Sunday, December 20, 2015

It's Good, Not Just "Good for You"!

So far I've made two recipes from Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson's The Healthy Mind Cookbook: Big Flavor Recipes to Enhance Brain Function, Mood, Memory, and Mental Clarity, a title whose big promises might make arouse skepticism in some readers. Well, I can definitely say that my experiences with this book so far improved my mood, since they were delicious, easy to make, and easy on my conscience because I knew they were healthy and good for me as well as gorgeous to look at! And they definitely deliver "Big Flavor."
The cover photo is of "Thai It Up Steak Salad" (which I haven't tried yet); most of the recipes are accompanied by similar full page illustrations, and if the two recipes I tried - "Avocado Citrus Salad" and "Mexican Hot Chocolate" - are representative of the rest, my tummy and taste buds are going to be very happy, and if my mind gets healthier too, well, what more could you ask?

The Mexican hot chocolate recipe is for one serving (thank you, Rebecca and Mat!), made with a cup of unsweetened almond milk, a tablespoon of cocoa powder, two teaspoons of maple syrup, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and tiny pinches each of salt and cayenne, whisked together in a saucepan while heating. I find cocoa powder easier to whisk in a bowl (no corners to hide in) so I mixed it up in my favorite cappucino mug and heated it in the microwave - even easier and sooooo delicious. The cayenne adds a delicious hint of a burn in the throat and the touch of salt kicks up all the flavors; this is hot chocolate for grownups, but I'm pretty sure the kids will love it too.

The Avocado Citrus Salad, pictured here, sounds like something I make often, especially this time of year with so many varieties of citrus available at the peak of their quality. The creamy avocado and the sweet bite of citrus are heavenly together. Add the peppery sharpness of arugula, plus shaved fennel, fresh chopped mint, and a bit of ginger in the dressing, and the whole becomes a marvelously complex melange of flavors in which each part is enhanced and elevated by the others. I'd want to eat this even if no one told me that avocado is one of the best fats, "full of brain-boosting vitamin E and a monounsaturated fat that helps lower blood pressure, which can help lower the risk of cognitive impairment" (70).

Katz began work on this book after her father's death from dementia at eighty, after a decade of struggling with the disease, left her feeling like she faced a similar timetable. What she found in her research, "the notion that what I eat can positively impact my mind [was] incredibly freeing" and left her "no longer feeling that [she's] a prisoner to [her] genetics." The introduction and the first two chapters further explain and develop this idea in engaging, engrossing prose; Chapter One, "Your Brain on Food," explains the scientific processes at work, including the relationship between the gut and the brain, a subject that's getting a lot of attention lately. Chapter Two, "The Culinary Pharmacy," lists foods from allspice to yogurt, what they're good for in terms of the brain, and how they work. That mint in the salad I made is good for for cognitive functioning, focus, learning, memory, and neuronal health not just because of its Vitamins A and C but also because studies show that "the scent of mint help[s] boost alertness and memory [and] helped subjects perform better on basic clerical skills, such as typing and memorization" (16-17). I knew that pot of mint in my back yard was more than pretty! And the fennel (I love fennel!)? It contains the B vitamin folate, which boosts mental performance and may help prevent the onset of dementia, as does its vitamin C, which "can also keep your spirits up," while its vitamin A "may deliver a boost to your learning abilities" (14). Hurray! Now I have more reasons to eat fennel than just the fact that I love it!

This book is beautiful: lovely to look at and full of useful and fascinating information in addition to wonderful recipes made with real food that packs real benefits. Katz (along with Edelson, an award-winning science, health, and sports writer) is not just a creative chef and serious researcher - she's a very good writer whose work is a pleasure to read, even if you never make any of her recipes. But please, please do make the recipes! I can't decide between the Cozy Lentil Soup with Delicata Squash and the Rosemary and Pear Muffins. Maybe I'll just make both! For more about Katz's work and some sample recipes (and pictures), you can go to And then go buy this book!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Cookbook I've Longed For

Where to begin to describe the wonderful book that The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal Breads from Around the World by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez and the bakers of Hot Bread Kitchen is? As a long-time baker (I've even taught bread baking classes) and food-obsessed cook in general, I understand that one thing that can bring people of all cultures together is the sharing of food. It's a way in, a point of connection. It's one of humankind's - no, it is humankind's primary means of showing hospitality, compassion, love. Almost every part of the world has its own bread, its own staff of life, and The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook celebrates that fact with its eclectic collection of recipes and, of equal importance, the stories of the women who make the bread (and other dishes included among the recipes).

Hot Bread Kitchen in Brooklyn is more than just a thriving bakery. It is also a paid training program for immigrant and refugee women from all around the world who learn to professionalize their homegrown skills and passion for food; they also learn the business skills that help them to succeed after they graduate. When the book arrived in the mail I took it with me on a short road trip. While my husband drove, I alternated between telling him about the recipes I planned to make and the stories of the women with whom they originated. Tomorrow, for example, I think I'll try Lutfunnessa Islam's whole wheat chapatis and "Greenmarket Vegetables, Bangladeshi-Style." Lutfunnessa is just one of Hot Bread Kitchen's success stories. "The training program appealed to her because it was paid, it was with a team of women, and it didn't require her to interact with the public too much (which intimidated her because of her limited English and experience)." Today she speaks not only English but also proficient Spanish and works as a product coordinator and teacher at Hot Bread Kitchen. Other former trainees have gone on to similar successes and accomplishments.

