Wednesday, February 27, 2008


You can see 'em, right? My radish sprouts? These incredibly hardy vegetables sprung up in five days. If you want instant gratification, plant radishes. After they sprung, we had a week of rain, including some very hard downpours. Not a one was broken or even bent. Now they are turning a deep green, and beginning their first set of real leaves. The carrot seeds that I planted at the same time will still take another week to come up, I predict. Chervil and arugula seeds are up, too, but still too tiny to photograph. No sign of the peas. I'll give them another week.
When I was looking around online for seed companies, I found The Seed Site. This inspiring site has photographs of 600 different kinds of seeds--shot in a 1-inch circle for scale--and 600 seedlings, plus tons of information and advice about saving seeds, germination methods and times, and more. So if you find some kind of mysterious volunteer seedling in your garden, or a yellowed envelope of seeds, you have a hope of identifying them. I notice the germination times on the site are longer than what it says on the seed packet. Hmmm. Patience is rewarded.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Photo: "Ham is Spain" by Julie Lemberger. (The little cups on the ends of these hams hanging in a bar in Spain are to catch the drips of fat that run down the hams on a warm day so they don't drop down your neck.)

Michael Pollan is not trying to turn his readers in to vegetarians in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. In fact, after trying vegetarianism for a limited period as part of his research for this book, he concludes that he has too many philosophical and practical objections to embrace it for himself. But it is impossible to read the book without confronting what you buy and eat more directly, which is his goal. Or maybe his goal is to establish a new right (and responsibility): the right to look at what you are buying and how it is raised and processed and then decide for yourself. I think this paragraph is the essence of his book:
The industrialization--and brutalization--of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end--for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.
I can't verify his assertion about America brutalizing animals our animals most, so I don't know if it's true. But this paragraph, and his thoughts about America's lack of a single traditional food culture, and his extended account of hunting for a feral pig in Sonoma County in order to be able to serve a meal that he had grown, foraged for, or hunted himself, kept making me think of Spanish ham. Alongside the frozen pizzas and shrink-wrapped hamburgers and copas de maize (Cornflakes) in Spanish supermarkets exists a deeply entrenched traditional culture around food, and at the heart of this culture is jamon iberico--the highest quality serrano ham, made from a special breed of pig, the pata negra--that in my experience is nearly always eaten with consciousness, ceremony and respect, perhaps in part because of its price tag but also because of what it represents for Spaniards. I'm not saying that Spaniards would be any more eager than Americans to know how that shrink-wrapped hamburger lived and was killed and processed. But I do think Spaniards have a clearer idea than we do of how and what to eat that is grounded in their cultural tradition.

I remember how in my Spanish class at a business institute in a tony Barcelona neighborhood, my teacher set down her dry-erase pen and turned away from the whiteboard with a serious look in her eyes. She was a svelte, stylish woman in her early 30s who liked to tell us about her shopping trips to Paris for the weekend, but what she was going to tell us now was not frivolous. "We have been discussing vocabulary for food, organized by food groups, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meats, etc.," she told us in Spanish. "But what I am going to discuss now it is in a food group all its own." She paused for effect. "It is ham." And for the next 20 minutes she lectured us on the pata negra, how it is raised, how it is killed, how the ham is cured, how to tell the good quality from the poor, how it should be stored, sliced, and eaten. I actually still have my notes from that class, so I know that she concluded with the following statement: "In fact, jamon iberico is just about the most healthy thing you can eat."

The profound importance of ham as an expression of Spanish culture came back to me when my husband, upon leaving his job in Spain to return home, received his parting gift: a whole ham (see photo above) We had to eat it all before we left the country because it would not pass customs. During out time in Spain, I had come to observe that eating ham in Spain represents a connection to the land, which nourishes the oaks that produce the acorns upon which the pata negra feed. It represents small villages, and their traditional air-drying curing methods without chemicals or impurities. It--and much of Spanish cuisine--represents a certain ritualized way of dining slowly and convivially, taking the time to prepare dishes the way they have always been prepared, recalling Spain's connections to other Mediterranean cultures but also its own special peninsular nature. It may be largely symbolic, but eating a large lunch at 2 pm every day reaffirms for Spanish people who they are.

