More Than Ever--Comfort foods, and the old ways of making them, bring solace when you really need it." Once again her logic and philosophical clarity reached into the darkness and offered a glimmer of light.

    Please know that I fully realize that many, many people in this country and around the world are in no condition to be hunkering down and making cornbread. Even retired old codgers like me and my Beloved Spouse, who are insulated by a fixed income, an owned house, and some small financial security (that isn't attached to the stock markets), are only "safe" for as long as our health holds out and the city keeps the basics running. But, at the risk of sounding much more sanguine than I actually am, this experience for many of us can be a lesson in true economy: oikonomia, in the Greek sense, and the relationship between ends and means. This notion is also tied into William Morris's description of economics as grounded in the education of desire. Since I'm in the process of rewriting my own thought experiment based on Morris's utopian vision in News From Nowhere, I'll be doing a great deal of thinking along these very lines.

    And so, as I try not to despair of our national (or global) fate, and as I hope that science, if allowed to do what it does best, manages to accomplish what actually needs to be done, I'm going to use this blog to work through some possibilities.

    I'll be looking in the knotholes of trees (in my case for baby squirrels), spotting the phenological evidence of Spring (which begins tomorrow), wading through my soggy garden to think about where we might be able to grow more food, and baking cornbread.

    Be well, everyone, and may the Spring bring about Tikkun Olam, a healing of the world.

    Image credit: This photo, Single blossom and leaves growing out of knot hole in old log originated on Pixio, the public domain image website. I obbtained it via Wikimedia Commons. I thought the image did a nice job of mingling the notion of something inserted into a cavity, with a sweet illustration of Renkl's first essay.