Ode to a Porch

I sit on the porch, rain lightly falling around me. The roof over my head, the eaves hanging down, protect me–allow me to sit in the midst of nature, without the threat of bee stings, mosquito bites, or rain. I sit at the table facing one corner–the corner that looks out at the yard next door. The white picket bridge over the creek, a red leafed tree behind it, and beyond that a cherry blossom covered in white blooms.

The rain means outdoor work has stopped, so this afternoon I will not be bothered by the yard workers revving their motors to maintain a lush green lawn that no one ever uses. The renovation on the house across the alley has also stopped, the sounds of their machines replaced by the sound of rain falling into puddles.

I remember when my landlords first showed me this cabin. We entered the living room where a round wooden table dominated one corner. “That’s where you’ll eat during the winter,” my landlady said. I was a bit confused until we got to the porch.

porchI recall last summer spending mornings in the chaise lounge out here, eating a bowl of yogurt and muesli, my glass of water on the green shelf next to me. I didn’t sit at the table mindlessly eating while reading a book. Breakfast was the meal I ate mindfully–or at least tried to.

I recall packing lunches to bring to work, so I could eat quickly in the office, and thereby leave earlier in exchange for taking so little time for lunch. As spring blossomed I realized I needed a break at midday and drove home (a mere two miles) for lunch each day. I had time to cook if I wanted, or I simply took leftovers out to the porch. At the table birds provided my soundtrack, a book my entertainment, with commercial breaks provided by the squirrels.

I recall those work days when my lunch hour just wasn’t enough, when I wished I could spend the whole afternoon out here. Indeed I did on weekends, when I spent entire days moving between the chaise lounge, book in hand, and the kitchen: eating and reading the only tasks on my agenda.

There were entire months I ate every meal on this porch.

“So you’re going to lose the cabin . . .” my mother said when I told her of my plan to head to France for three months.

“Well, yeah. They’re thinking of selling the property in the spring,” which meant I could possibly be given one month’s notice to move anyway.

I was thinking how sad it is to leave this place. Of all the homes I’ve had since leaving my parent’s house, this, by far, has been my favorite. When I first moved in I would often stop what I was doing to reach out and lay my hand on a log. I loved that I could see so clearly what my house was made of. No insulation or sheet rock hiding its bones.

I realized today marks thirty days until my departure from this place. And today I am trying to change my thinking from “I only have thirty days” to “I have thirty more days!”

Adventures in Cooking: The Black Bean

I became a vegetarian just over a year ago and one unexpected benefit is a renewed interest in trying new recipes. A month ago I bought dried black beans. I had no idea what the difference was between the canned version I usually bought versus soaking and cooking them myself, but I thought it time to give it a try. 

SAMSUNG

A few days ago I did an internet search to find out what the process was.  As usual, there were hundreds of people who wanted to tell me how go from dried bean to deliciousness. Step 1: Sort the beans. The instructions acted like I knew what this meant.  Sort them into what? Piles of ten? I closed out of that page and opened someone else’s instructions. “Remove any stones, twigs, malformed or discolored beans.” Stones? Twigs? How on earth does one harvest beans such that there are stones and twigs among them? I had no idea, but I knew if I used Google to find that answer I would never get to the task at hand. Back to the beans it was.

I dumped a half-cup of beans into a bowl and sifted through them. I pulled out maybe fifteen things I thought shouldn’t be in there. If I had poured my beans onto a tray I could have pushed to one side all the good ones, but I wasn’t interested in going to all that trouble.  Besides, I wasn’t going to serve them to anyone else, so if a stone slipped in it was only my tooth that would be damaged.

Next I added an equal amount of water.  It didn’t seem like enough. But I followed the instructions. “Let them soak for six hours.” Six hours?! It was six p.m. So much for having black beans and rice for dinner. “Overnight is fine.” Well, overnight it was going to be then, as I was not about to get up a midnight to care for my beans.  I like to cook, but I like a good night’s sleep just as much, if not more.

I pushed the bowl of beans aside and opened my fridge to see what else I could have for dinner.

After dinner, I peeked into the bowl. Those beans were taking up more space and had soaked up most of the water. I made an executive decision to add more water.

The next day they were looking pretty good. If overnight was fine, I figured 24-hours wouldn’t hurt. I could eat them that night. But I forgot about them until the next morning when I padded into the kitchen and smelled something funny. It took me a minute to remember my beans. Thirty-six hours was a little too much for them apparently.

Round 2

This time I only did 1/4 cup of beans.  No need to waste anymore of them if this didn’t turn out well.

Who screws up soaking black beans? Me. Ha. Who knew how difficult  I could make throwing beans and water into a bowl.