Pollan's "perfect meal," which he himself acknowledges is impractical and largely symbolic, is an attempt at this kind of affirmation, in almost a spiritual sense. Questions regarding who we are in relation to what we eat underlie Pollan's book: Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be? The (in the words of the owner of the sustainably-farmed Polyface Farm) "...amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, bar-coded, adulterated, fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate."? No!

Pollan's point is that examining how our food is produced, examining in fact the whole food chain from our food's origin until it arrives at our table, can also reaffirm who we are as people, and our relationship to the other living things--vegetable, human, animal, even fungal--that live on this planet. Living in the Bay Area, I am lucky to have many places to buy food where I can learn something about where it came from and how it was raised, even if some of those "stories" are a bit more rosy-hued than reality (like "Rosie the Free-Range Chicken" who never ventures outside of her coop, as Pollan discovers). But I can always dig deeper, and make more conscious choices. I'm so relieved I don't have to be a vegetarian, I'll make the extra effort.

My one reservation is that I enjoy eating many different kinds of foods. For me, one of the joys of being American is being able to partake of and experience many different cultures in my daily life, every day. So, affirming my American identity through food means making burritos one night, going out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant the next night, and cooking my Grandma's Swedish pancakes on Saturday morning. We may not have one single tradition of food, but I love our multiplicity of food cultures. I'm not willing to give that up, even if I'm not always able to know as much as I'd like about where it this bewildering array of food comes from.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Eight Things Meme

Susan tagged me for this meme. Thanks, Susan! You continue to be an inspiration to me. I have the choice of using her prompts or creating my own. I feel more random these prompts are my own.
1. Today...has not gone as I expected it would go, so far. I had planned to take one car in to the garage but this morning the other car wouldn't start. So it got to go to the garage instead, and luckily my carpool partner got the kids to school. I had planned to go work out at the gym but I had a headache after getting back from dealing with the car so instead I had a big slice of homemade chocolate cake and a cup of decaf vanilla chai tea. Sometimes you just have to change your plans.
2. Yesterday...I worked to make a fancy dinner for my husband's birthday. The only think he told me he wanted was a plate of Serrano ham, which we had as our appetizer. I made lamb chops, polenta, asparagus with olive oil, and the chocolate cake. He loved it. But even better than that, I think, was that he got to watch part of the Barcelona-Celtic soccer game with the boys on TV before dinner. And that Barça won.
3. In the future...I would like to take more risks. Not try to plan everything out. Keep trying new things and accept what comes that I didn't expect. Do the same with my sons.
4. I notice...that there are tiny green threads in my raised bed. I have to restrain myself from popping out there every few hours to see if they are any bigger. At the same time, a seed from this blog seems to have sprouted. Someone I know liked my writing here and asked me to do some editing for them. What a great feeling!
5. I remember...when I was a teenager I resented any confidence my mom wrangled out of me because I felt she would just try to use it to get more information and I wanted to keep everything about me secret, at least from her. Now I know she just wanted to be close to me.
6. I wish...I could find a way to be close to my teenager without intruding on his private space.
7. I don't want...all the birds to get my radishes and chervil before they are an inch high! There are little inch-deep holes in my raised bed that look like someone pushed a stick into the earth--or, rather, a beak. So I put up the bird netting over the anti-cat sticks. What's next? Snails?
8. I be productive , not frenzied. To be loving, not prying. To protect and nuture, not destroy. It's easy to crush fragile seedlings before they've even grown their second set of leaves.

