Palahniuk and Monday Catfish

1-IMG_8371My penchant for kosher salt is sprinkled all over the plate.  This is the essence of a plebeian Monday supper: farm-raised catfish (gasp) from our local Publix grocery store, a sliced tomato, and turnip greens dipped from the quart container we take out once a week from a phoned-in order to the local Cracker Barrel.  Hershey Bar with Almonds to follow to bed with a book.

I’m reading a raft of things, some of which have dribbles of toothpaste on them because I’m trying to eke out a few more paragraphs here, a few more paragraphs there.  Some wind drew me to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ,  Damned which is  one hundred percent out of character for what I might normally choose to read, and I’m loving it. Actually, Palahniuk only sprang onto my radar screen because I (somehow) wound up reading a writing lesson from Chuck wherein he forbade writers to use “thought” verbs for at least the next half-year. The big takeaway for me was his exhortation to not be lazy, and to “unpack” characters. Whoa. I see when I do that it works, when I don’t, the writing may as well be in hell, it’s so dead. So, thanks, Chuck.  I bought your book (one of many) and now I’m hooked.

Gotta run. I have a chocolate bar to eat and a good book to finish.

Half Shell with Stripes

I took this picture at the Marina Oyster Barn in Pensacola on December 23, 2003, and am sticking it in here out of chronological order to break up all that dead wood, and to remind myself how much I have missed eating raw oysters. "Pristine" is necessary when it comes to on-the-half-shell oysters; hard to be sure of their provenance these days.

Memory Fish

It was 7:30 straight up when the phone rang. I was peeling a large red papaya, thin skin curling back over itself as I drew the short paring knife’s blade slowly down, imagining a bow drawn over a violin. Music was in the air, and the ringing phone a discordant intrusion.

“Miss Beth, you got some coffee?” Harold’s voice boomed out from the speaker of the phone, which I had punched with a papaya juice-stained finger.

“Nope, not yet,” I said. “I meant to, but I’ve been writing.”

“Running? You say you been running?” Harold sounded stunned.

“No,” I said. “Writing. Like a book. Writing.”

“Well,” he continued, “I got a little care package for you, if you and that old man are going to be around.”

“Come on,” I said. “I need some coffee, too. It’ll be ready when you get here.”

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Harold came in with several plastic grocery store bags and a tightly capped plastic bowl.  He grew the onions, squash and cucumbers in his garden. His wife, Louise, grew the tomatoes and bell peppers in flower pots in their yard. As we drank our coffee and talked, a pungent raw onion smell began to permeate the kitchen.

Harold had not made a move to open the plastic bowl. I’m sure he knew he could outlast my curiosity. He was right.

I pulled the bowl toward me, and asked, “What’s in here?”

“I don’t know if you two eat these,” Harold said coyly. “My boy and me caught them in Miflin Lake over in Baldwin County. Them’s Alabama fish.”

By this time, I had pulled the top off the bowl. Ten pretty little bluegills (bream) sprinkled with ice chips nestled inside. I pulled out three of them to make a picture.

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When my brother, Wally, and sister, Flo, see this photo, I know it will take them back to central Florida, cane pole fishing, and neighborhood cats circling the backyard table where Daddy cleaned his catch. I smell the not unpleasant fresh fish smell, remember the click sound of scales, and hear water running from a garden hose.

Tonight, we’ll dredge the bluegill in cornmeal and fry them in peanut oil. Buck hired himself out as a ten-year old fishing guide on the Escambia River long years ago. He and I will chew our memories slowly tonight, savoring every bite.

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Late at night, I read tomorrow’s headlines from The New York Times by the light of my Blackberry. When I’m driving in the car during the day, I listen to National Public Radio for the news. But when I want to plug into the visceral interpretations of rural everyman, there’s no source like Harold. If the NYT is the brain, he is the guts, and his opinions hold equal weight with me.

Thanksgiving 2007 Retrospective

I usually go barefoot in the house, but finally broke down this morning and went in search of a pair of old sox to keep my feet warm. Maggie’s curled up nearby. She’s had her breakfast, been for a walk, and is already snoring again. Tough life.

I woke up hungry as a bear, couldn’t wait for a normal breakfast, so ate two fig newtons along with my coffee. Not as good as pecan pie, which is my favorite breakfast, but pretty good. I have my annual piece of pecan pie on Thanksgiving morning while cooking the feast. Unfortunately, Alex and some of the other g-kids have developed a taste for it, too, so there was nary a crumb left. Went the same way as the crustless pumpkin pie. Favorite new item this year was a basmati rice pilaf with apricots, saffron, currants and slivered almonds.

Funniest (and sweetest) moment for me when I was taking a chain saw (electric knife) to the bird and Alex brought in his acoustic guitar, pulled up a bar stool, and played troubadour. He solemnly strummed and sang while I dismembered our dinner. Little Julia came in: “Why did you put that stuff in the turkey?” she asked, referring to the onion, orange and lemon chunks, sage leaves and a rosemary branch I was pulling from the turkey.

“To make it taste good,” I said. She continued to peer, her doubt obvious.

Finally, she said, “You know, it’s funny. When turkey meat — the white part — is cut in nice pieces and put on a plate, it looks real pretty. And when a turkey is alive, with all his feathers, he’s real pretty. But like this . . . it’s just gross!!”