I pulled up a third set of instructions. I zoomed past sorting. After telling me to add water, this one mentioned that “in hot-weather kitchens, it is best to put the beans in the refrigerator to prevent fermentation.” Ah. I knew what fermentation was. It’s a stinky process that can happen when a woman leaves a bowl of black beans and water sitting on the counter in an un-air-conditioned cabin.

This time I started the process at 9 a.m. on a  cool and cloudy Saturday. I could soak these guys and have them for dinner tonight.

By afternoon the clouds cleared and I was off to meet friends at the pool. Upon my return, I read my next steps. Note to self: read instructions fully before embarking on cooking adventures. I know this, but really how much could there be to soaking some beans? Well, there could be an additional 45 minutes of simmering. Really? I was hungry. So I put the beans on to simmer, and made myself a frittata for dinner.

Finally, after I was sufficiently satiated and the dinner dishes were done, I deemed my beans done as well.  I drained the water, poured them into a Pyrex, and put them in the fridge. Tonight, my friend Courtney and I will eat them mixed with quinoa, salsa, and cilantro. I hope she doesn’t break a tooth.

Changing Tastes

I scoured the shelves on the door of the refrigerator.  Dijon mustard!  Score! I smiled as I squirted it into an empty salad bowl.  I hate mustard.  But I always have some in my fridge to make this very dressing – one that I loved from the moment I tasted it sitting in my host mother’s kitchen in Domdidier, Switzerland.

I had not seen Mrs. Rimaz make the salad dressing that afternoon, so had no way of knowing one of my most detested foods was a major ingredient.  I was a notoriously picky eater, but something changed that summer in Switzerland.  I was in a land where people ate a lot of things I didn’t like, but my mother taught me to be respectful, so I ate what was placed in front of me – even if I didn’t know what it was.

My first night there, having used most of the French I knew in a conversation with Pascal, my first host-brother, I was delighted when dinner was called.  We filed out to the patio – which was completely bug-less on this June night.  I looked at the plates in the center of the table and panicked.  One held chunks of what looked like various cuts of raw bacon.  The other held at least four different kinds of cheeses. I was sixteen.  And I hated cheese.  Well, not all cheese.  Parmesan and mozzarella were fine on spaghetti and pizza respectively, but other than that this girl of half-Italian descent didn’t eat cheese.  No lasagna.  No manicotti.  No macaroni and cheese.  And raw meat?  The only raw meat I’d ever eaten was swiped from the bowl when Mom made meatcakes – ground beef mixed with onion, pepper, Worcestershire, a slice of wet bread and raw egg.  That was delicious.  But raw bacon?  Was it even bacon?  I really didn’t know.

What I did know was that I was in a foreign country, a guest at someone’s table, and I was hungry.  So I took a deep breath and did as the rest of my host family did.  I placed pieces of the raw meat and cheeses on my plate – and ate them.

The meat wasn’t so bad.  And the cheese?  It was some of the best food I’d ever eaten.  I reached for seconds.  What was this stuff?  Did we have cheese like this in the US?  If we did, I’d never had it.  Probably because I had no idea it could be this good.  My mother would be so proud of me, I thought.

A week later I left that temporary host family and moved to the little town of Domdidier. To a farm.  With 10,000 chickens.  And two host parents, a host brother and sister, none of whom spoke English.  But back to the food.

Our big meal was at lunch time.  My host father came home from his job as one of the two men in charge of this province of Switzerland.  My host brother came in from the fields, dressed and smelling like a farmer.   My host mother had the table set and the meal ready to go.  I sat quietly as they spoke in rapid-fire French, only understanding them if they spoke directly to me and five times slower than they spoke to each other.

It was at that table that I first tried Dijon mustard dressing.  Of course, I didn’t know it was made with one of the foods I most hated.  I hadn’t seen my host mother prepare it that day.  All I knew was that this was one of the best salads I’d ever had.