I tag Gail, Marmee, Violeta, and Caroline. You can use my prompts, or Susan's, or your own!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Seduction of Seeds

The last time I went to the garden center I was very strict with myself. I only allowed myself 6 seed packets. To me, they are practically irresistible. Such charming, quaint illustrations! Usually I go for the old-fashioned, heirloom varieties that Botanical Interests sells. But the luscious photos of plump, tender peas on the more mainstream packets draw me in, too. And they're rarely more than a couple of dollars. What can a few extra seed packets hurt? Of course, this means that downstairs in our seed box we have packets upon packet of seeds, some, I confess, unopened. But to me seeds are a pure expression of hope and potential. In honor of seeds, here is a poem I love by an exceptional girl I know, when she was in second grade (I used to edit the annual poetry anthology at our elementary school):

As My Seed Grows
by Audrey Deutsch

As my little tiny seed grows
I will water it and give it sunshine
as my seed grows. As my seed grows
I will sometimes put it in the shade
if it gets too hot as my seed grows.
As my seed grows I swear never to
pick it cross my heart as my seed
grows. As my seed grows I will bring
it to class as my show-’n’-tell
surprise as my seed grows. As
my seed grows I will love it
as if my seed was my brother
as my seed grows. As my seed
grows inside of my seed is
a vision of my seed when it
is a flower as my seed grows. Now
as my seed grows it is no longer
a seed it is now my beautiful
spring flower and still it will
always be my seed. As my seed

On Valentine's Day I planted some of the seeds I bought. It was warm and sunny, and those seed packets were staring up at me so seductively. On the unplanted side of the raised bed, I planted Purple Haze and Chantenay (regular orange) carrots. Sprinkled among them are some French Breakfast radish seeds. Down the middle of the bed I planted bush peas. The western side are peas from Slide Ranch (not sure if they’re sugar snap or what), from several years ago; the eastern side are Novella shelling peas from 2003. Peas are usually pretty reliable, but we’ll see what comes up. I artfully arranged the grapevine cuttings over them to protect against the cats, who have not yet bothered the raised bed. Slugs and snails have not yet discovered the raised bed, either. I cross my fingers. I hope.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Visiting Life

I heard author Bridget Kinsella read from her memoir Visiting Life: Women Doing Time On the Outside at Lit Crawl last October, and finally read it over the last few days, during which time I couldn't put it down. I have been struggling over this post because I'm conflicted about the book, but I found it fascinating and moving.

Kinsella tells her story of falling in love with a prisoner at Pelican Bay State Prison, a man condemned to life for murder. They meet because a friend of Kinsella's, a creative writing teacher at the prison, gives her Rory's manuscript to read because she works in publishing. Through this relationship, which they both recognize as a "fantasy love" that will one day come to an end, she comes to terms with her divorce from a man who realized that he was gay, and with the reality that she will probably not have the children she has always longed for. Interspersed with her own story are the stories of several women visiting other men at the prison. At the end of the book, her interest in prison families leads her to become involved with a group called "Get on the Bus," which takes children on an annual Mother's Day visit to their incarcerated mothers.

Kinsella reveals many intimate thoughts and feelings about her past and her relationship with Rory, and Rory does the same. While I believe their love for each other is genuine, I also sense a degree of manipulation on both sides of the relationship, for what each wanted from the other. Of course we only know what Rory feels through Kinsella. As Kinsella describes it, over the course of their relationship, she regains her sense of self worth through Rory's love. The stories of the other women, all of whom, like Kinsella, developed their relationships with the men after they were imprisoned, are uniformly sad. They don't shed much light on Bridget and Rory's relationship, because theirs is different: both of them know that it won't last. It's hard for me to believe each got everything they said they got out of their relationship, while at the same time knowing that Kinsella would move on. But then, that's partly what the book is about, suspending judgment about the relationships women have with men behind bars.

The Get on the Bus chapter was completely heart-breaking. I could not help but weep. Kinsella says that there are 1.5 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent. Kinsella's involvement with Get on the Bus is another way for her to heal and find a sense of purpose. I was able to set aside my doubts about her relationship with Rory in admiration of her determination to make a child's life better.

