Monday, October 5, 2015

Spring and Summer 2015 Storytellers: Two Seasons of Books

"When I was your age I used to ask myself, "What is a story?" Well, ain't it like a magic spell taking us away someplace else. And where do stories come from and why do we tell them to each other...
Don't we tell stories because they help us to understand each other?" - Emma Timmins, from the BBC adaption of Flora Thompson's trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford.

I've been lost in the dreamy English countryside in the end of the 19th century, a breath of fresh air from turning on the television today and being bombarded with the tabloid feel of the presidential campaign and the dumbed down Kardashian-dominated news. Lark Rise to Candleford  called to me from the library DVD shelf, four glorious seasons like the four seasons of the year. It is a literary lover's gem. Works of great poets and authors are often weaved into the storylines: a public reading of Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, a passage from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, a gift of a Thomas Hardy novel, characters soul searching after reading Samuel Smile's Self-Help and David Hume's A Treatise on Human Nature. I consider if a series set in modern times would involve so many storytellers, what books of our day would they include now?

I'm so curious and drawn to what's on people's bookshelves. In Lark Rise, George Ellison visiting Dorcas Lane, peruses her home library and remarks on Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and a well thumbed copy of Lord Byron's Don Juan, which young Laura borrows. "I read a great many things," Dorcas says.

I love to read a great many things too, and feel my spirits lifted and mentally stimulated with a book in my life. These were my storytellers for the spring and summer of 2015, a quote from each to remember their beauty and wisdom. I find myself often drawn to passages on nature.

"Ask nature questions, and you will get answers." - Frightful's Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, from Better World Books, $2.50.

Nature is so healing to both the mind, body and spirit. A Navajo medicine basket photographed during my Southwest travels.

"He wished he knew how to make tea, wished he even had some to try with. That was what Miss June-bug wanted when she was feeling low, a good cup of tea, and it always seemed to brace her right."  - Springwater, by Linda Lae Miller, from the library.

A cuppa at New York City's Tea and Sympathy. It's a comforting thought that no matter how fast-moving and changing the world is, there is something so timeless and universal about the simple pleasures like tea, gardens and books. Tea braces me up right just as it did June-bug in the Montana frontier romance story.
 "If you can live well and be happy without causing unnecessary harm, why wouldn't you?" - Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day by Gene Baur with Gene Stone, from the library. The book includes 100 plant-based recipes.

At the Farm Sanctuary shelter in Watkins Glen, New York, where farm animals are friends, not food.

"Miss Maudie hated her house: time spent indoors was time wasted. She was a widow, a chameleon lady who worked in her flower beds in an old straw hat and men's coveralls, but after her five o'clock bath she would appear on the porch and reign over the street in magisterial beauty.
She loved everything that grew on God's earth, even the weeds." - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, from the library.

I spend less time in the garden worrying about the weeds, and admiring more of the beauty, including my cherished geraniums.

"Family was very important to us. It was one of the only things we had, and what kept up grounded. Some of the best times we had were the times when we were all together. It didn't matter what we were doing. During the holidays or just on a weekend afternoon, the whole point was just being together. There doesn't seem to be as much of that going on today. People are so busy. But family is everything." - Clara's Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression by Clara Cannucciari, from the library. Visit her Great Depression Cooking channel on YouTube.

A family fondue night on a chilly day with sparkling apple cider. With all the ways to keep in touch - e-mail, calls, text and social media, I think of how "busy" we consider ourselves in modern life with little time for breaking bread. I love cozy, simple meals like a fondue. The weather is just about right for it. Clara's cookbook is nearly a vegetarian cookbook since there was little meat during the depression, and she's said they are better off for it. Clara is sadly no longer with us, but we have her book and videos with their wisdom of eating wholesome, hearty foods and living frugally.

"The sunset was a splendid display. I wondered if it was showing off for my benefit or if it was often that spectacular. Rarely had I seen such a gorgeous scene; the riotous colors flamed out over the sky in shades that I had no words to describe. Birds sang their last songs of the day before tucking in for the night, and still the darkness hung back. Now, I thought, I understand the word "twilight." It was created for just this time - in this land." When Calls the Heart Janette Oke, from The Well Read book store in Hawthorne, New Jersey, about $15.

The sun setting on Rialto Beach in Washington state. Why is it only on times like vacations that we pause to view a sunrise or sunset?