The book itself is gorgeous, practical, and very well organized. It has all the information a first-time baker will need and offers exciting possibilities for those of us who've been at for decades. I never thought I could make some of the more exotic breads I've enjoyed in restaurants, like Indian naan, Armenian lavash, or Ethiopian injera, but with the clearly written recipes and abundant photographs provided, I'm pretty sure I can succeed.

Beginning with a section on basic (and not-so-basic) techniques, an extensive sidebar on how to store bread, and then "Notes on Equipment and Ingredients," it provides readers with all the technical background they'll need before moving on to the actual recipes, which begin with unleavened flatbreads like Moroccan m'smen and the above-mentioned chapatis and lavash, as well as matzo, then moves on to "slightly elevated leavened flatbreads" (like naan, injera, pita, and focaccia), then a terrific chapter on tortillas and other things to be made with masa, before getting into what some folks think of as "real" bread baking, loaves from rustic French breads to ryes to traditional onion bialys, followed by "enriched" breads - "Challah and Beyond." But it doesn't stop there; the next chapter provides recipes for "Filled Doughs from Around the World" - kreplach, knishes, Albanian cheese triangles, empanadas, and more. That chapter is followed by a collection of "quick breads and holiday breads" which once again reflect food traditions from all over the world. I'm planning to make my first stollen ever for Christmas morning! There's even a chapter on what to do with leftover bread, "Waste Not": the panzanella salad below is just one example.

I can't remember the last time I felt so enthusiastic about a cookbook, and not only about the book itself and its recipes and stories, but about the mission that drives Hot Bread Kitchen. In every way I can think of, it's a very good thing.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

From a Problem Play to a Challenging Novel

In "The Gap of Time," Jeanette Winterson composes a "cover version" of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," one of his late plays - infrequently performed and considered somewhat problematic by some critics. One of my own professors dismissed it as "silly." The plot certainly stretches credulity, but Winterson's re-envisioning fills in the plot holes of the original and brings it to a satisfying conclusion - more satisfying than the original, actually, since we don't have to depend on a statue coming to life.

I approached this first novel in Hogarth's Shakespeare series with gleeful anticipation and felt a bit let down in the early part of the book, since I didn't feel that Winterson's writing was up to her usual high standards. But then I remembered that I don't much like the early part of the play either, so maybe it's the source material that's the trouble. The plotting and characterization of the novel felt, like the play, stilted and awkward, and I had a hard time getting interested in the characters. (I never managed to get interested in Leo/Leontes, but that's because he's such a shallow jerk in both book and play.) However, once the action shifts to "New Bohemia" (a location much like New Orleans) and focuses on Perdita and her foster father and brother, Shep and Clo, everything picks up, including my interest, and the rest of the book is a real delight. It ends well, with the right couples getting together (I guess) as in so many of Shakespeare's plays.

One of the best parts of the book, though, is not the novel itself but rather Winterson's account of her own involvement with the story, and the personal essay she includes is also a meditation on forgiveness - a key element in Shakespeare's later plays - and time itself. As an adopted child herself, the story of the foundling Perdita has always resonated with her and she jumped at the chance to create her own re-telling. We all probably have stories that hold special places in our hearts and minds, and overall I enjoyed what she did with this one. So be patient, even if, like me, you find it hard to drum up much interest in an arrogant, neurotic, jealous tech magnate at the beginning. It gets much better as it goes along.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Lovely Book

I just finished reading Nina George's The Little Paris Book Shop, and I am so pleased that what I thought might be at best a mild and pleasant diversion turned out to be so much better and so much more.

What a delightful book this is! I've been reading things that are very good but rather grim, it seems, and this lovely novel was such a breath of fresh air. But it's not fluffy or silly; all the pleasures are earned, and the characters change and grow beyond the pain they begin with. Jean Perdu is a lonely man whose name ("perdu" is French for "lost") reflects his emotional condition. He lives a solitary, spartan life in his Paris apartment, and although he knows his neighbors most of his social contact comes at work; he owns a floating bookshop on a barge on the Seine, where he practices his uncanny ability to know what a customer should read. 

But he's not so good at taking care of his own emotional needs. Perdu is lonely because the love of his life left him twenty years earlier and he has never recovered, and then, suddenly, he is presented with a letter she wrote to him before her departure, a letter that changes how he feels about everything. He casts off his barge and begins a life-changing voyage down the Seine and ultimately to the wine country of Provence, to discover what happened to his beloved Manon. On this journey he is accompanied by a young novelist who can't deal with his fame, who leaps onto the barge uninvited, and two cats (Kafka and Lindgren). Along the way they meet a wonderful assortment of characters who help Jean (and Max, the young novelist) to take stock of themselves and their feelings so that when friendship and, yes, love arrive, they can recognize them and appreciate them.