Monday, February 11, 2008

New Plants

A trip to two nurseries on Sunday filled our car's trunk with new plants. We found some irresistible succulents for our deck, cheery ornamentals and dainty alpine poppies (above, getting a drink) for our front yard, and the beginnings of our salad garden for the raised bed. My husband and I were like slugs in a field of new sprouts--everywhere we looked was something enticing. We had to stop ourselves before we bought enough plants for an acre. As it was, it took the better part of Sunday for the two of us to plant all we bought. That's partly because before we could plant, we had some transplanting and shearing and weeding to do.
Here's the Galactic lettuce (will it be out of this world?) and green Swiss chard starts. All around them I planted Brun d'hiver lettuce and arugula and chervil seeds. Starts are instant gratification. Presto: my lettuce garden! But seeds are something quite different. They are Jack's magic beans, tossed out of the window by his mother, that grow into a miraculous ladder to the sky. I could barely see the lettuce seeds I planted; the chervil were tiny black needles and the arugula smaller than mustard seeds. How is it possible that each has the potential to grow into a whole plant with roots and leaves and flowers and finally seeds again? I have to be careful not to put too much hope into them. Most of them won't come up, and those that do may be mowed down by snails or dry up if I forget to keep them moist. By the time they are as big as my starts, they will have been through a lot, if they make it. If the Brun d'hiver comes up it will really be a miracle, since I saved them from a crop we grew in 1995.
Working in the garden with my husband reminds me of the many seasons we have worked this yard together. Going on fourteen, now. It has changed radically, our 600 square feet. When we moved in there was fresh turf covering most of it, with two stiff camelia bushes. Only the following spring did we discover the turf had been laid down over blackberry vines, wild onions, and oxalis. We're still battling the latter. The Joseph's Coat roses and ornamental cherry and tomatoes and lavatera we planted are all gone. But the Bubble Bath and Cecil Brunner roses and eucalyptus we planted early on are still around. And every year we put in new plants, hoping they'll make it. The ones that end up sticking around are the ones we can stop pampering and worrying about. Once they get a good start, they just do what they need to do with little attention from us. Like these narcissus that we add to each year with the bulbs I forced indoors. They just come up every spring.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

From 6,000 Feet to Sea Level

On Friday when we woke up at Clair Tapaan Lodge, this is what we saw on our balcony.

Icicles reach down,
Pine trees rise up, carving a
Blue hole for the sky.

On Saturday morning, back at home, I took a walk and saw these poppies.

The poppy flounces
Her orange satiny skirt,
Stealing the sunshine.

It's spring!
Our state can be dizzying with all its different climates.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

That Little Round Red Sticker

A couple of weeks ago, when our voter information books arrived, my husband said, "Oh, we should send in that form to get our absentee ballots." (They are now called Vote-By-Mail ballots, which makes much more sense.) I said "Uh-huh," but never did it. Then last week, when there was actually still time to send in the application, a friend of mine told me she already voted. It hit me all of a sudden. I didn't want to vote by mail! I wanted to preserve the option of changing my mind up to the last minute. I wanted to go up the street to the poky little garage, and see others of my neighbors headed there, too, all of us doing our civic duty. I wanted to see who was working the polls this year: Would it be the elderly lady wearing a golf hat who told me, "Thanks for comin' out!" and her colleague with the shaky hand sliding her finger down the row of voters on the list past my name, so I had to help her find it? And most of all, I want my little round red sticker that says I voted in three languages. So I did nothing about sending in the application for a Vote-By-Mail ballot, and voted in person.
As I walked to my polling place today, I saw our next door neighbor (whose alternative rock band was featured on the cover of a local alternative paper) also heading that way. I admit I think of him as a bit of a slacker, but seeing him going to vote definitely raised his ratings with me. This year our polling place was staffed by smiling young women, perhaps only high-school-aged, or not much older, who efficiently found my name and whisked me my ballot. There was a conversation in Spanish going on while I fed my ballot into the machine that instantly transmits my choices to the election office. And an elderly man carefully peeled off my sticker and gave it to me. That was my voting experience. I wore my sticker proudly all day.
I wish I had known about this great nationwide civic art project to photograph your polling place. I just learned about it from a blog I enjoy reading, called "the end of motherhood?", written by a mom with teenage sons. If I had read her post earlier, I would have taken a photo to document the most nondescript of garages where I exercised one of our most precious democratic rights. BTW, I voted for Hillary Clinton.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Burns Supper