"As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment." - Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck, from a shelf of free books from the library.
Moments on my Southwest travels, like here visiting the Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, seemed to linger on too more than a moment. My time here still haunts my soul.

"On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbirds' early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world. She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines rising to a brilliant eastern sky, and her senses would have succumbed to the joy of the morning.
It was waiting to receive her, but she neither looked nor listened." - Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, from the library.

A cardinal on a winter's day. I want to bear witness to the silent, austere beauty born again each day.

"Awakening is about introducing a child to sensory experiences, including tastes. It doesn't always require the parent's active involvement. It can come from staring at the sky, smelling dinner as it's being prepared, or playing alone on a blanket. It's a way of sharpening the child's senses and preparing him to distinguish between different experiences. It's the first step toward teaching him to be a cultivated adult who knows how to enjoy himself. Awakening is a kind of training for children in how to profiter - to soak up the pleasure and richness of the moment." - Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting byPamela Druckerman, a gift from my sister.

Remembering the simple pleasure and richness of an apple tarte tatin at New York City's Pigalle, a haunt near my old office. I don't want my daughter Grace to be ridden with the food guilt that is part of American culture. I also want her to take in the world around her and not be glued to a device.  As a society, I believe we need to learn how to profiter.

"That's my little piece of heaven. Go ahead."
Ciro followed Remo through the open door to a small enclosed garden. Terra-cotta pots positioned along the top of the stone wall spilled over with red geraniums and orange impatiens. An elm tree with a wide trunk and deep roots filled the center of the garden. Its green leaves and thick branches reached past the roof of Remo's building, creating a canopy over the garden. There was a small white marble birdbath, gray with soot, flanked by two deep wicker armchairs.
Remo fished a cigarette out of his pocket, offering another to Ciro as both men took a seat. "This is where I come to think."
"Va bene," Ciro said as he looked up into the tree. He remembered the thousands of trees that blanketed the Alps; here on Mulberry Street, one tree with peeling gray bark and holes in its leaves was cause for celebration." - The Shoemaker's Wife, by Adriana Trigiani, a loan from my neighbor.

Unless you are an immigrant, one cannot understand the homesickness felt in the heart and soul for a home country. My parents are both from Switzerland and even here for decades I think my father is afflicted with constant homesickness. Remo and Ciro finds a piece of Italy in a Little Italy garden in The Shoemaker's Wife.

The company I used to work for in New York City relocated a few times, and when we were right across the street from bustling Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, I used to steal away to the Saint Padre Pio Prayer garden, a secret garden of sorts. In the latest version of Disney's Cinderella, the Prince takes Cinderella to his secret garden, one no one had ever been to. I can still remember the comforting aroma from the candles in the hallway as I walked out into the garden. In Lark Rise, George Ellison struggles with religion and the church to match what he feels in nature. To me, time in nature is a spiritual experience.

"If one believed in angels one would feel that they love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind. The doors shut, and the lights go out, and the sharpest tongue is silent, and all of us, scolder and scolded, happy and unhappy, master and slave, judge and culprit, are children again, tired, and hushed, and helpless, and forgiven." - The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth Von Arnim, from Better World Books, $4.

At the Saint Padre Pio Prayer garden in New York City.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Garden State Goodness: A CSA Update

"Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill."  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

Punishing heat has come to New Jersey, but thankfully summer's bounty from the earth is here along with it. Harper Lee's Scout recalled summer rituals like lemonade breaks on a scorching day, simple pleasures that transcend time. While autumn has always been a favorite season of mine, summer tastes sweeter with this year thanks to our CSA. Summer really is everything good to eat. 

Steve, Grace and I were taking a quiet evening stroll down our block with our two dogs when we saw a neighbor we'd never met. You can see his large garden from the street and I told him how I had admired it. He graciously gave us a tour and said he'd been doing it for forty years. Since he was a native of Italy, I wrongly assumed it had been part of his roots, but he said he grew up there in a more urban area and he'd learned everything here by reading books, getting advice from other gardeners and trial and error. I felt almost euphoric walking along his garden, and listened to him talk about disappointments like the chipmunks eating all of his strawberries. I soaked in as much I could, recalling from J.J. Brown's American Dream novel,

"He remembers a verse from the mystic poet, Rumi, Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

It's funny how chance encounters, sometimes so short, stay with you. I still hope for a vegetable garden one day beyond our mini tomatoes and herbs. The English are incredible gardeners,” remarked Kate Brashares, in a New York Times article. “It’s in the blood somehow," who runs, Edible Schoolyard NYC, an offshoot of an Alice Waters effort to bring gardens and cooking classes to public schools. She talks about gardening as being part of her "cultural heritage." It was once part of ours. What happened?