The next day this budding chef got to the kitchen early enough to see how my host mother made her dressing.  I brought my journal down with me, and flipped open the back cover to mark down the ingredients.  There was no packet of Good Seasons Italian dressing mix.  Instead, she squirted Dijon mustard into a salad bowl, then whisked in some red wine vinegar, then a little oil.  Mustard? I thought.  But I hate mustard!

~~~

Today finds me in a mountaintop home pet-sitting five animals – two of whom require twice daily insulin shots, one of whom also requires thrice daily eye drops.  “Eat whatever you’d like,” my friends told me before they left.  “There are two vines of grape tomatoes, and plenty of green beans in the garden.”

 

Ripe for the pickin’

This afternoon I harvested just enough of both, delighted when I came in and found Dijon in their fridge.  I whisked it together in a salad bowl with some red wine vinegar and a little olive oil, sprinkled in some fresh ground salt and pepper. I chopped up the beans, halved the grape tomatoes, and dumped them into the bowl. I still hate mustard.  But Mrs. Rimaz’s dijon dressing?  Absolutely delicious.

I ate it all before I remembered to take a picture… (Camino friends – note the shape of this bowl)

Epilogue:

Five months ago I became a vegetarian, so raw meat is not something I’m into.  But cheese?  Love it.  Goat cheese.  Camembert.  Gruyere.  Manchego.  And my Italian ancestors are smiling down on me: I now eat (vegetarian) lasagna and manicotti:)

The Joy of Blogging: Grandma and the Camino

Before my parents took off for the weekend, they asked if I could do them a favor and drop something off at my grandmother’s house.  I agreed – not just to maintain my #1 Daughter status, but also because I was moving in less than a week and visiting Grandma was something I needed to do before I left.

Time with Grandma, however, wasn’t on my checklist. I had to pack for my move.  Call the editor of Busted Halo with a decision as to if I would again blog for them. Answer the fifty e-mails sitting in my in-box in my quest to get down to zero before I left. 

Instead of doing any of that, I sat on the internet looking up delicious-sounding vegetarian dishes.  I switched over to BustedHalo.com.  I perused the other articles, trying to figure out how/if I could fit in and what angle I would take.  I went to the posts I had written earlier, and that’s when it hit me.

I started to print all the posts I’d written about the Camino (on white paper) and the comments (on yellow paper).  When I was finished, I called Mom and Dad to find where they stored a three-hole-punch.  I punched all the pages and put them in a black one-inch thick binder.  Then, I headed to Grandma’s.

As I walked toward the front of her building, I saw her and one of her friends heading out.  “Where you going?” I asked.

“Oh – I completely forgot you were coming!” Grandma said.  “We’re going to pick up Chinese.  Why don’t you come?”

Getting in a car driven by my 88-year-old grandmother wasn’t something I was looking forward to.  I was a little slow on the uptake and agreed – later wondering why I didn’t just offer to drive. Off we went.  I tried to look out the side windows, or at the speedometer hoping she wouldn’t go too much faster than I would have.

The drive wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  Probably because the Chinese food place was less than a mile away and only required right turns. We brought the food back to her house and sat down to eat.  I’m pretty sure this was the first time in my life I’ve eaten anything other than Italian food at my grandmother’s home.  I felt a little like I was in another dimension.

She asked about my trip and, as happened frequently since I’ve returned, I stumbled over where to start, what to say.  But I had a book of words I had written along The Way.  I don’t think Grandma fully understood what the binder was when I handed it to her, but she promised to look at it before I came back two days later for the traditional Sunday meatballs.  (Note: Sunday would be the first time I headed to Grandma’s and would not eat meatballs as I’d become a vegetarian three months earlier, but I wasn’t going to get into that yet.)

That evening, back at Mom and Dad’s, the phone rang.  I don’t usually answer their phone as I don’t really live there and the calls are not usually for me.  But the caller ID said it was Grandma, so I picked it up.

“I just had to call,” she said.  “I’m three-quarters of the way through your book and I just can’t put it down!”  Well, apparently she could since she had to put it down in order to call me…but that’s beside the point. “This is just so amazing.  I feel like I’m right there with you. I can’t believe you did this.”

Though I had printed out the comments more for me to relish in later than anything, Grandma loved those too. She was amazed, like I was, that total strangers wrote responses to my posts.

During this conversation, it struck me that the best part of writing for Busted Halo while I was on the Camino was this: that I had a book my grandmother could read to understand a bit more about what I had just accomplished.

~~~~

Epilogue:

On Sunday, I went to Grandma’s and turned down meatballs explaining I was a vegetarian.

“Well, at least have some of the sauce,” she said.

“I can’t eat that either.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because you cooked the meatballs in the sauce.”

“Really?” She scrunched up her face, thoroughly mystified.

She scoured the refrigerator.  Like any Italian grandmother would have, there were plenty of other choices in there. She breathed a great sigh of relief when I accepted her offer of roasted red peppers.

Asheville–> Kiawah Island

There is an advantage to leaving Asheville at 7:30AM:  Arrival at the gates to Kiawah Island at 12:30 pm.  Gates?  Yes, gates.  It’s not a gated community – it’s a gated island from what I can tell.  Not the kind of place I’d want to live (I’m not into planned communities), but a glorious place to spend a week writing, for sure.

My pictures won’t do the place justice, but you can click here for the property listing.

