Just Keep Going

On Thursdays my mom and I read to a wonderful 100-year-old blind lady named Evelyn. Mom met Evelyn nearly half a year ago, and they started with a biography of Queen Victoria. I love this idea, so I asked if I could too. I read at 2pm and Mom at 3. A few weeks ago I mentioned Coco, the adorable black pug I am taking care of, and Evelyn wanted me to bring her. Today was an especially good day for that because Evelyn got bad news this week. Coco was perfect. She did what she does. She brought joy, comfort, warmth. Oh that fur. For the full hour that we read today, Coco lay wedged between us on the couch and Evelyn’s hands didn’t come off her once.

The tongue seems disproportional to the size of the rest of her, I know.

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Coco put her tongue (mostly) inside her mouth and I picked up where Mom left off last week and kept reading till Mom came and took over. Today’s chapter was rather heart-wrenching. Victoria was in the throes of despair when I handed off the book and took my leave.

Some days are monumental. You accomplish something big, learn something new and very useful, have a great influence on someone’s life, solve a mystery, explore a new and exciting place, have an important meeting, or experience a life-changing event. Or it dawns on you that if you put food in the chicken coop that the chickens don’t want to go into, they might want to go into it! (Thank you, Kim. I know this doesn’t really qualify as brilliant or monumental the way it seemed yesterday, but we are creatures of habit, we are. Never have I had to put food in a coop to entice the chickens to go in it — why should it have occurred to me before? One of these days I will try though. Perhaps I should drape tempting greens on the steps of the chicken ladder. Spaghetti? Maybe that would lure them up and do the trick?)

Today wasn’t a monumental day (nor did I care to entice the chickens – let them sleep on the ground!). Most days aren’t. Today, like most days, I just kept going with this and that. So did Evelyn, as she’s been doing for a hundred years. That’s a long time to just keep going! It struck me today that despite what happens, we keep on eating good food, sleeping as best we can, loving the people we love, figuring out what to do next and most of the time doing it, or trying to do it.

All around me, everyone and everything is doing the same. The lettuce keeps on making more of itself so there can be a salad every night. Oh, a new dressing to try: Mix a bit of yogurt (maybe two spoonsful) with some apple cider vinegar (about ¼ cup) in a jar (same as you would mix olive oil with vinegar). Add a bit of strawberry jam! The batch I made this year came out kind of soupy, so I just pour a tablespoon or so in there. You might need to mush it up a little bit. Shake the jar to mix it all up together. Salt and pepper to taste. Yum! (Those are the carrots right behind the lettuce in this bed, in case you’re wondering.)

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The cabbage keeps getting bigger too, this head bigger than a softball. Somehow I thought the cabbage plants were Brussels sprouts plants instead. I feel slightly disappointed about that. It seems I will have a good deal of cabbage to saute slowly with onions one of these days.

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Speaking of onions, they keep pushing harder to get out of the ground. I planted 300 “sets” (whatever that means) – 100 each of red, white and I don’t remember what the other one was. Yellow maybe. It seemed ridiculous at the time. Now I am thinking this might be a good number. If there are any left at the end of the summer, they will keep well.

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The tomatoes keep getting taller and have started getting red (yay!). I couldn’t find my favorite “sun gold” variety this year, so I don’t have any of those. But these will be excellent anyway and make the sun golds all the more special when I surely find them next year!

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The lemon grass keeps on getting fuller and taller. By the time the fall comes, this plant will occupy the entire raised bed. I am not exactly sure what to do with this other than admire it. The two other times it has grown in my garden, its entire purpose has been to make an incredibly big and ornamental show of itself, which is nice, but there has to be something else to do with it. Another day I will look into this.

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Everything just keeps going.

It was 90 degrees today, but shady where I myself kept going, rock after rock, on my stream bed. This morning I had 23 linear feet. I drove back from Evelyn’s and went very slowly down my road, stopping to pick up a few more set-aside stones from the last outing that were waiting patiently for their own special place in my long puzzle. I gathered some more rocks from around the house and softened the dirt bed before starting to set them in, then kept going to the main curve of the stream, banked those big anchor stones tight against the edge, and decided this was not far enough for one day, so gathered some more rocks and began again, adding 11 feet total today. There’s only 11 to go until I reach the woods and call it done! (I don’t care what happens to the water when it reaches the woods. Let it delta out all it wants.) After all this, I sure hope the water will choose to stay in its pretty channel during the next heavy rain.

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Needless to say, the chickens kept on being ridiculous! It’s hard for me to look at them sometimes and not think they are little aliens. For all I know, this one could have been looking back at me saying You think I’m funny looking?

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Sauce and cheese

This week I was reminded how words can mean such different things to different people, how easy it is to think someone else knows what we mean, how words are so little yet encompass so much.

Two little words: sauce and cheese. You know what I mean, right? I don’t have to say more. If you would look in my freezer and see a plastic container labeled sauce, you would know what is in that container and what it goes with. You would know how often I make it, how often we eat it and what else would be on the table with that meal. If we were at the table together and I was eating soup and I said This would be really good with cheese, and got up to get it, you would know before I returned to the table what I was getting. You would know what color it is, what has been done to it since it was purchased and how and where it is stored. We would understand each other, right?

When I was growing up, we ate pasta three times a week. We did not call it pasta. We called it macaroni. You boiled the macaroni in a big pot on the stove, and in another smaller pot you heated the sauce. On Wednesdays for dinner (5:00ish) and on Sundays for dinner (1:00ish because you ate Sunday dinner after church) we had our macaroni with a red, meat sauce, a.k.a. sauce. We had it so often that there was no need for modifiers. Seriously we ate this every Wednesday and every Sunday of my childhood. That’s 104 times per year x approximately 18 years, or somewhere around 2000 times. The very same meal.