Is gardening in your blood? My parents are both natives of Switzerland, and my mother said her family always had a garden but she was never made to work in it, only recalling having to pick currant berries and dealing with the pests in them to send them off to markets. My father's dad tended a schoolyard garden. We never had a vegetable garden and my ignorance about them can seem daunting sometimes.

While my garden dreams may be achieved in the future, for now we are savoring our weekly pick-ups from our 20-week CSA (community supported agriculture) with Abma's Farm in Wyckoff, New Jersey. Even a large home garden wouldn't produce the variety we're getting. I'm posting some photos if you are curious what a CSA experience is like, as we are new to it ourselves, and also to capture our summer of eating well. We signed up for their add-ons, including six eggs, a dessert bread and Tomasello wine.

Week 5: Arugula, carrots, broccoli leaves, head of lettuce, green garlic, turnips, broccoli, with eggs, raspberry chocolate chip bread, and blueberry forte (a fruit port). This dessert bread, made with raspberry jam, has been my favorite of the breads we received. We've tried about half of the wines and enjoyed all of them, and I particularly like this port. This was precisely why we did the CSA, to be more adventurous with our palates.

Week 6: Garlic, zucchini, lettuce, basil, beets and green beans, with eggs, zucchini bread and Riesling. The basil is the only thing we really wasted so far. It's abundant in our herb garden and we didn't get to the CSA basil soon enough.

When I put basil to Grace's nose, she inhales deeply and intensely. Those are memories I must capture for her. What's forming in her ever shaping mind?

Week 7: Cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli leaves, onion, peas, lettuce, garlic scapes, with eggs, banana chocolate chip bread and ice wine.

Week 8: Cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, leek, corn, Swiss chard, with eggs, blueberry bread and sparkling blueberry wine.

Week 9: Cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, Swiss chard, garlic, beets and tomatoes, with eggs, cranberry bread and raspberry moscato wine.

Week 10: Cucumbers, Tuscan kale, beets, eggplant, grape tomatoes, green beans and corn, with eggs and a summer solstice wine (a rose). Since they offered cranberry bread again, I exchanged it for an Australian tea bread, which had a sponge like consistency with brown sugar that reminded me of something you'd get at New York City's Tea and Sympathy.

Week 11: Lettuce, dry onion, tomatoes, a mini-tomato pint, zucchini, finger eggplants, sweet corn, with eggs, lemon bread (I asked if I could switch the chocolate bread since we got it once before), and blackberry wine. I cannot wait to try the wine, which evokes such happy memories of lush Washington state with its abundance of blackberry goodness.

My sister looked at one of my CSA photos and declared it looked very "Little House on the Prairie." Indeed these images do to me too.

My husband made a delicious ratatouille, a French peasant dish which was the culinary star of one of my favorite food films Ratatouille, and cherry clafoutis made with the CSA eggs which he adapted from Claudine Pepin's Kids Cook French, an Easter gift from my mother for Grace.
I love that Grace is under two and already has a cookbook in her library. I got the idea for cherry clafoutis reading Charlotte Goes to Paris, part of a wonderful four book fictional diary series of a young girl and her life among artists including Monet.

Our stove is older and "outdated" by many people's standards and capable of turning out heavenly meals. I don't give in to the modern myth that we need all of these high end appliances and fancy finishings . Our grandmothers fared fine on what they had, why can't we?  We've had corn chowder, potato leek soup, zucchini pancakes, pasta with peas, beet salad and so much more with our CSA goodies. I'm actually drawn to older kitchens like ours (the only modern finish is granite countertops installed by the previous homeowners). Kate Brashares said in the Times article, "That’s another English thing. We like things that are old, have history.” I do too. I'm definitely an old soul.

Our fireside supper of ratatouille and the summer solstice wine. So many simple pleasures I cherish are featured in this photo: geraniums, blue and white dishes, red and white checked napkins, water with mint from the garden, candlelight, the sight and smell of a real fire, eating outdoors, and sharing a meal.