When was the last time you were at a party with friends reading poetry to each other? Last night my husband and I attended our first Burns supper, an event celebrated on or around January 25, the birth date of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The highlight of these gatherings, after a meal of traditional Scottish foods (more on that later) , is the singing and reading of poetry by Burns and other poets. The celebrants gathered by our Scottish friends Colin and Caroline were not necessarily highly practiced at either declaiming poetry or singing, but we all joined in gladly to celebrate the spirit of Burns. Some people brought a poem thoughtfully selected in advance in honor of the host, the hostess, or a favorite theme. There were poems by Pablo Neruda, in English and Spanish, and Maya Angelou; an Australian poem; even a poem in Irish Gaelic. Some were silly, some earnest, some heartfelt, some a parody. But it was poetry, and we even sang, quaveringly, “A Red, Red Rose.” I loved hearing the different voices read, in accents Scottish, Irish, Australian, American. Why does a particular poem appeal to a person, like the poem my friend Barbara read, an older woman’s reflection on her love for a soldier laddie? Here is the poem I selected to read, written by Burns to his wife, Jean, during a separation in 1788. It spoke to me of that exquisite heightened sensitivity of separation, when everything reminds you of your love:

Of A’ the Airts

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best:

There's wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between:
But day and night my fancys' flight
Is ever wi' my Jean.

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu' birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There's not a bonie flower that springs,
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There's not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o' my Jean.

Of the traditional Scottish meal: it began with bowls of rustic Scotch Broth, ladled from a tureen. Caroline’s Scotch Broth was thick and hearty, filled with potato, beans, and vegetables. I have also seen it as a more refined clear broth with a scattering of barley and beef and vegetables. This was only a prelude to the dish of honor, haggis. Many--especially those of us of British Isles descent--are steeped in lore of the haggis, although I wager few of us have actually tasted it. This is no longer a dish one makes at home. Caroline and Colin wrangled one from a maker in New Hampshire, since their usual California haggis purveyor said they had run out, and then managed to conjure one up in the last minute. Along with the vegetarian haggis, that made a total of three. I learned that before the haggis is served at a Burns supper, it must be addressed by the man of the house with a recitation of Burns’ “Address To a Haggis.” Here are the first three stanzas (it goes on a while longer, as all the hungry guests are gazing at the steaming treat):

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o'a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
In time o'need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin', rich!

The haggis’s (haggi?) last night were not as "lang" as anyone's arm, but plump, football-sized sausages with their ends tied saucily upward. During the recitation of the third stanza above, the host (in our case the host’s son) plunges the knife into the haggis to let the juices flow. Then everyone can dig in, and add mashed potatoes and bashed neeps (turnips) to their plates. I can say that a little haggis goes a long way. Haggis is made of lamb liver, sheep’s heart, onion, steel-cut oats, beef suet, and a dash of whiskey ground up and stuffed in a sheep’s intestine. For dessert was Atholl Brose, a mixture of whipped cream, toasted oats and nuts, honey, and whiskey. Not exactly California cuisine.

Oh—about one more Scottish cliché: kilts. I questioned one kilt-wearing man and found out that the one he was wearing had been his father’s army kilt, worn as a dress uniform. The kilt’s waist is adjustable, so you can wear it for a lifetime, or—as in this man’s case—longer. It is supposed to contain 30 yards of fabric. Another man wore a “Utilikilt,” invented by a company in Seattle, that combines the style and freedom of movement of a kilt with the practicality of khaki and cargo pockets. I have to say the kilt-wearing men last night looked quite manly and dashing.