The Side Effects of Old-Fashioned Cookery

Yesterday after I put the ingredients together in a bowl for meatloaf, I asked Samuel if he would mix it up for me since my shoulder was acting up pretty bad. He washed his hands, stuck them in the bowl and began mixing up the couple handfuls of oats, two eggs, milk (to moisten the oats), a small hunk of finely grated asiago (for the cheese this time because I didn’t have any romano – I figured it was close enough), a small bunch of chopped fresh parsley, a pound of ground beef (it came in a weighed package!) and salt and pepper.

He squished and turned and squished some more and then said, “Seems wet to me. Is it always this wet?” He was right. This is a risk when you pour the milk directly from the gallon.

I reached for the breadcrumbs in the pantry, said, “This’ll fix that,” and sprinkled some in. He mixed some more, it still looked a tad wet, so I sprinkled some more breadcrumbs in. Good now. He formed the loaf in my cast iron skillet, and I turned on the oven a while later so that everything would be ready when he returned home. I misjudged and the meatloaf baked a while longer than was perhaps ideal, but that meant a very delicious crispy bottom crust – and the inside was certainly not dry!

At one point during meatloaf-making, Samuel had said (half under his breath), “Do you measure anything?”

Of course I do! But it got me to thinking about measuring, about “cookery,” about ease in the kitchen – the trial and error of learning to make food, the imprecision, substitutions and playing around that often work, the times I make do or figure out what’s for supper by looking in the fridge and seeing what speaks to me, the side effects of being as old-fashioned about it as I am.

I also thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, how he says in Outliers that those who have achieved a high level of competency in any area – whether a concert pianist, a hockey player, a computer programmer – have simply, over the years, put in the time. “Highly competent” is a subjective assessment in the kitchen (and I myself have miles to go before I’m close to that), but I wondered if my ease, my sense of when it looks right or feels right or smells done, my willingness to flex with ingredients sometimes (such as using a different cheese in the meatloaf this time) has to do simply with having spent a lot of time over many years preparing food in a kitchen. It’s probably why my mom and my sister are such great cooks.

This past week my dear friend John gifted me a book called The Lost Art of Real Cooking.

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He mentioned it was coming by saying, “I’m sending you a hard copy of a book that reminded me of you…. When I read part of it I could hear you talking 😊”  Now that I have it, I wonder which part. Maybe, knowing my meatloaf methodology, he liked: “This book is an effort to loosen up.”

Maybe, knowing how much joy I get from feeding people: “There is, it cannot be denied, unspeakable pleasure in providing sustenance for others with the labor of one’s own hands.”

Maybe it was this part (because I have said as much!): “Yes, this will be hard work. But can you see the irony of people who save time and energy with electric gadgets and then traipse off to burn calories in the gym? Why not boldly brandish a whisk instead? Your egg whites will be all the more happy for it, as well as your biceps.” (Myself, I would like to add an exclamation point after biceps!)

Maybe this part (because I have also said as much!): “We are not averse to measurements per se, they are often necessary, particularly with baking. But to insist that a quarter teaspoon of some particular seasoning is correct while anything more or less, or, heaven forfend, a substitution, altogether amounts to culinary heresy, this is just too much to bear.”

Maybe he’s thinking of how much time I spend making homemade manicotti (including the crepes that wrap up the cheese) or waiting for bread to rise or watching the tomato soup slowly cook down to the point of straining out the seeds and skins, or how delighted I am that the basil I planted in May gives flavor to our pizza in August, or how satisfied I feel when the granola comes out crunchy because it sits in the oven overnight. “So before you continue, Gentle Reader, if you cannot abide long hours in the kitchen, this is no book for you….Cooking slowly with patience is inherently entertaining and the food it yields tastes better, costs less, and connects you with the people you feed in a way that a prefabricated meal can never hope to do.”

Beyond that, I’d say that “cooking slowly with patience” connects you to the earth, to the seasons, to your own senses, hands, arms, legs, back and brain, to the real plants and animals that keep you alive and to the many who came before you, patiently working with what they had, feeding the people they loved, honing the skills they learned valuable, far-reaching lessons from. In a broader sense, isn’t that what life is all about: making the best of what you have, taking care of the people you care about and increasingly gaining knowledge and understanding that better equips you to carry on (let us hope) with grace and compassion?

Imagine my joy when, just a few days ago, while still digesting the comforting and (truth be told) vindicating message of this book (thank you, John), I read the following poem by Sarah Silvey (yes, the same Sarah who drew the teeth-brushing/berry-eating bear peeking/peeping in on Mom). Out of the blue she produced a perspective on working in the kitchen that took my breath away, so closely did it mirror my own experience, so well did it express the unspeakable pleasure and unexpected benefits that come from a simple task in the kitchen. Thank you, Sarah.