I couldn't help thinking of this as a sort of French Huckleberry Finn since, after all, we have two male characters floating down the country's most important river, one older, one quite young, both in search of something - freedom, happiness, resolution of issues from the past. But The Little Paris Bookshop is very different, really, and not just because it feels very French. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of an older man who is, at last, becoming wiser about things of the heart; it is a gentle, meditative reflection on those things, and I found myself reading slowly because I wanted to savor every observation, every feeling. I was happy while I was reading it, and it makes me smile to remember it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Nice Little Meal

First, if you'll indulge me, a bit of a rant: I absolutely cannot understand people who don't appreciate leftovers. I don't even want to try to understand them. We have some in our family; they're also the kind of people who say "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it." Really? Maybe I can't - that is possible - but maybe I can and I just want to know what the seller thinks it's worth, and if we agree about that, or I'm curious how big a fool the seller thinks the consumer is. There. I feel better now.
      I absolutely love leftovers, and the little breakfast or brunch or supper on the plate below is an example of how lovely and delicious leftovers can be. Basically, everything here was left over except the egg.
     We usually have pasta on Sunday nights but I'd been craving polenta for a while so last week we had that, with some Italian sausage and red sauce, and it was fantastically satisfying. But two people can only eat so much polenta at one meal, so Joe (he was cooking that night) poured the rest into an 8" square glass dish and put it in the fridge.
      Now please don't say, "Don't you know you can buy precooked polenta in a tube and just slice off what you want" or "Isn't there instant polenta, so you can make just enough for one or two servings, super quick?" Yes, we could take those shortcuts, but . . . it just wouldn't be the same. So it takes a while to make polenta the traditional way; basically, you have to let the cornmeal and water (and some salt) simmer, and you have to stir it quite a bit. It won't kill you. Pour a glass of wine and relax, talk with whoever is around, or just put on some nice music, or read - you only need one hand to stir.
     A little more backstory: we've decided to shop as little as possible because our pantry and freezer are so full, and we've made it kind of a game to require that each meal has something from the freezer and/or pantry (long-term storage), or, ideally, both. In this case the dry polenta was from the pantry, and the sausage was a surprise from the freezer, something we'd forgotten we had.
     Then the meal that followed a couple of days later, on Tuesday, the one in the picture that you may be wondering if I've forgotten, used the leftover polenta, kale from the freezer, eggs, and some leftover chopped salad from Monday, which, since it had no lettuce in it to get icky and slimy, was just fine.
      The really cool part is that I was also able to put it together in just one pan - a nice, fairly heavy, nonstick pan really does make life so much easier.
     First I sprayed the pan, heated it on medium, and browned the polenta squares on one side. While the first side was browning I sprayed the second sides of the polenta squares so when I flipped them over they would be as well protected against sticking as the first. Be sure to use a plastic or wooden or bamboo spatula to avoid damaging the pan surface (you probably already know that - sorry). Also, polenta sets up pretty firmly, but do be careful turning the squares so you keep them in one piece - not cutting the squares too big helps. I get 9 squares from an 8" pan.
     After turning the polenta squares, I pushed them to the side of the pan and on the other side put in the thawed kale, which I'd drained and squeezed as much water out of as I could without getting weird and neurotic and excessively perfectionist about it. I used my fingers to create two little nests in the kale (you can use spinach or chard or whatever greens you have, so long as they're precooked to some degree) and then dropped an egg into each nest, reduced the heat to pretty low, and put the lid on the whole thing. By the time the eggs are cooked to your liking (I want the whites cooked but the yolks still liquid), the greens will be hot and the second side of the polenta will be browned.
     Then you just plate it up, in this case with a colorful chopped salad made up mostly of tomatoes, cucumber, red onions, and olives with a light vinaigrette. You could sprinkle a little grated Parmesan or Romano cheese over the polenta if you wish, and I like a light sprinkling of white balsamic vinegar on the greens; many people like some hot sauce on them, or on the eggs. However you choose to dress it up with condiments - or not - it's a tasty, simple, well-balanced meal with only one pan to wash. That works for me.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying . . . well, you decide

      When I received Scott Hawkins' The Library at Mount Char from Blogging for Books, I had hopes that it would be an inventive, intelligent, high-concept fantasy. I mean, it does have the word "Library" in the title, and as a fan of Jorge Luis Borges, that alone is a draw. And then there's inside front cover copy, indicating "ancient customs" and the possibility that the plot deals with nothing less than the actual death of God. I'm a sucker for "ancient customs" and mythologies (I majored in anthropology as an undergrad and later taught mythology), and I'm inclined to be forgiving and generous when it comes to fictional representations of those subjects. But Hawkins' first novel owes more to the mythology of twelve-year-old fanboys, i.e., ugly and gratuitous violence, generally leading to explosions of varying degrees and dimensions, than it does to anything found in an actual or even invented library. And it's not the inventive recasting of the idea of a library that's the problem; it's the lack of a solid underpinning or grounding for the world Hawkins creates here. He does eventually get around to that, but not until the reader has slogged through 275 pages, give or take a few, of fairly mind-numbing carnage, much of it at the hands of David, a larger-than-life psychopath in a tutu who's generally described as covered in blood. Aside from that description, and the fact that he's unstoppable (until near the end), David's not really very interesting, just an oddly dressed variation on one of the evil Terminators from the movie franchise.
      David has a sister, Carolyn, who's apparently the protagonist of the story, though she's another fairly flat character with few redeeming or even particularly interesting qualities. She's very smart and has vast knowledge (gleaned from the Library) of stuff regular people don't know much about, though her cloistered upbringing has rendered her fairly ignorant in the ways of the outside world, and she dresses strangely. But she's on a mission, so I suppose she can be forgiven her one-track mind. That mission concerns the probable death of God, who raised her and her adopted siblings (including David) in the Library; they refer to him as "Father," and like God (and perhaps some real fathers) he is the great mystery at the heart of this book. We could perhaps compare him to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Perhaps.
      Fortunately, Hawkins has given Carolyn a foil, Steven, the "American" she sort of loves (to the dozen "children" of the Library, all outsiders are "Americans"). We learn very late in the book that they have a childhood connection, but it's too late to save either their relationship or the novel. Carolyn puts him through all kinds of torments, but she does give him a lioness, Naga, so he's less alone than he might be while the world is going to hell. Steve's relationship with Naga is one of the very best things about this book.
      The other intriguing character is Erwin Charles Leffington, an authentic war hero who served three tours in Afghanistan and then "decided he'd killed enough people," and now works for the Department of Homeland Security. Erwin, Steve, and Carolyn eventually become a sort of team, three musketeers against the bad guys, who include some of Carolyn's siblings and the U.S. military-industrial complex. (Most of the other characters eventually wind up as collateral damage.) Without Steven and Erwin, I doubt I'd have finished The Library at Mount Char
      If this book winds up being made into a movie, I might go see it. It has potential, given a good screenwriter and director - Guillermo del Toro comes to mind - who could emphasize the humanity of some characters who don't seem to really interest Hawkins, particularly female characters, who are thinly drawn, even Carolyn, who for the most part is just a killing machine with a sort of detached curiosity about others, whom she describes as "disposable." The visuals and special effects, though, should be awesome.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Use What You Have: Patchwork Pillows & Potholders

