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Yesterday I finished weeding the beans.
It seemed like such a small thing, in the July jungle of my garden. June rains had brought forth a high tide of grass, and then a fortnight of drought toughened up the weeds, which sent their sinewy roots deep. When you pull them, they make you fight for every inch.
“Never weed unless you mulch!” I tell myself each summer; i.e. when you weed, put straw down on the newly cleared patch immediately afterward so the weeds don’t just come back, like the telemarketer who promises to “catch you at a better time”. But “never weed unless you mulch” had turned into “never weed at all” somehow, as it so often does.
And so the beans, easiest of all vegetables to plant, easiest of all vegetables to maintain, sat stoic amongst a dense mat of spreading weeds. Carpetweed and purslane, spurge and chickweed. The beans were coping, as beans do. They’re not ones to complain. Anyone can grow beans, which is one reason I plant them.
Their pointed leaves, average-Joe green, drifted above a choking mass of radial foliage no more than half an inch high. The sun beat down on my neck. A weak impostor of a breeze stirred the invasive grasses all around. It would’ve been easier, I realized belatedly, to do this with the garden tools, which sat forgotten in the barn. Never mind, thought I, pinching the root hubs savagely with my fingertips. I can cope too. A drop of sweat trickled down, silently followed by another.
I picked my way from row to row, avoiding the pale bean stalks and attempting to spare the chervil – that poor low-growing sidekick with its minuscule, finely cut leaves, all but smothered by the annual predators. Chervil – delicate in taste, lacy in habit, thin-stalked and self-effacing – is the canary in the coal mine of my garden. When the garden’s well looked after, chervil thrives. This chervil was all but extinct.
I laid the last handful of straw in place, straightened up, and looked around. Seventeen beds of neglect stared back. I looked back at the bean bed, a small act of restoration in a wide world of chaos. I focused, hard, on the pattern of pale straw and bright leaves. “Whenever skies look grey to me…and trouble begins to brew….I concentrate on you.” I sang it to myself, and only in my mind.
Sometimes it feels like I can only grow one kind of garden: a garden of intentions, with a harvest of reproach. But the beans at least have no argument with me. For a scorching hour in a month of drought – drought for gardens, but also drought for freelance food writers – I felt gainfully occupied. Nobody said my idea was unpublishable. Nobody struggled through 600 stubbornly mediocre words. Nobody had to make the best of a pitch gone sour. Nobody needed to be cajoled into doing, or not doing, anything at all.
I slowly made my way back toward the house, passing beneath the grateful shade of the maple, trying out job titles. T. Susan Chang, seamstress. T. Susan Chang, occasional fortune teller. T. Susan Chang, underemployed pessimist. T. Susan Chang, friend to beans.
I decided I liked the last one best.
Are you getting your pie in gear for Thanksgiving? I am! Last week, I ordered 10 pounds of rendered leaf lard. Next week comes the traditional trip to Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield for pie apples. Following that, the traditional internet searches for better, nicer-looking crimps and troubleshooting pastry problems.
This week’s story looks at some recent cookbooks and some easyish, slightly non-traditional pies – an apple hand pie and a super-boozy whiskey crumble pie, and a couple of others- just in case you’re sick of your double-crust, or in case it’s giving you fits.
Since I don’t have a cookbook review to post this week (I’m furiously testing for roundup season), here’s the audio commentary that ran this past Friday.
It’s all about that powerful and evocative spirit, absinthe – known to bohemians of every age as “the green fairy”. Just the idea of it was enough to make me fantasize, in my 20’s, about being an artiste in fin-de-siècle Paris.
For better or worse, I was and remained a fairly well-brought-up Asian-American girl with a good education and all her shots. Still, it was fun to dream.
The delightful poster was hunted down by NEPR’s ace producer Jill Kaufman. I’m not quite sure why the station’s post is titled “Absinthe makes the heart grow ponder“. But it’s certainly making me do just that.
Hear my radio commentary on absinthe here.
At the beginning of the gardening season, when everything was green and hopeful, I wondered: which of you will fail me this year? Because no matter how good things look in May, there’s always something that disappoints you by September. This year it was peas (netting crash), tomatoes (blight) and potatoes (blight again).
Everything else did OK – especially, for once, the cucumbers. The vine borers laid off this year, taking just one squash plant as their token tax. My cukes are still bearing after a couple months, and maybe they’ll continue right up till frost. I’m not much for hardcore canning, so thank God for fridge pickles.
Fridge pickles are easy, thankfully, and even a harvest-time slob like me can pack a few away without much thought.
Summer’s usually a quiet time for me, work-wise, but I kept writing stories throughout most of this one. In terms of testing, I think my two favorites were DIY soda and this one – because who can complain about having to eat fresh homemade ice cream in July, for work?