Sometimes I enjoy doing things the hard way
The long, difficult way
By hand
Without electricity
Without advanced tools.
It connects me to the past
To ancient humans
Struggling to make ends meet
To those who worked hard perfecting a craft.
I tried to saw dovetails with hand tools
When I made my desk.
It was hard work.
It took days.
I was sore, my carpal tunnel flared
And when I finally tried to hammer the pieces together
It didn’t fit.
But I learned
how much work
Every piece of furniture should be.
I can appreciate
The ease of modern living
Machine made items shipped to your home.
I can appreciate too
What we’ve lost.
You forge a connection
With things you built
With food you grew, harvested, and processed.
Even doing something as simple as washing your car by hand
You learn more about the state that car is in
Notice its scratches and weak points
Restore the sparkles in its paint.

I processed five gallons of grapes by hand.
When I sat in my kitchen
Peeling grapes
I mimicked the motions of my ancestors.
Women have peeled grapes
Into bowls in their laps
For thousands of years.
They spent hours upon hours
Processing the bounty of summer
To stave off winter’s bite.
They told stories while working
Sang songs
And some just worked
Alone, in quiet thought.
Every grape I handled
Taught me more about this food.
I learned to tell a wormy one by feel
Its rough scar tissue
Sent a shudder through my marrow.
I learned what every color tastes like.
I learned to love the Concord smell
Rich and strong and sweet and tangy.
If I’d used tools
I wouldn’t have had to stand at the sink for so long.
I wouldn’t have had the quiet thinking time
I wouldn’t have been able to practice my working posture
Relaxed enough to fight fatigue, yet always moving.
I noticed I was taking much longer than necessary
Due to my need to get every grape, save every grape, not waste
Anything
And I knew someone watching me would have felt frustrated
Just as I felt
When I watched my mother process peaches for the freezer
Always graceful, always painfully slow, yet inevitable.
After two days of work
The peaches would be all blanched, peeled, sliced, sugared, and frozen.
I felt her echo in my slow fingers
Of her, and a million women before her
All of us preparing the harvest
So we might have something sweet
For winter.

 

 

The Purpose of a Dropcloth and What Dogs Do Well

You thought I was kidding about the bench, right? Nope. Just yesterday morning, my Airbnb guests – on their own – went out to visit the chickens and take their own photos of the ridiculous birds. Can’t you just imagine the smaller one on the left saying to the one front and center: Hey, sister, I wouldn’t say this in front of the others but I need to tell you, that spikey look really isn’t working for you. Maybe try a new a shampoo?

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It thrills me to see people having fun and admiring the chickens. (Perhaps they are not admiring, perhaps they are pooh-poohing. That woman thinks these birds are interesting? Pretty starved for good entertainment, wouldn’t you say?) Well, you think what you want to think and I will think what I want to think. Guests from Ohio earlier this week left a note that said, “We loved being secluded in the woods, watching the trees sway in the wind and admiring the beautiful chickens.” See? Admiring.

Some admirers will stand and stare, or walk all around the perimeter, or scooch down and get face to face. I found guests earlier this week standing right in the coop with them. She held one of the pretty ones, smiled hugely (the woman, not the chicken), while he took her picture. They left a note behind that said, “We love your feathered friends in the coop next door.” The one before that said, “So nice meeting you and hanging with the chickens!”

Some guests will want to sit, to admire from a fixed spot, to ponder the multiple ways a simple egg-laying bird can move and contort its funny little body or peck at a bug, or they might imagine the chickens’ conversations with each other, their hierarchies, their vanities, their grooming techniques (how will she get those spikes clean?).

The sitters would want a bench for all that. Maybe they would even bring their coffee out there with them in the morning, and sip and stare at the same time. The more I thought of this, the more I thought that a 4×6 on its side as the top of the retaining wall, practical and unobtrusive as that is, might not fit the bill entirely. A bench would be better.

My Uncle Ernie and Aunt Vivian called a few weeks ago to plan a visit. I had not seen them in a few years and was very much looking forward to the visit. Ernie is an extraordinary woodworker, and I mean fine woodworking. The craftsmanship and expertise behind his own beautiful kitchen cabinetry, and what he has made for his children, to say nothing of his wood carvings, leaves no doubt. He has the right tools, he knows how to use them, and he has been practicing for years. I think he easily fits Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule from the book Outliers: Over the course of time, if you been passionately engaged for a total of 10,000 hours or more honing a skill or developing a craft or being deeply, technically and seriously involved in a specific subject, you are likely in the upper echelon of experts in that field. This applies to playing the violin, writing computer code and fine woodworking just the same. You don’t get to be an expert unless you put in the time.