     My current project is really a succession of projects, a continuing foray into stash-busting. This is a public declaration: I have accumulated so many things (like the beat-up school chair in the post before last,, for example), so much stuff of various kinds, out of the conviction I could turn them into something beautiful, or at least interesting. Rather than take it all down to Goodwill or have a yard sale (I like going to them, but not holding them) I'm making a conscious effort to actually do what I'd intended with all those things I've collected. So this is the most recent step toward that goal . . . . 
     The three pillows above are made from vintage patchwork blocks I bought at the January Tucson Quilt Festival, four or five Januaries ago. I appliqued each one to a coordinating cotton fabric (white muslin, blue chambray, and unbleached muslin, left to right), made each one into the usual quilt sandwich of pieced block, batting, and backing, and hand-quilted them. I used red quilting thread on the one on the right, to pick up the color of some tiny red flowers, and I really like the way it turned out, though it's such a subtle detail it may not show in the picture. The center seams on the smallest one, in the middle, were a bit off so the orange and red pieces didn't quite line up as they should; that's why I sewed the button there. Then I sewed piping around the edges and sewed the quilted pillow tops to their backings, which have sort of envelope openings (see below) so you can slip (or violently stuff, in some cases) the pillow forms into the decorative covers, and when they get dirty slip them out again to wash the covers.
          These are the backs of the three pillows below. Each one is made of two pieces of fabric (scrap fabric in two cases, and part of an old slip cover that the cats had scratched badly - but only in spots - in the other), with each piece hemmed and overlapping the other by about four inches. Like the chair I mentioned above, this project was an exercise in meeting the challenge of using things I already had without buying anything else.
           The fronts of the next three pillows began with 11" blocks given to me by the woman who heads up the quilting group at our church. There were actually six of them in a box of odds and ends that the group had no use for, and I was happy to take them. I added a 1 1/2" border of unbleached muslin around each one and then hand-quilted and assembled them just like the ones in the first photo above. The border was a little more than I needed, but that way I was sure they'd be big enough; I could (and did) trim off the excess after sewing the covers together. For these and the little red and blue one with the button above, I used 12" pillow forms I bought at IKEA a few years ago for 99 cents each! Unfortunately, they no longer carry that item; believe me, I've looked.
      I said there were six of these quilt blocks; the last three became potholders but I gave one away to a friend for her birthday, so I can only show you two. The process was the same as for the pillows through the hand quilting and then I just sewed wide double-fold bias tape around the edges of the quilted "sandwiches," extending the last couple of inches or so to make a hanging loop.
     Cosmo wanted to be in a picture, so here he is with some more little pillows covered with granny squares that I made to use up the last bits of some leftover yarn from other projects (of course). They're made in essentially the same way as the patchwork ones, though with no batting or quilting, obviously. For each one, I sewed the crocheted square to a square of the fabric that's used for the back with its overlapping opening, then sewed the fronts and backs together all the way around, right sides together, clipped the corners, turned them right side out, and stuffed the pillow forms into them.
 And then I put them on the sofa so Cosmo could pose with them, since they all go so well together.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bug Off! An Easy Approach

This is the windowsill over my kitchen sink, at least part of it. There are a couple more pots to the right and left of those you see, but what I want you to notice is the little white dish with the blue flower. It's a death trap.
It's the time of year for fruit flies but we've also been subject to a small plague of fungus gnats. Here with the potted plants I'm pretty sure it's fungus gnats.They don't rise up in great clouds when I water the plants, but a few do, and they're extremely annoying and almost impossible to eradicate completely - insecticidal soap and trying not to overwater both help some. But this old school remedy, which was originally thought up for fruit flies, has made a big difference. The white dish contains apple cider vinegar and a few drops of dish soap. The tiny bugs are attracted to the vinegar, and once they land on it, the dish soap keeps them from flying out again.
 This is a two-day catch, not pretty, but very satisfying. Since it's been hot we've been keeping the curtains closed, which has the added benefit of keeping the windowsill plants and their unwelcome tenants cut off from the rest of the room, so in that confined space they're more likely, I think, to succumb to the allure of the vinegar trap. Behind the curtain below, stealthy murder is being carried out. And I don't feel a bit guilty.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rain and More Rain - a book review