There’s a gazillion ice cream books out there, and the fact is that I don’t use many new ice cream recipes myself – I’ve got some tried-and-true favorites I tend to stick to. But I usually learn something from each new book, whether it’s a better technique for cooling the custard or using cream cheese for texture or whatever.
Today’s the first day of school, which is probably the last day of ice cream season. All my homemade ice cream is long eaten, but I noticed a leftover store pint of something in the freezer. And nobody here knows about it but me.
On October 27th of last year, the men of my family came home very late from a trip to upstate New York. “Route 9 was blocked off,” said my husband as he came in. “And you could see smoke coming up from somewhere.”
The smoke, it turned out, was rising from the Norwottuck Shoppes mini-mall in Hadley. A dozen businesses burned to the ground, including three of our favorites: Banh Mi Saigon, International Food Market, and Mi Tierra Mexican restaurant.
It was a total loss. But over the ensuing nine months, the owners and the community have made a heroic effort at rebuilding, and this fall a new Mi Tierra will rise on Route 9. To my very great pleasure, I got the chance to cover the story of Mi Tierra‘s return for the Boston Globe – a story of perseverance, good food, hard work, and some hyper-local heirloom corn tortillas. [Since filing the story, I’ve heard that Banh Mi Saigon is returning to business too.]
(This post originally appeared on Eat Your Books 06/10/14)
Every once in a while I like to catch up with what’s going on with kids’ cookbooks. I’ve looked at cookbooks for little kids (both story-based and picture-based) and cookbooks meant for teens. And, of course, family cookbooks, which tend to train a laserlike focus on Getting It Done on a Weeknight.
Yet for a long time, I wasn’t finding that these cookbooks played much of a role in my own family. Even though everyone here – age 54, 44, 13, or 8 – maintains a healthy obsession with food, my kids’ cookbooks seemed to hold no appeal for the kids themselves. I’d leave them out casually in common areas, or read them at storytime, but that’s as far as it went. The little one is good with flour and would join me in a heartbeat if she saw I was on a baking project. But she rarely followed even a stripped-down recipe. The big one avoided the kitchen entirely unless something snackable was out, or he had to put away the dishes.
I had little interest in pushing them to cook, knowing that when you’re a kid, being forced to do something by someone who’s an expert at it is a pretty good recipe for hating it. I decided to worry about other stuff, like car repairs and tuition and blackfly aphids on my broad beans.
But recently, something happened. The 13-year-old’s school year finished in the end of May. His school tablet computer was returned to the school’s tech department, and he suddenly found himself at home, faced with what I call the Gift of Boredom. He mooned around the house awhile, draping himself over furniture, pestering me while I worked, dipping in and out of a Game Of Thrones book.
I explained that he’d be making his own breakfast and lunch (cries of protest!) but that I’d help him if he needed me. He quickly got bored of his usual breakfast – eggs, scrambled flat and hard, with bacon – so I taught him mine, okonomiyaki. It’s just an egg batter plus whatever vegetables you have around, teased into a chunky pancake and glazed on one side. He started by mixing the flour and leavening and gradually progressed to chopping the vegetables, flipping the pancake (using a tart pan bottom), and cooking the sauce. His surprise and pride when he tasted his first okonomiyaki filled my heart – but I played it cool.
We ate at the kitchen table, where this season’s cookbooks were piled high. On top was The Soda Fountain, just sitting there waiting for a bored teen’s eyes to fall on it. He flipped through the pages, chewing thoughtfully. “These don’t look so hard.”
I sipped my coffee.
“Mom, why do they call it an egg cream?”
“Dunno, what does it say?”
Then, “Mom, do we have citric acid?” Then, “Mom, what are blanched almonds?”
Before I knew it, my son who hates to cook had occupied the kitchen like it was the Western Front in 1945. This was a week ago. Since then, nearly every day has started with okonomiyaki. Syrup after syrup has filled the fridge. Dinner often ends with an egg cream. Ants have come exploring for sugar spills and the dishwasher’s running twice a day.
Meanwhile, the 8-year-old suddenly remembered about Pretend Soup, which I bought a year ago. Post-Its were affixed. Ingredients were requested. And so my precious Me Time at 5:00 – that is, me with my cookbooks starting dinner while listening to the news and sipping my bourbon/ginger beer – got requisitioned for Projects. One day, a noodle pudding. The day before, a homemade lemon lime soda.
I make faces. I nag people to put away their stuff. I swear when I’m trying to fit things in the fridge and there’s no room next to the mason jars full of syrup. And both sets of measuring spoons are now always dirty when I want them. But secretly, I’m overjoyed. Even if it doesn’t last – even if they grow up and go through a ramen phase or a bagel phase or a nothing-but-kale-chips-from-the-store phase – I still have a feeling that a seed’s been planted, somehow or other.
Just don’t tell the kids.