I am so thankful to the farmers who brought the food to our plates, watering and tending crops on hot days.  Someone remarked to me that the winter feels so long and summer so short. I hope you are savoring summer days, especially the bounty of the season.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Long Live Small Farms: Postcards from the Garden State

"It was fifty years since he had begun with his Mary, full of hope and pride, the merciless soil had hugged them to its bosom ever since each spring without rest. But he did not think of that. The soil gives forgetfulness. Only the present is remembered in the spring, even by the aged who have spent their lives tilling the earth." - Spring Sowing, a short story by Liam O'Flaherty.

Organic, non-GMO seeds on display at DePiero's Farm in Montvale, New Jersey, another family farm whose sun will set with a retail development slated to replace it. With the earth now providing its glorious bounty from the seeds, I am thinking of those who bring the food to our table: the under-appreciated farmers. Let us not have forgetfulness for them. reported on the plight of small farms in New Jersey, noting "Statewide, the last 64 years have seen the number of farms shrink from 25,000, to 9,071. Bergen County has only 60 left; Passaic County, 78." The article talked about farms diversifying and meeting the demand for entertainment, like hayrides and corn mazes. I see crowds at the farm during the fall and for things like peach picking in the summer, but many seem so quiet the rest of the year.  I like how James Abma, owner of Abma's Farm in Wyckoff, put it that, ultimately, the onus is on the customer. “If they want to continue to see the small farms and garden centers, they have to patronize."

There's a lot of opposition to developing DePiero's Farm, and I'm not for development either, but I feel for the family farmers too. We can't lionize them, but not patronize them. Admittedly, I do most of my shopping at Trader Joe's, so I can do better too. My mom and I try and lunch regularly at local farms (save for the winter) and I buy produce and baked goods too when I stop by. We stopped here just before the arrival of spring, and here are some postcards of farm visits from this season, my love letter to the American small farmers. Don't judge New Jersey by what you see on television by our governor or horrendous "reality" shows. We are the proud "Garden State."

Family farms are a part of my American dream. 

There were just a few others enjoying a Sunday treat and we didn't spot a soul in the greenhouse except workers and there were few shoppers. My mom remarked on how it was a little sad, but I noted we don't come here either usually (our other farm haunts were closed for the season). Imagine if this place was booming with customers. I seldom pass by a shopping mall and not see its parking lot packed.

I was dreaming of their bakery offerings and I was not let down. I had a comforting warm hot cross bun and chamomile tea.
My mom and I, both lovers of gardens, were overcome with a sense of joy upon entering the greenhouse. A neighbor remarking on the joy a small daffodil plant brought her when seeing it bloom each day said when you have plants, "Who needs medication?"

One of life's miracles: seeds sprouting. Gardens are not only place of beauty and magic, but are healing too. It turns out there is a natural antidepressant in soil. According an article featured by Gardening Know How, "Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

Gardeners inhale the bacteria, have topical contact with it and get it into their bloodstreams when there is a cut or other pathway for infection. The natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant can be felt for up to 3 weeks."

 I left with asparagus, frisee, red raspberries, some local honey and a cheerful daffodil plant. Cheery red tulips were on the cart too. I loved that for Grace's first birthday my mom bought her a bunch of tulips even though she's just a baby. She said, "It's important." I think flowers are too. So are books and farms.
"I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weighs down the air with patchouli. Their faint, delicate scent is refinement itself; and is there anything in the world more charming than the sprightly way they hold up their little faces to the sun. I have heard them called bold and flaunting, but to me they seem modest grace itself, only always on the alert to enjoy life as much as they can and not be afraid of looking the sun or anything else above them in the face." - Elizabeth Von Arnim's Elizabeth and Her German Garden. How much we can learn from tulips, and from nature.
The Abram Demaree farm stand in Closter, a cozy, no frills lunch spot. As soon as they reopened for the season, we were here.

The Greek gyro with spinach, feta cheese, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce.