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From our lovely two-level back deck, we can see and hear the ocean.  It takes all of thirty seconds to get from our deck to the water’s edge – which I did twice yesterday walking first with Lois and then with Lynne.   In this picture, you see my coat drying on a chair.  My morning walk was a bit soggy.  Which wasn’t bad.  The rumbles of thunder didn’t really bother me, either.  But when that thunder cracked, I decided it was time to turn around.

imageThere are lots of nice thing about trips with retired folks.  The big one: they have time.  Don’t get me wrong – these women do plenty in their retirement.  Writing classes, volunteer work, playing with grandchildren, time and trips with friends.  But they also have time to do things like search for the location for this years retreat.  And look what they found!  All I had to do was look at the listings they sent and say, “Yeah – that looks good.”  Within days, Lois had booked it.  I sent her my check and a few months later she mailed out directions and gate passes.  For a girl who’s been planning travels on her own for years, this is heaven.image

Another great thing about the time these retired folks have: they use it to plan for trips like these.  Lois and Lynne brought all sorts of food.  So far, I’ve had Lois’ chocolate cake, white chili, and cowboy caviar (all homemade!).  I’ve also shared some of Lynne’s pistachios and tea.  They also brought, between the two of them, a printer, games, and all sorts of writing magazines and journals.

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Lynne said the other night that she never has a problem coming up with things to list in her gratitude journal.  I haven’t kept a gratitude journal lately, but I do find myself being thankful for so many things.  Many days I’ll stop and think, “Wow – is this my life?!”  The other night I had that song from the Sound of Music playing in my head, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” I have good friends, good food, time away, time to write, time to travel.  As Lois says, “Life is grand.”

Learning New Things

Is it just me, or is everyone as stimulated as I am by making things?  Whether it’s cooking or crafts, I’m just “in my element” when I’m making something.  And if it’s something I’ve never made before, well that’s a whole other level of fun, mystery, and sometimes frustration.

In the last three days I’ve made at least three new things.  I’m not telling you this to brag.  If anything, I hope it will inspire you to try something new yourself.  Maybe you’ll want to try one of the things I’ve done, or maybe you have something else you’ve always wanted to try – well, there’s no time like the present!

On Monday, I mastered the purl stitch in knitting.  This is the third time in twenty years I’ve tried to learn to knit.  This time it may have stuck, thanks to:

  • Eve Hildebrant – Master knitter and my co-host at the Folk School who has taught plenty of people to knit – even people like me who’ve tried twice before without success….
  • Sarah Bennett and Dorothy Wilkins:  Work study students at the Folk School who learned to knit while there and progressed quite rapidly in just six weeks!
  • A Knitting instructor from England who was at JCCFS while I was.  Her name escapes me at the moment, but she sat with me one evening and helped me perfect my technique.

All of those folks believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself (which, in my eyes, makes them all excellent teachers).  I saw Eve on Tuesday night and showed off my work.  She smiled a knowing grin – she’s believed in my knitting abilities since day one.  Maybe I’m pushing a little too much, but I found a sweater pattern yesterday that I want to work on for my next project….

Stockinette Stitch

On Tuesday, I made sugared pecans.  They’re one of those things that, when I first sampled them at my friend Tara’s house, I thought would be hard to make, but Tara assured me it was easy – and she was right.

Last night, I started work on making a new journal.  I took a miniature books class at the Folk School.  Then, my friend Sarah expanded my horizons and helped me make my first book with pockets.  After a couple of those, I now have the confidence to try a book I’ve never made before.

Making a mini-book at the John C. Campbell Folk School

A book with pockets on one side and....

a notebook on the other.

Picking the papers

Making the Covers

Ready for gluing and sewing

So if you’re feeling kind of “blah” lately, I recommend trying to make something new – it’s a high quite unlike any other:)

 

A Host Not Like Most?

“So have you made a lot of things so far?” my new co-host asked me. Having taken eight weeks of classes here at the Folk School, one would assume I have a cabinet filled with the fruits of my labors.

“Actually, no,” I said.  “I’ve purposely chosen classes where I don’t make a lot of stuff.  I may hold the record for the Host who produced the least amount while at the Folk School.”

I explained that I’m kind of a minimalist.  It was the first time I’d used that word to describe myself but I felt like it fit perfectly.

  • Scottish Cooking and An Abundance of Appetizers left me with delicious recipes.
  • Nature Writing left me with some blog posts and stories – all stored electronically.  And one hand-made book.
  • My Building A Garden Shed class was tasked with creating a shed for the Folk School – nothing for me to take home except the knowledge that I’m not cut out to be a builder.
  • From my Genealogy class, I gained a destination for my trip to Italy in March: Corigliano.  It is in that class that I learned the name of the town my great-grandmother came from.  I now own a copy of the ship manifest that shows her arrival in the port of New York on the Perugia on June 7, 1913.
  • I have an eight-ounce cup full of Glass Beads, most of which I’ll donate to Beads of Courage.
  • I made five hooks, two bottle openers, and a fork in my Blacksmithing class – all useful things either for myself or as gifts.

In fact, everything I’ve made can fit into my purse.  Which fits my minimalist lifestyle just fine:)

A couple cookbooks, a handmade book, some beads, a ship manifest, a genealogy guide, assorted blacksmithed items