This is Lumpy, who does not lay.
In the two years since I first became a flockster, I’ve often known who was laying what. The two Easter Eggers laid distinctive blue (Spalty) and green (Feather) eggs. The two Wyandottes laid smallish golden-brown (Stormy) and pinkish-speckled (Stripèd) eggs.
But the 4 Barred Rocks – One Patch, Two Patch, Lumpy, and Jumpy – were so alike in every way, their habits and nesting preferences and their pale brown eggs so similar, that I was never quite sure. After One Patch went to the big coop in the sky last year, I thought I’d figured it out. Not counting the Easter Egger and Wyandotte eggs, I had, I thought, three other kinds: a very regular-shaped extra-large egg, a slightly elongated, blimp-like egg, and an enormous egg with a “sleep wrinkle” on one end. Jumpy, Two Patch, Lumpy, I thought.
But after the March chicken massacre, the only Barred Rock left was Lumpy. And every morning since that awful day I’ve looked for her enormous “sleep wrinkle” egg, to no avail. The other two survivors, Feather and Stripèd, continue to offer up their pale green and pinkish-speckled treasures about 3 days out of 4. But of Lumpy’s egg – or what I thought was Lumpy’s egg, anyway – no trace.
Lumpy’s a healthy bird, with bright black-and-white feathers (especially glossy and vivid after the last winter molt), a symmetrical comb, and elegant small feet. She’s talkative, too, with a musical voice and a funny cry that sounds like the original Star Trek intercom whistle. All in all, she’s an easy girl to like. And I know she used to lay, because there wasn’t a hen in my flock I hadn’t caught in the act at one point or another. But right now, she’s not doing her job.
So this brings up the question: what do we do with layers who don’t lay?
Another kind of household would have an obvious answer: stew pot. And I’m sure my bloodthirsty, bottomlessly hungry teenage son would agree. But when the word stew pot comes up, I inevitably counter, lawn mower.
This is because one thing even a non-laying hen can do is keep the grass from encroaching into the garden in the summer. The Barred Rocks are pretty flightless (one reason they were easy pickings for the neighborhood dog, I guess), so they’re especially good at staying inside the fence and snapping off the grass tips, one blade at a time. It’s slow, but they’ll do it all day. They never get bored.
But the fact is, even if Lumpy weren’t a pretty good lawn mower, I’d probably have to keep her anyway. Friendly, harmless, not the most productive, occasionally entertaining – somehow, when I go down this list of Lumpesque qualities, it seems terribly familiar.
In that remorseless middle-aged way, I think to myself: Who else isn’t living up to their potential? Shouldn’t I be doing more in life than just, sort of, getting along? Is it OK to be an affable person, essential to my family, of value to some friends? To produce a small body of work that brings pleasure to a few? Is it enough?
The answer, of course, is yes – it has to be. Because if I spend my life worrying about not enough, in the end I really won’t have anything to show for myself. It’s just one reason – perhaps the most intangible, but perhaps the most secure – that Lumpy won’t be getting the axe.
Still I hope, for all our sakes, that one morning I’ll go out to that empty, haunted nest and find it: one enormous, sleep-wrinkled egg – the work of a day; the justification, however disingenuous, for a life.
This last weekend, we suffered a predator attack – our first since we first got our chickens exactly two years ago. It must have happened in broad daylight, while we were inside the house, laid up with stomach bugs. But none of us heard a thing. When R went to check on them for the afternoon, he found 4 carcasses inside the fence. Only one had been well and truly savaged; the others, it seems, were merely killed for sport. Amongst the drifts of fallen feathers, we found the muddy prints of a very large dog.
Our coop is a fortress that had served our birds well till now. We have seen predator prints in the snow, pacing the coop, only to find it impregnable from above, around, and below when closed. But the door had been propped open for the day, and the hens were enjoying the first few days of scratchable, bare earth after an interminable winter. After the dog jumped the netting, the hens must have run for the open coop in panic. Judging from the feathers lining the floor, the dog followed them in. Any hens that didn’t make it up the narrow ramp to the upper floor didn’t stand a chance.
They were only chickens, but in a small flock you’ve raised by hand, the losses hit hard. Spalty the Easter Egger was our one blue egg-layer – she gave us a lovely pale turquoise egg with a matte finish, and she was one of our cleverer birds. As a chick, her plumage was dotted and stippled like spalted maple, and that’s how she got her name. She nearly died last summer after eating something she shouldn’t have, but made a full recovery; and she was always the first to find a patch of chickweed or steal a strawberry or learn anything new.