Sharing their warm homemade apricot pie with a cup coffee. 
At Demarest Farm in Hillsdale. I wrote previously about the uncertain future of this farm after it was put for sale, and thankfully it has new owners.
From the hot buffet, a twice baked potato, zucchini, veggie chili, an onion roll and cranberry apple herb tea. We bring our reusable cutlery to reduce our impact.
An apple blossom and fresh fruit.
I couldn't think of a happier place to be on Mother's Day.
They had a complimentary breakfast buffet. Our red picnic ware was cheerier than Styrofoam.
Long live these farms, and long live the small farmer.
Nature's candy: strawberries. "He walks by the table and stops to look at a bowl of fresh field strawberries, still half full. David says that his daughter calls these "happy strawberries" because they grow wild. He says she thinks the fruit sold in stores is "unhappy because it sits in boxes" separated from the plant." - Brindle 24 by J.J. Brown.  I'm so tired of out of season, tasteless strawberries from thousands of miles away. These strawberries are happy indeed.
At Old Hook Farm in Emerson, the first asparagus of the season.
At Abma's Farm in Wyckoff.
Happy meal: carrot ginger soup, roasted red pepper hummus with veggies and a sour cream orange cake.

I brought one of their Chinese almond cookies home for tea time with my green jasmine tea. With a book: heaven.

We decided to put our money where our mouth is and signed up for a CSA (community-supported agriculture) with Abma's Farm. They use non-GMO seeds and utilize organic farming methods but are not certified organic because of the paperwork. I have been wanting to shift towards both local and in-season produce. With the ongoing drought situation in California, I'm not comfortable with so much of our produce coming from there, especially if such wholesome, high quality vegetables are in our own neck of the woods from local farmers. I'll never become a total locavore. I can't imagine parting with my avocados, bananas or mangoes, but I want to incorporate local foods much more. I still love Trader Joe's especially for pantry items, but with the CSA we're buying little produce there now.
Our first week's share: arugula, spicy salad greens, spinach, radishes, and a jar of local honey. Production was behind because of the weather. We signed up for the egg share too so will be getting half a dozen eggs each week for 20 weeks. It's like getting a present from Mother Nature.
Week two: spinach, arugula, kohlrabi, broccoli leaves, radishes and a head of lettuce.
Week 3: turnips, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, bok choy and eggs. In addition to the eggs we signed up for, we decided to do their other add-ons, a dessert bread and wine. A raspberry chocolate chip bread and a Tomasello Winery Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine.
The two wines from the first two weeks: an Daffodil White semi-dry wine and an American almonique almond wine.  

I don't drink more than a glass of wine at a time. Like the produce we're getting, this was about going outside our comfort zones, enjoyment of life and supporting local agriculture.

In HGTV's House Hunters International, a guilty pleasure show, a couple living in Paris was buying a second home in Provence with a baby on the way. The couple was sitting on their sunny patio at the end enjoying their breakfast with local honey, and the woman, an American,  talked about the French understanding the "art of living." I think that's why I've been drawn to Parisian and French things so. But we can't all move to France. I want to embrace the "art of living" in my backyard here too.

I also think our culture creates an unhealthy relationship for youth with alcohol, not treating it as something with pleasure and happiness, but as taboo. I hate the excessive drinking as a right of passage for youth.

"In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary." — A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Week 4: arugula, garlic scapes, a head of broccoli, lettuce, spicy salad mix and escarole, with our add-ons: eggs, a chocolate chocolate chip bread and Tomasello cherry wine. Even my husband who is a chef is unfamiliar with garlic scapes. I love how much we are learning.
Escarole from the CSA with some basic pantry items from Trader Joe's like pasta and organic white beans. Red pepper flakes added some heat. We savored the meal on the patio fireside. This is good living.

This has already been a life-changing experience. Even if we had planted a large garden this year, we wouldn't have had things like bok choy or kohlrabi. Kohlrabi is my new favorite vegetable, and I feel like I'm cooking across time with my grandmother in Switzerland who prepared it with lots of butter and parsley for her family.

Gene Baur, in his book with Gene Stone, "Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day," said, "Our food is among the most intimate connections we make with the earth." I feel more tied to the earth when I visit a local farm. I think that's why I feel so content at them. Our world is so fast moving today and technology plays such a heavy hand in our daily lives. At farms I remember what matters most: health, good food (even better when shared with family and friends), gratitude, and respect for our earth which provides so well for us, a reminder to treat her kindly.

I don't think Americans understand the true reckoning of their ability to shape the country by where they choose to spend their dollars. Election day is important, but equally is where we vote with our wallets. Family farms, mom and pop restaurants, bookshops, and charity thrift stores all get my vote. This canvas tote says it all: Support Local Farms. Don't let small farms be a disappearing act.