I live in the Sonoran desert, and I have a garden; consequently, I am obsessed with rain. As an undergraduate, I majored in anthropology with a minor in history. So of course I was drawn to Cynthia Barnett's Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. I was hoping for something like Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, two books I found enormously entertaining and enlightening. (I've also learned that Kurlansky has written a book on oysters, and I'm looking forward to reading it, too.) Rain, I thought, is far more central to life on the planet and occupies more important places in human life and consciousness, and so Barnett's book should be at least as compelling as Kurlansky's works. And at least in some places, it is.

      She begins with a beautifully written recounting of Ray Bradbury's description of the rains of Mars in The Martian Chronicles, then segues into the history of water on our planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, Earth's exceptional good fortune in still having water, and the history of water on our planet through the various geologic ages and throughout human history until today. I learned about the pluvial or wet periods in which our earliest primate ancestors lived and how climate shifts, from rain forest to open savanna, likely triggered later ancestors' transition to bipedalism. I learned about the famines that resulted during excessively pluvial periods of the Middle Ages, and about British meteorologist Luke Howard's early 19th century classification of cloud types and the origin of the phrase "Cloud Nine" (the towering cumulonimbus clouds were number nine on his list of ten types, and even though they were later shifted to number ten, the phrase remains as a reference to the highest, thickest, arguably most dramatic and beautiful of clouds, a place of ultimate joy). Barnett writes about railroad promoters who in the 19th century encouraged pioneers to settle in the arid West with the claim that "rain follows the plow." (It didn't.)

       Unfortunately, the book bogs down in the middle and becomes more than a bit of a slog, as if in approaching the more pedestrian and prosaic present she can't help but succumb to a certain pedestrian style herself. She does, however, make a clear and cogent argument for the reality of climate change and self-serving, willful ignorance (or outright lies) of those who argue against the scientific evidence, such as U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, "perhaps the most prominent national opponent of meaningful legislation to reduce fossil fuel emissions, [who] has said that humans cannot possibly control the climate because only God can do that." Of course, "[i]n addition to his [alleged] religious convictions, Inhofe has a sense of duty to the energy sector, the largest industry in Oklahoma" (273-4). The information in the bulk of the book is as important as what comes before, but the writing is less compelling than in the earlier chapters, though she periodically gets her mojo back for short stretches, as when she returns to Bradbury and his observation that "the Martians 'blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle'" (276).

       Despite the "Accolades for Rain" cited on the back cover, Barnett's book is mostly the "investigation" though occasionally she approaches the "interpretation," and it is in those latter instances that her prose soars. It is a good book, or rather, a good-enough book that, as is evident from the early chapters, could have been much more.

Chairs and More Chairs

 I should have taken a picture of what this chair looked like when Joe first brought it home after finding it abandoned in a back room of his office building, just one of those nondescript chairs many of us remember from school. With its light-colored plywood seat and back and metal parts painted a sort of vomit beige, it was more than a little beat up, the wood scratched and nicked. But it had nice clean lines - potential. And it was free.
      It looked much worse after it got left outside in the rain after Joe cleaned the garage - trust me, you should be glad I didn't take a picture of it then - and I wondered briefly if I shouldn't just forget about it. It sat in the garage for longer than I want to admit, but finally I took up the challenge.  

      This project wasn't exactly free; rather, it utilized things we already had: some Kilz white primer to paint over the by now even more disreputable plywood, Mod-Podge, a replica of an old (probably 19th century) map of France, a can of varathane, and some gold spray paint for the metal parts.
     First I lightly sanded everything, wood and metal, then I painted the wood with two coats of primer. When that was dry I sprayed the metal, the bottom of the seat, and the back of the back with a couple of coats of gold. I didn't worry about masking anything because what wasn't gold would soon be covered up; the next step was to cut the map into two pieces to fit the seat and the back, cutting them generously because it's easier to trim off too much than to add in more if you cut it too small.  (Sadly, we won't "always have Paris," because in the process of cutting and pasting it disappeared somewhere between the back of the seat and the bottom of the back piece.)
      I glued the map pieces to the wood with Mod-Podge, working slowly, a bit at a time from back to front on the seat and top to bottom on the back piece to avoid bumps and bubbles and wrinkles. It's not perfect, as the wood surface itself wasn't perfectly smooth, but near enough.
     The picture below shows one of the metal nailheads - there are four on each piece, one on each  corner, attaching the wood to the metal tubing. I didn't put any Mod-Podge on them but otherwise just laid the paper over them and then cut around them with a craft knife while the Mod-Podge was still wet. In a couple of spots I cut a bit too much and had to touch up those places with acrylic paint blended to match the map colors.
     After the Mod-Podge dried, I trimmed off any excess paper along the edges and painted all the paper surfaces with three coats of varathane, letting it dry completely between coats.
      The only thing I actually bought for this project was a couple of yards of 5/8" gold braid that I glued on (with E6000, because that was what I had and I wanted to be sure it would stick forever) to cover the raw edges of the 5/8" plywood. (With a 50% off coupon the braid cost less than $3 at JoAnn.) I bought a lighter shade of gold than I really wanted because I knew it would darken from the varathane I painted over it as part of the fourth and final coat for the chair back and seat. The braid is stiff and hard as a result; it should be as tough and lasting as the rest of the chair.
     The picture below is a preview of coming attractions. Joe found this oak captain's chair by the side of the road while he was out walking one day and brought it home for my study. I'd been using one of those balance ball office chairs, bought on sale and on a whim a few years ago, but the ball had suddenly begun to leak and I'd long ago lost my fondness for the chair as a whole. Its black plastic frame and the green ball really didn't go with anything in the room. Healthy but ugly. So rather than try to fix the leak or buy a new ball, we put the whole assemblage out on the curb and someone quickly took it away, just like Joe took away this chair that someone else no longer wanted. Recycling in its purest form: no money, no middleman, no waste. I love it.
This chair just needs cleaning up with Minwax refinisher or something like that, four nail-on glides for the feet so it doesn't snag the rug, and a nice cushion, and it will be exactly the desk chair I always wanted (though I didn't know it until I saw it).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