You see where I’m going, right? By contrast, when it comes to woodworking, I am almost completely a novice. I know what a router does, I understand the value of built things being square, level and plumb, I have a healthy respect for any tool with sharp teeth that rotates at 30,000 rpm’s. But as my guests from this past week will tell you, there is a difference between watching the chickens from outside the fence and getting in there and picking them up. Other than being the gopher, the tidy-upper, the drink-fetcher, the supply-orderer and the holder of things in place while someone else uses the power tool to secure it, I have not been as involved in construction projects. All right, I’ve dug a lot of dirt, moved a lot of rocks, and sanded and painted and stained. I’ve even zip-stripped – which is not as exotic as it sounds!

So my expert woodworker uncle is coming to visit for two days. I want a bench for my chicken coop viewing area. Now surely you see where I’m going. I asked him if he would guide me through the building of a simple one, at least to the point where it is together and all that remains is the finish sanding and painting, which I can confidently do. I told him I would follow his instructions, do what he said. If your uncle looked like this, you would do what he said too.

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Just kidding, Ernie. He really is a great guy. Some people can reinforce how amateurish you feel or make you feel like the subject at hand is overwhelmingly difficult and you really should leave it to the experts. Just buy a bench, right? But Ernie didn’t do either of those unhelpful things. He walked me (he didn’t rush me) through every step and couched all of his technique demonstrations with: Let me show you why this way is better, or What you need to remember is… or Look how easy this makes it. He was patient with my ignorance but kept things moving all day. Goofy is also in his repertoire.

 

Before they left, the base was together and the top slats were ripped. I learned how to use the table saw and a biscuit joiner and how to get the same exact length of board as many times as I need. (You want the legs to all be the exact same length, think about it.) I glued in the biscuits per his instructions using the right amount of glue and a cheap tiny paint brush and he showed me how to make two shorter bar clamps do the work of one longer one. I understand better how to allow for the width of the saw blade when using the chop saw.

 

In the end, the vertical pieces are strongly secured to the horizontal ones. We flipped the base right side up, put the slats on it loosely and made sure that three people will be able to sit on this bench and watch chickens. Or sit in the basement and pose for the camera.

 

That’s Aunt Vivian, an artist in her own right. She kindly brought me this beautiful painting she did herself. There’s a lot of talent in that family!

 

We said good-bye and I routed the long edges of the slats and legs and any other part of the put-together bench base where the edge of the wood needed softer corners, then hauled it all up to the deck on the back of the house for finish sanding and painting. The sawhorses and drop cloth were still there from when I had given all the boards a first coat before Ernie and Vivian came.

What I did not anticipate was the involvement of the dog.

Coco misses Samuel, who went off to San Francisco to seek his future, so she sticks to me. Where I go, she goes. Last week I set things up to spray paint a metal table base. I set up a cloth out to the side, special for her, away from the work area. Heaven forbid she should have to lay on the mulch.

 

Next thing I knew, she was off her designated spot, nearer my work space, not a good place for her. You see how close to my space I had placed her space? But no, come closer, be under foot. That’s a thing dogs do well.

 

She did the same when it came to the bench on the deck. All that deck to lay on (not even mulch under her delicate little limbs!). But no, under foot again.

 

The drop cloth laying on the deck under the saw horses has a piece of plastic under it because (you may recall) my friend Fred recently power washed the deck. Let us safeguard our assets. I now have a clean deck and want to keep it that way. Someone else (a smarter person) would have put down (and would have advised anyone else to put down) a bigger piece of plastic and a bigger drop cloth, covering more surface area against the possibility of paint randomly flying off the brush and landing outside the protected area, but I am a risk-taker as well as a careful painter, and was impatient to get going, and did not do this. (This scenario is not as risky as it looks. That bench was more to the left when I painted it and was moved to the right when I was not painting it. Slats also came more toward the center for the actual painting. When they are drying I don’t care. I did work over top the cloth, really I did!)

Now look carefully, kitty-corner behind Coco’s right shoulder. That is a drop of red paint from the bench above. (I know, I know, it could have so landed easily on the deck instead, and I have such a pathetically small drop cloth under that work area. Do not chide me. This is about the dog now.)

 

This drop of paint is a problem why? Here’s what happens when the dog goes to move to another underfoot spot:

 

Do you envision little red marks all over my deck? I do. I did. So I cleaned up that paw and my deck was saved. This time. I know, I could put her in the house. I should put her in the house. Why can’t I just put her in the house? Take a look at her face again. That’s why.