Jumpy and Two Patch were Barred Rocks – docile and friendly, though Jumpy was rather thick. As a chick she was adventurous – the first to jump out of the nursery (hence the name), the first to catch an ant. She grew to be the biggest of our birds, with giant feet and a wobbly, crooked comb. She could scarcely figure out how to exit the coop in the morning for her feeding – she’d bonk her head repeatedly against the corner opposite the door because it had a clear view out to the yard. Clumsy as she was, she was a reliable layer. Unlike Two Patch, who laid oddly pointed, elongated eggs and would squat beneath your hand with a nervous stutter step.
I’ll especially miss Stormy the Silver Laced Wyandotte, who used to come running when she heard me weeding the garden beds. She’d forage for bugs right beneath my fingers, and she laid beautiful golden-brown eggs. After this year’s molt she grew skittish and would linger back in the coop when the others came out to greet me, as if she had a premonition that it wasn’t safe Outside. Alas, she was right.
Of our original 8 chickens, only 3 survive (One Patch died of a mysterious illness last year). We have one of each breed, now. The children’s favorite, Feather the Easter Egger, is still with us, still offering up an olive-green egg almost every day. So are whistling Lumpy and the speedy Stripèd, who is our escape artist and was hiding through the attack.
If there’s any consolation to be found in the timing of this disaster, it’s that it happened before the order deadline for new chicks this year. So in a month or so, we’ll be bringing in new little feathered friends – tiny souls to pamper, nourish, shelter, and delight in, and, eventually, to mourn. But hopefully not for some years.
One of the things I love about being a food writer is this: you can talk to anybody. In my first career, I worked as an editor for an academic press. I dreaded being asked about my job at cocktail parties, because it meant having to come up with some kind of bungled, context-appropriate translation of the subjectivity of the margin or queering the text.
But food! Everybody understands food. Everybody has something to say about food. And everybody has an interesting question or two for food writers. The most popular question is not What’s your favorite food? [Answer: Impossible to say.] or Who’s your favorite Food Network star? [Answer: Don’t have one.] It’s probably Do you write restaurant reviews? [Answer: No.]
The short answer is: I do gain weight. All day long, I’m either cooking, eating, or thinking about food. Food is never not on my mind. I’ve always had a great appetite, and if I could, I would eat non-stop all day long. But it doesn’t take much to sustain a T. Susan Chang – just 1776 calories a day, ad infinitum. (My husband gets 2842, and eating-wise I’m totally capable of matching him bite for bite.)
Needless to say, I blow right past 1776 regularly. Especially in the winter months of Fatstember and Carbuary. (Have you noticed that butter tastes even better in the winter?) I’m resigned to gaining 5-10 pounds each winter – it’s OK, it helps me keep warm. But come March, it all has to come off.
This winter, I made it to a record high of 12 pounds over. That’s partly because we discovered Foyle’s War and Sherlock and partly because I recipe-tested desserts 2 or 3 times a week – a devastating combination.
During the summertime, I can maintain weight merely by sauntering along at the treadmill desk all day (I’m one of an increasing number, the walking working). But this winter, drastic action was necessary. I returned to an old friend, MyFitnessPal, which grimly informed me of my new Austerity Budget: 1200 calories, negotiable only with exercise.
To this I added a re-commissioned Fitbit Zip – formerly my son’s (he’s 13 and has the metabolism of a rocket engine, so he doesn’t need it right now). Finally, I added a third element: competition. I persuaded my husband to put his Zip back on too, and kept both of our monitors ostentatiously displaying our relative activity levels.
But basically, it’s a pretty simple arrangement: The Zip is a tracker – essentially a smart wireless pedometer – so it’s in charge of tracking of Calories Out. MyFitnessPal, with its giant database of foods and ingredients, is in charge of tracking Calories In.
The two systems, which I’ve linked together through their software, have slight discrepancies. They don’t always sync perfectly. And MyFitnessPal stiffs me 150 calories more than Fitbit, which makes a big difference at the end of the day when you’re seriously considering a cookie. But mostly they stay on-message. Mostly the message goes like this: Work at the treadmill desk whenever possible. Don’t have the second glass of wine. Take the stairs.
Calories in, calories out may not be the perfect fitness approach for everyone. But for a person who loves food as much as I do, it’s a lifesaver. It’s forced me to cook more carefully, knowing that if there are fewer bites they better be damn good. It’s forced me to move more, because I’m not just going to do without that 120-calorie tablespoon of butter. It’s forced me to eat more greens, because they so obviously have better bang for the buck.
Two weeks in, I’m close to 3 pounds down. But more importantly, I just plain feel better. I’ve got more energy. My brain works a little faster. And some of my jeans are starting to fit again.
There’s a frozen roll of cookie dough in the fridge – my favorite, double dark chocolate cherry. I made it two weeks ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of it. So far, I’ve waited patiently, gorging on it only in my imagination. But pretty soon, we’re going to have a word, that cookie and I. Actually, it will be more of a 4-way conversation: me, the cookie, Fitbit, and MyFitnessPal. But I’m pretty sure I’ll have the last word.