     Those of us who are interested in food and the politics of food - food safety, healthy food, access to affordable and healthy food, food-related health problems and food as a way to improve our health, the dysfunctional relationship between consumers and the industrial producers of food - are fortunate to have so many knowledgeable and concerned individuals taking up the cause of telling us the truth about what we put in our mouths. These writers include but are not limited to Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), David A. Kessler, M.D. (The End of Overeating), Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and more), and Mark Bittman, whose many cookbooks and New York Times columns would provide a much-more-than-adequate education in all things food-related even if no other resources were available.

    I have quite literally been reading Bittman for decades, and so I was delighted when Blogging for Books offered me the chance to review his newest book, A Bone to Pick. Since he left off writing his "Minimalist" column for the Times, Bittman's columns and blogs have addressed the tougher and trickier topics of, to quote the subtitle of this book, "The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more." Much more.
     No one can deny that we do not eat as healthily as our grandparents did, or that we eat things they might not even have recognized as food, full of ingredients even we, even if we could pronounce them, would be unable to define or explain. From the addition of antibiotics and pesticides and herbicides to GMOs, much of our produce and animal products look very different from the way they did fifty years ago, and the ways in which they are processed before they get to us have also changed radically. These changes, and the science and the politics behind them, are just some of the things Bittman covers in the chapters of A Bone to Pick, which is a collection of his writings in recent years for the Times, mostly from his opinion column, with the rest from the paper's Sunday magazine.
     The book's many short chapters are divided among six main sections: 
          Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between;
          What's Wrong with Meat? (no, he doesn't say we should all be vegans);
          What Is Food? And What Is Not?;
          The Truth About Diet(s);
          The Broken Food Chain;
          Legislating and Labeling.
Each well-researched, well-written, and clearly argued, and in fact entertaining chapter is designed to inform readers about what's really going on with what we eat as well as to persuade us to take action, beginning with our own food choices, to improve the situation when it comes to what we eat and its effect on our lives and those of others. 
     Bittman pulls no punches when it comes to his views on our broken food system, but he is also extremely fair and gives credit where credit is due. One chapter is even titled "Not All Industrial Food Is Evil," and really, wouldn't it be naïve to think we could feed ourselves and the world without some forms of industrial food? Bittman is certainly not naïve, and neither is he a prophet of absolute doom. In the final part of the book, in a chapter called "Why Take Food Seriously?", he writes: 
     "I've never been more hopeful. (In fact, I was never hopeful at all until recently.) Each year, each month it sometimes seems, there are more signs that convenience, that mid-20th-century curse word, may give way to quality - even what you might call wholesomeness - just before we all turn into the shake-sucking fatties of Wall-E
            We are taking food seriously again."

Bittman writes like the smart, knowledgeable, concerned friend we probably all wish we had, one who can tell us what we need to hear because he's right there with us; he just has more information (and, thankfully, a sense of humor). His short, clear, compulsively readable chapters are as addictive as potato chips (sorry - I couldn't resist); you'll probably finish one and think "I have time for just one more." What's so wonderful about this book is that it's not only something that should be read, it's also enjoyable to read. Readers will learn so much, and even if much of what we learn can be disappointing and discouraging (how can those corporate and legislative bigwigs be so insensitive and callous when it comes to the needs of real people?), can come away feeling empowered about issues we should probably all be paying more attention to. It's kind of the next best thing to actually sitting down to a meal with one of America's very best writers on the very important subject of food, in all its aspects.

Friday, May 1, 2015


On the cover of his 2008 book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan distilled the basic guidelines of healthy eating to 3 points: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”  Elsewhere he added a fourth point: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food” (p. 148). That’s pretty much my philosophy of eating too, though I won’t claim to be 100% pure about it 100% of the time.

