Home Life Writing

Holiday Fun

Frosted Squash Plants

Hard frost and cooler temperatures make way for end of year holidays. Stress diminishes as plans for outdoor work become moot.

Diversity in the United States means holidays differ among social groups with each family developing a way of participating in a national culture.

Specific things have been on the agenda in our home. We discuss when to set up the Christmas holiday decorations, make and receive phone calls, cook a special meal, and pretty much stay within the boundary of our lot lines. It has been a quiet day for the last several years.

Some activities are particularly fun.

I mentioned the meal in yesterday’s post. What made it special was discussion about what to have combined with its simplicity. We made enough food for leftovers from recipes developed at home. The concession to consumer culture was an inexpensive bottle of Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Cider. It was sweet and fizzy.

We don’t receive many seed catalogues in the mail yet I started online orders at Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The activity informs visualization of next year’s garden. There is a lot of thinking and planning to be done prior to entering payment information and hitting the order button on the web sites. There are discounts from both companies for ordering online this early.

I read a couple chapters of Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving. Books to read pile up on the filing cabinet near my writing desk. I finish most of the books I read each year between December and February. Reading is part of the holiday quiet time and sustains me through winter.

Napping is a lost art. Balance between falling asleep on the couch from exhaustion and intentionally resting is hard to achieve. After the day’s activities I slept straight through the night. I didn’t take a nap this Thanksgiving, but should have.

As a schooler we had at least a four-day Thanksgiving holiday. In the work force, I worked on Thanksgiving Day countless times, even the single time Mother made it out to Indiana for the holiday. That day I coordinated holiday meals for some of more than 600 drivers based at our trucking terminal and missed the main meal service at home.

Indiana was a tough place to live in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Reagan era was noted for downsizing or eliminating large industrial job sites like U.S. Steel. I can’t recall the number of conversations about what used to be in the steel business. There were many. Even lake-effect snow from Lake Michigan couldn’t deaden the angst people felt. Electing Bill Clinton president didn’t change what the radio stations described as the “steel mill culture.” There wasn’t much for which to give thanks in that economic and political environment.

Memories fade with time and Thanksgiving presents opportunities to re-tell the stories of our lives together. Such storytelling has been wide-ranging and keeps the past alive. A past to inform our future, or so we hope even if the teller doesn’t get details right.

If we work a little, Thanksgiving can be a time to have fun. That may be enough to sustain us.

Home Life Kitchen Garden Writing

Cooking is Inspiration

Pad Thai – Iowa Style

The folks I hang with in the local food system are focused on product.

Is the asparagus ready? What about the rhubarb? When should I plant peppers and tomatoes? How much should we put into a member share?

I’m interested in the answers, yet those aren’t my questions. My work in the local food system is to inform and supply culinary endeavors in our kitchen. Technique and creativity seem more important than the fungible commodity fresh produce is becoming. Objectifying and standardizing things, an American obsession, plays a role in the kitchen. At the same time inspiration, creativity and technique seem more important than consumable objects. That’s where I live.

My questions are different from farmer friends. What food can be sourced locally? How can I use an abundance of spring greens before they spoil? What seasoning tastes best with scrambled eggs? What is the best way to preserve food in the ice box? How many pints and quarts of tomatoes shall I can this year? How do I combine bits and pieces from the pantry with fresh food to make satisfying meals? At some point, questioning must yield to creativity.

There is something about Saturday afternoon in the kitchen. It’s partly immersion into the cooking process and partly reliving memories.  Saturday was a time to work in the yard and garage, then cook a meal while my spouse worked in town. I used to listen to Iowa Public Radio all day. Due to budget priorities, those programs are gone. Cooking time came with the beginning of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion which is gone too. I now draw life from the task at hand without musical accompaniment.

I made an Iowa version of pad thai last Saturday.

The dish has been in the works for a while. A couple of months ago I noticed the warehouse club sold USDA Certified Organic pad thai noodles for about $0.37 per serving. I bought a box on Friday.

With cabbage, onions and carrots from last season; a drawer and more of cooking greens from the farm; spring garlic from the garden; and bits and pieces stored in the ice box and pantry, the dish came together. The resulting meal was tasty, filling and seasonal — satisfying on multiple levels.

My kitchen experience made the dish as much as the ingredients.

I stock basic kitchen staples — high smoke point oil, salt, extra virgin olive oil, celery, onions, carrots and cabbage. Sources included retail merchants and local farms, however, the essence of cuisine is using what’s ubiquitous and on hand. It’s a fine distinction. Regardless of source, what’s in the pantry, ice box and garden now is what’s on hand. Creativity is in that moment.

Except for the noodles, no specific shopping was needed to prepare pad thai. Canned black beans and a jar of fermented black bean sauce were the only prepared foods used and I stock both in the pantry.

Spring Garlic

Inspiration for the meal occurred at the intersection of discovery of a small patch of spring garlic in the garden and the memories it aroused. I recall a paper sack of garlic cloves brought home from the library and planting them more than a decade ago. The scent was intoxicating. I harvested enough for a meal.

Where is the creativity? Thinly cutting vegetables, sorting ingredients by cooking time, and measuring seasonings can all be taught. With an eye toward plating, carrots can be cut on the bias, green leaves julienned and celery stalks cut thick. Pad thai noodles are to cook 5-6 minutes, according to the package, then immersed in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. These techniques are like loading a palette with paint.

Creativity begins once the noodles are on and the wok is heated to high temperature. There’s no going back.