My mother made sauce (not the sauce, mind you, just sauce) on a regular basis such that we were never out. It would be inconceivable to not have sauce ready to go on Wednesdays and Sundays. I am quite sure my mother would never have let that happen. The basic ingredients were the same every time, but if we had had a pork or lamb roast recently, she added these bones for flavor. Here is the recipe exactly as I wrote it many years ago when I decided it needed to be in my cookbook for reference. I did not need it myself of course. The recipe is etched in my mind’s file. But someone else might need it.

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This recipe is perfectly clear to me. You could follow it, right? You would know how many onions and how finely to chop them. You would know what chop meat means and what percentage of fat content was normal. You would know to put these first two ingredients together in a large, heavy pot over a medium flame and cook them together until the onions are clear and the meat is browned. You would know what size the cans of tomatoes are, what brand to buy, and whether they are whole, plum, chopped, diced or pureed. You would know what paste is, and how to get it all out of the can — even the parts that stick stubbornly to the sides — and why you need two cans of water per. You would know to dump all of this over the meat and onions at just the right time and stir it up. You would then know to add just the right amounts of s&p, garlic powder, oregano and basil. Strictly following tradition, it would not occur to you to use fresh garlic, oregano or basil. You would shake these out of jars you bought in the store and you knew the perfect quantities to shake and how big each little pile would need to be as it sat on top of the tomato-meat mixture in the pot. You would stop shaking when each pile was the right diameter and height. If you had leftover bones from a recent roast, you would add them in at this time. Then you would mix it all together and turn it down. You would know how low to turn the flame down, and you would let it cook for a few hours and walk away and do something else. You would know by the smell that it was done. The smell was normal. This was home.  Every Wednesday and every Sunday we had our macaroni with sauce for dinner.

On Fridays for dinner (5:00ish), being Catholic, we had our macaroni with a non-meat sauce, maybe red and maybe not. The non-meat red was called marinara and the non-meat other could be onion or ceci (you know what those are, right?). In my memory we ate all macaroni meals with a salad. We did not additionally (and it never occurred to me until much later that others might) eat long thin loaves of crusty white bread. On Sundays, however, you might also have meatballs (either softened from having been taken from the freezer and heated up in sauce, or crispy from having been freshly fried in oil) or a veal or eggplant parmesan or a roast (beef, lamb or pork) on the side. Thus the leftover bones that might go into the next batch of sauce.

Onto any of these macaroni dishes you put cheese. You put imported, finely grated, sheep’s milk peccorino romano stored in a little glass jar which had little holes in the chrome screw-on lid. This jar was stored in the cabinet, by the way, not the fridge. You turned this jar upside down and shook it, and cheese landed on your macaroni. At some point prior to the meal someone had taken the four-sided stand-up grater out of the cabinet and stood there holding the fist-sized hunk of cheese in one hand and the handle of the grater with the other hand, and with well practiced vertical up-and-down motions, pressing the hunk against the sharply perforated side of the grater, created tiny, slightly curly shavings of this ivory colored, aromatic, aged wonder. I did not think of it as a wonder. It was just cheese. Cheese went on macaroni. Macaroni had sauce.

The conversation about sauce came about because Samuel was fishing around in the freezer and found a container labeled SAUCE. What kind of sauce is this? he asked. What kind of sauce? Is there another kind? I see SAUCE on top of a plastic container in the freezer and I know exactly what is in there. But he doesn’t. Oh.

Can it be that he wouldn’t know what I mean when I use a simple word? I thought everybody knew what that word means.

What about cat?

House?

Party?

Surely he knows what those are. Surely you do.

Words evoke images. Do you have a lithe, grey feline in mind, one that snags large moths and bats them around until they give up? A white clapboard Cape Cod with three dormers set up on a hill with a large stand of maple trees behind it? A lot of well dressed people in a small room, holding fancy drinks and trying to hear one another above the loud music? Or do you imagine a tiger, a brick ranch, and a wild frat house?

This gets harder when the images associated with the words are not so concrete:

Honorable.

Divine.

Patriotic.

It’s no wonder we get tripped up sometimes. I am sure you know what I mean when I use certain words and you are sure I know what you mean. But do we really? John Durham Peters in his Speaking into the Air, says that there are hints and guesses in communication, which “at its best may be a dance in which we sometimes touch.” Thankfully we use lots of words to fill in the mental pictures, and usually manage to understand and be understood. Usually.

At least we are now clear about sauce. After Samuel fished it out of the freezer and I explained it and thought I knew what we were having for dinner, he asked another question: What’s onion sauce? Ah, onion sauce!

Chop three large onions. Saute them slowly (I mean slowly) in butter until they are soft and golden. This will take at least half an hour. Turn on the pot to boil the macaroni in only when the onions are almost done. In the meantime, finely dice that wonderful aged peccorino romano till you have a handful or so. Once the water is boiling, put small macaroni like ditalini in there with some salt and stir to make sure they do not stick to each other. When the macaroni is almost done, put the cheese in with the onions and butter. You don’t want to melt it, just soften it. Some ground black pepper and a little bit of cream in there with that rounds it out nicely. By now your macaroni is done. Put your colander over the bowl you will serve this in. Pour out the pot of boiling water and macaroni so that the water ends up in the bowl and the macaroni ends up in the colander (this makes the bowl hot, which keeps the food hot on the table longer). Dump the water out of your serving bowl, put the macaroni in there, top with the onion mixture and stir it all together. The word for this is divine.