Philosophy can be inspiring, of course, but sometimes one prefers one’s inspiration in a more concrete form, and that’s where Veronica Bosgraaf’s new cookbook, Pure Food, comes in. She provides the recipes to help home cooks follow Pollan’s advice by bringing clean, seasonal, plant-based recipes to the table with a minimum of effort – and cost, since the book is organized by month to take advantage of what’s in season and therefore less expensive. Just turn to the index and look up whatever there’s an especially good deal on at the market (or what arrived in your CSA box that you have no clue how to use) and you’re likely to find something you might not have thought of on your own, something that’s both simple and delicious. That’s why I was so delighted to receive a copy from Blogging for Books (http://www.bloggingforbooksorg).

Case in point: I just bought 6 ears of fresh corn for $1, but I’d like to try something beyond corn on the cob (much as I love it). Bosgraaf’s Fava Bean and Corn Salad sounds yummy, though I’ll probably substitute frozen edamame for the fresh fava beans, which can be hard to find and a bit more trouble than I want to go to. Or how about her Sweet Corn Pudding, lightly sweetened with honey and the delicious surprise of chopped fresh peaches? Hey, I may have to go buy some more corn!

Along with the recipes Bosgraaf provides pages of useful tips and interesting sidebar comments in which she reminds us that she’s just like many of us, a working mom who wants to feed her family well, both in terms of taste and clean, healthy food. (There’s also a useful section at the beginning on “The Pure Pantry” – ingredients that are good to have on hand and information about them).  This is my kind of food and I’m always happy to learn about new ways of preparing it, though I may tweak a recipe because I don’t have exactly the ingredient it calls for (as mentioned above, with the Fava Bean [or Edamame] and Corn Salad, or using another fruit in the Sweet Corn Pudding if I don’t have fresh peaches. But this is home cooking, not industrial production, and a little creativity is generally welcome, at least at my house.

If I have any quibbles with the book, it’s that Bosgraaf seems sometimes to be trying too hard to have it every way possible. She touts certain recipes as purely vegan but includes eggs and/or dairy in others. I don’t really care either way; it just seems inconsistent. And she makes kind of a big deal about some recipes for baked things being gluten-free, while others are not. If she really wanted to appeal to the audience of readers concerned about those things, she could have included “gluten-free” as a category in the index, for example. And since I’m unlikely to go out and buy gluten-free flour unless I know I have a guest coming who eats that way, it would be nice if she’d included information about making, say, Lemon Poppyseed Cupcakes with regular wheat flour. But I’ll probably experiment with that one on my own, since they do sound yummy.

Overall, I like this book very much. In fact, I’m thinking about tonight’s dinner; Linguine with Tomatoes and Avocado Pesto sounds really good, with Watercress, Cucumber, and Toasted Pecan Salad (though I have arugula in the garden, so it will stand in for the watercress), and Vegan Orange Pops (a recipe created by Bosgraaf’s 15-year-old daughter!) for dessert.  On the other hand, that Hummus Pizza with Arugula and Wild Mushrooms looks awfully tempting! It’s going to be fun cooking my way through this book.

FIRST LIGHT - April poem #29

The April 29 prompt on Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides blog was to "write a what nobody knows" poem. Here's mine. The first line is what my husband said as he brought me my tea this morning. I told him he should put it in a poem, but he said no, he was giving it to me:


Isn't just waking up in the morning resurrection enough?
After long nights of throwing off blankets or reaching for more,
of stumbling through darkness so complete it lacks even shadows
to shut off the fan or turn up the thermostat,
pushing the cat off the bed, readjusting pillows,
sliding back into confused dreams of people long dead,
after all this, isn't pale morning light filtered through white curtains
enough? And the soft sounds doves make,
and the long moaning bark of the neighbor's hound,
aren't they really the voices of angels?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


I lived in San Francisco for seven often wonderful, intensely melodramatic years, and I wouldn't exchange them for anything. When I saw this morning's prompt from NaPoWriMo, to "write a poem about bridges," I briefly considered a number of other bridges - the narrow one over the Snake River between Ontario, Oregon and Fruitland, Idaho where a couple of my ex-husband's trucker buddies used to run side-by-side, so close that one's left sideview mirror would be inside the other's righthand window, just to see if they could do it; the lovely covered bridges of New Hampshire and Vermont; the high trestle railroad bridges that look so beautiful and deadly - but I knew all along I could only write about the Golden Gate Bridge, so familiar even to those who have never been within a thousand miles of it, that bridge I crossed and recrossed so many times, the source of so many urban legends that, as far as I've found, aren't even acknowledged on Wikipedia or elsewhere. So they must be true, right?


There are rattlesnakes on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Crotalus viridis, the Western rattlesnake.
Even the San Francisco Bay Area National Park Science and Learning
website acknowledges their presence in the area, but they downplay it
and sure as hell won't say you'll find them on the bridge.

Crotalus viridis, the Western rattlesnake,
likes to sun itself on the cables and pylons
of the Golden Gate Bridge, much to the consternation
of the painters who work up there every day,
since they never finish painting the Bridge.

If you can get a job painting the Bridge,
you've got a lifetime gig. It takes seven years,
they say, from end to end, and then you just start over.
Those guys can tell some stories, you bet,
and not just about rattlesnakes. Consider the jumpers.

Two thousand plus people so far. You pay your toll
and walk across, and maybe on the way out,
maybe on the way back, when no one's watching,
you just slip over the rail. That water's cold.
You'd better hope the fall kills you.

Only the ones who aren't really serious, who just want
attention, make sure they're seen by someone
willing to interrupt their tourist photo opportunity,
who'll go back to Colorado or Vermont
to tell the story wide-eyed over martinis or beer.