Using a high smoke point oil, onions, carrots, celery, cabbage go into the wok first. It’s “stir fry,” not “occasionally stir” fry, so full attention is required at the stove. Season with salt. Once the timer for the noodles expires, strain and dump into the ice water bath. When the first round of vegetables is tender and add plate two (spring garlic, garlic chives, sliced bok choy stems, and julienned bok choy leaves, stirring constantly. Add the drained and washed black beans and a generous serving of cooking greens. Once the greens are wilted, add a couple of tablespoons of fermented black bean sauce. Strain and add the noodles last, garnishing with a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Toss gently until heated. Plate and serve with your favorite sweet chili sauce.

Cheap, prepared food is everywhere in the United States. It’s convenient. It reduces time in the kitchen. It is engineered to appeal to our senses. Most of us eat at a restaurant or get help from the industrial food supply chain from time to time. However, there is no substitute for inspired cooking.

It provides engagement seldom found elsewhere in life. It’s a source of satisfaction hard to replicate. It sustains us in a turbulent world. This kind of inspiration and creativity is needed more than ever.

Some ingredients for Iowa-style pad thai


Writing Through

Celery and Kale Seedlings

One third of the way into 2017 I’m like the horse that smells hay in the barn.

I can’t wait to finish the year, bed down for an evening, and get on to what’s next.

When writing about this final lap I felt a Social Security payment beginning next year would alleviate daily cash flow concerns, helped not a little by cancelling our health insurance through the home, farm and auto supply store and both of us going on Medicare. I won’t completely stop working outside home. Beginning next year, we could.

What’s next? Writing, I hope.

The most productive writing I did was between 2010 and 2015 when I was an editor at Blog for Iowa and wrote over 100 articles for the Solon Economist, North Liberty Leader  and Iowa City Press Citizen. I gained perspective about structure and clarity. I came to understand the 200-1,000 word post and what makes them interesting. Most importantly, I had great editors — five of them. When they found time to provide feedback, I learned from it. Practice combined with editing didn’t make me a perfect writer. It made me better.

I’m ready to take on different topics and longer writing projects as soon as we have enough income to take care of bills and pay down debt. Just eight more months to get there.

Reading goes with writing and I’m concerned about my ability to focus on longer narratives after a). having viewed so much television during my formative years, and b). bringing home our first personal computer in 1996. In a 2007 interview with Andrew O’Hagan for the Paris Review, Norman Mailer expressed my concerns.

“Now people grow up with television, which has an element within it that is absolutely inimical to serious reading, and that is the commercial,” Mailer said. “Any time you’re interested in a narrative, you know it’s going to be interrupted every seven to ten minutes, which will shatter any concentration. Kids watch television and lose all interest in sustained narrative.”

I have managed to be an avid reader, although internet habits have become more important than the formative influence of television. Beginning with access to the internet my reading habits changed. There is greater access to a diversity of articles and opinions on the internet. There is also a tendency to skip around from short article to short article. What’s concerning is the new and compulsive behavior of picking up a hand-held device and searching for the next story as if it were an addiction. The information gained through internet applications keeps me informed. However, when I decided to break away from political reading and try a novel, it was a disaster.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks came highly recommended. It is a well-written narrative, engaging on several levels according to many readers. I had to re-start the book three times to retain essential points and make sense of the narrative. I’m still only a few pages into the book after previously reading the first fifty.

Part of my experience was witnessing Banks’ craftsmanship. Part of it was difficulty focusing on the narrative —not because of Banks’ style — but because my reading abilities have been tainted by the internet. I’m determined to read the book through to the end. I need better focus to dive in and do so. Whether I gain it remains to be seen.

Human resilience give me hope of becoming a better reader and writer. If I learned bad reading habits, they can be unlearned. In the meanwhile I’ll be writing through the final lap in a workingman’s race on this blog, hoping sweet oats and better reading and writing lay past the finish line.

Environment Home Life

Inside Chores and Climate Marches

Overflowing and Neglected Inbox

Rain began mid-morning and is expected to continue until sunset.

Let it rain.

It’s an opportunity to work on inside chores before spring planting.

I’ll tackle a long-neglected inbox and use produce in the ice box and freezer to make soup. There’s plenty to do in the jumble the garage has become since winter — moving the lawn tractor toward the door, organizing the planting tools and cleaning shovels, rakes and bins for the season. I’m antsy about getting the garden planted — I accept it won’t be this weekend.

A few friends are participating in the People’s Climate March today. CNN and the Washington Post covered the District of Columbia march. There are several marches in Iowa and elsewhere. The key challenge for participants and other climate activists is determining what to do in a society where the importance of action to mitigate the causes of climate change garners slight interest.

“Surveys show that only about one in five adults in the United States is alarmed about climate change,” Jill Hopke wrote in The Conversation. “This means that if climate activists want this march to have a lasting impact, they need to think carefully about how to reach beyond their base.”

Collard Seedlings in the Rain

The unanswered question is how shall people outside the activist community be recruited to take climate action and by whom?

There are no good answers and no reason for climate activists to lead the effort. However, we can’t give up if we value society’s future.

The main issue is the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The good news is there are renewable sources of energy for transportation, manufacturing and electricity. How will society make climate change action ubiquitous with a majority of the world population?

Mass demonstrations can play a role in an effort to raise awareness about climate change. So can articles written by journalists, scientists, bloggers and organizations. At a minimum we can each strive to live with as light an environmental footprint as possible. We can explain to our friends, family and neighbors. Everyone has the potential to do something.

Today’s cool weather and gentle rain is a reminder.

“Staying out of the cold and warm inside? So are we,” Richard Fischer of Bernard wrote this afternoon via email. “Due to the weather we’re moving the event over to Convivium Urban Farmstead and Coffee shop, 2811 Jackson St., Dubuque.”

We must consider our lives in the built environment and let it rain. Have faith in today’s potential and adjust, knowing as long as rain comes and sustains our gardens and farms we too will be sustained.

There is much we can do when it rains. We can act on climate before it’s too late.