Yes, little grasshopper. Cooking is not for the faint of heart.

Soft Clothes and Comfort Food

Thursday was a busy day, filled with work and errands. The next-to-last stop was at Parker Custom Built Homes, where Celeste, who makes the trains run on time, needed a signature for the Notice of Commencement for our home.

We spent a few pleasant minutes, then I raced on to the grocery store to throw some supper ingredients in a hand-held basket, anxious to get home and into my soft clothes. “Soft clothes” are the best clothes in the world. Sweats, or a cotton nightgown, or whatever is most comfortable in your drawer or closet. You know what I mean. Usually it’s old. Very soft, and no tight elastic, underwire brassieres or anything else that might bind or poke.

The best suppers seem to emerge from that blind instinct for comfort. This invented, hurry-up job was no different.

1-chicken thighs in wok

I pulled out my old wok, pressed a large clove of garlic and chopped an onion into a bit of warm olive oil in the wok. Just as they were beginning to smell fabulous, I added some chicken thighs sprinkled with pepper and herbes de Provence. After browning, a few splashes of white wine and some chicken broth made a nice simmer bath. Just before serving, I removed the chicken, then added a little bit of cream to smooth out the sauce and seriously yummify it.

To go with the chicken, I fixed a box of Mediterranean curry couscous (Near East brand, I think), and sauteed some sweet red pepper and zucchini.

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Buck and I took our plates to the couch and ate in our soft clothes by the light of the fireplace, a sweet prescription for a good night’s sleep.

 

Mise en Place

We met with our builder today. I made extensive notes on a legal pad about county permits, footing and slab pourings, plumbing fixtures, roof trusses, wind load engineering, appliances, driveway configurations, windows,  and when to expect the bulldoziers.

Fixing dinner tonight, I found myself thinking about the culinary concept of mise en place. It means having all  your ingredients measured, chopped and ready before you start cooking.

Applying that concept to building a house helps me to understand it better. As I squeezed lemon juice into my favorite bowl — it’s a wide cream colored Italian pasta bowl — and whisked in a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a pressed garlic clove, a sprinkle of kosher salt and some just ground black pepper, I began to think of the foundation, the plumbing, the electrical system, the roof, the framing, the cabinets and so on, as discrete elements, all in their own beautiful bowls, mise en place.

While the indoor grill heated, I brushed a chunk of salmon with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt and pepper, then put white wine, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and dark brown sugar into a small saucepan, reducing at a high heat for about 13 minutes, until it became a shiny glaze.

When Buck and I travel, we usually find a place to stay with a kitchen, so I have put together a traveling portfolio of herbs and spices. They are mise en place on the instant, assembled in a watch repairman’s kit, visible and aesthetically pleasing. The curiosity of small children is aroused by their sight and mingled fragrance, exotic and warmly inviting.

Buck and I are about to embark on the homebuilding project of a lifetime. In fact, when we say it is the house we will live in until we die, this is the way we have approached the planning of it. That sounds grim until you understand our perspective. This home is larger than we need, but it is a space for living in the present, dreaming of the future, and remembering the past. It is a launchpad for other adventures, and perhaps other satellite outposts in other magnificent spots in the world. It is a place for adults kids, grandchildren, and great-grands yet to be to assemble and talk about Big Ideas, to learn to go undaunted into the wider world. A place to watch over our longleaf forest, add a pond, more native trees, and see many sunsets.

And so, as we build this dream, it has practical aspects, too, in terms of universal design, which will make it possible for us to stay here in our own home no matter how old or possibly infirm we may get — many years down the road, one hopes.

Mise en place: what a concept.

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Food and Place

“Deceptively simple.” I think I finally know what that phrase means.

But when I focus on the minute details of food and place in my own life experiences, the more global my thoughts became, wondering how fellow bloggers in China, Australia, Virginia, Boston, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Canada, Wales, Iraq and elsewhere nourish and nurture their physical bodies and spiritual selves, and under what conditions.

The foods we eat depend in large measure upon our geography, culture, philosophy or religion, and economic circumstance. Do we have the freedom to choose what we eat each day or is our menu controlled by others? The locus of our emotional state determines “where we’re at.” To a depressed person, even the most exquisite meal tastes brown, dusty, and hard to swallow, while one basking in emotional sunshine may savor an apple and a hunk of cheese with fulfilled delight.

To a practicing alcoholic, the beer, cigarette and chocolate chip cookie meal may be a daily reality.

To an ill person in the hospital, the blue liquid nutrient delivered through a feeding tube may keep them alive and hydrated with daily requirements for survival, but it can hardly be called food. Or to someone chronically ill with nausea and pain, food may feel like an enemy.

There can be joy and spiritual insight through fasting, when the withholding of food is our own choice.

This morning, I will be at the communion table, partaking of the body and the blood, a bizarre transmogrification, but one in which I participate, hoping that one day something will click and my faith will no longer be elusive. I always take away something of value, a feeling of positive mysticism, feeling that I have indeed been spiritually fed. And yet, walking away, my mouth still damp with wine, a voice in one ear whispers “Believe,” while one in the other breathes, “Look before you leap.”