Those tourists never see the rattlesnakes, of course.
It would scare the piss out of them.
They'd never pay the toll to walk the bridge.
But you can believe me, those snakes are there.

Monday, April 27, 2015


Today's prompt from NaPoWriMo actually comes courtesy of my friend Vince Gotera, who named the hay(na)ku form that was created by the poet Eileen Tabios The above links will allow you to get acquainted with both poets and let you read a delightfully playful hay(na)ku Vince wrote for NaPoWriMo in 2012. At its simplest, a hay(na)ku is a three-line stanza, with one word in the first line, two in the second, and three in the third. Vince's poem, and the one below, are hay(na)ku sonnets with, as Vince explains four 3-line stanzas for a total of 12 lines, finished off with a couplet in which each of the two lines contains three words, so the whole poem comes out at 30 words, a challenge in itself.
         I've written a couple today myself; the one that follows owes its title and possibly some of its mood (though not the content) to Leonard Cohen, whose songs tend to pop randomly into my head sometimes. I also should credit a recent re-reading of James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" Between them, Cohen and Johnson can put your head into a pretty good place.


that day 
comes, we'll sing.

like birds
with silver wings,

an earth
made whole again.

where green
belongs, and blue,

water and sky,
kissing the land.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

COLD-BLOODED, April poem #26

Today's prompt from Poetic Asides is to ". . . take a word or two invented by William Shakespeare, make it the title of your poem, and write your poem . . . . here are a few: advertising, bloodstained, critic, dwindle, eyeball, hobnob, luggage, radiance, and zany. He invented more than 1,700!" I did not know that! PA also provides a link to some words coined by Shakespeare:

Or maybe it was Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, played here by Rhys Ifans in Anonymous.


George Sand likened her body to a marble envelope.
Let's extend that to the mind, but make it glass,
equally hard, cold, rigid, but transparent.
We need to be able to see out.
Of course it's more breakable than marble,
but we can live with that, learn to take precautions.
After all, we watch life, and are watched,
through windows all the time.
We just don't always realize they're there.
Wouldn't the young George Sand and DeVere (as played by Ifans, of course) have made an interesting couple?

April Poem #25

None of yesterday's prompts did it for me yesterday, and I can't come up with a title, but that's okay. We got rain last night and it's still cloudy so there may be more in the offing. I'm sitting at my desk watching birds at the feeders, in a considerably better mood than last night or earlier today.

They always fly away when I come to the feeders,
not far, of course, since they’ll return
as soon as I turn my back and take a few steps.
It’s like two different restaurants a couple of feet apart:
one with cheap seed to fill the greedy masses
and the other offering only the best,
tiny glossy black nyjer seed for the finches, goldfinches,
that is, since the house finches
will eat pretty much anything—
Maison Pur et Délicieux next to McDonald’s.
McDonald’s needs refilling much more often.

I didn’t even notice the young goldfinch
on its feeder till I was just a forearm’s length away.
It flew when I hung the other feeder, and
I stood there a moment, enjoying the cool morning air,
the fragrance that follows rain,
the yellow trumpet-shaped flowers on a shrub nearby,
nearly as big as a goldfinch.

And then the little yellow bird came back.
With just the slightest glance at me, it settled on the feeder
and began pecking out seeds through the small black mesh
that screens out birds with larger beaks.
Just a baby, really, fluffy, with pale baby feathers
and no way to tell its sex, whether or not it would develop
the male’s dapper black cap, and only a hint
of the sharp black and white stripes to come later on its wings.
It ignored me as it fed, and I pretended to ignore it,
to be a garden statue. We had two minutes, maybe three,
of absolute grace, a morning benediction,
before it flew away.

Friday, April 24, 2015

WOLF SPIDER - April Poem #24

I realize that some of my attitudes aren't quite the same as most other people's. For instance, I think spiders and snakes are beautiful, and they don't really scare me. Of course I know some of them are dangerous, and of course I avoid the ones that might kill or injure me. But I'd rather not kill or injure them, if I have a choice. I'd rather call the rattlesnake removal guys than cut off a head with a hoe. As for spiders, I probably would kill a black widow or a brown recluse, but I think I'd feel bad about it. (By the way, my daughter thinks I'm crazy, and although he's less vocal about it, I think my husband may agree with her in this case.)

      Robert Lee Brewer's prompt today at Poetic Asides  is to "write a moment poem. . . . [it] can be a big . . . or small moment . . . good . . . or horrible . . . it can affect thousands or matter to just one person . . . ." I suspect this moment matters mostly just to me, but maybe it will resonate with some others:


Admittedly, she looked scary at first,
half the size of a smallish tarantula,
trapped there between the window and the screen.

We guessed she was dead and were relieved,
since the window had been open all night.
Did she get there from inside or outside the house?

We'll never know. I went outside
to water, shot a little at her from the hose
and watched her scuttle, alive after all.

I could take the screen off, I thought.
If she clings to it, I'll take her up to the fence
and shake her into safety among the oleanders.

Back in the bedroom I examined her
from behind the glass. She was shedding her
exoskeleton, like a woman rolling down stockings.

She's found a good place to do it, I thought.
Then I told you, and you found the can beneath
the kitchen sink and sprayed and sprayed as she ran

madly over the screen. I think one squirt
would have done it. Stop, I said. You've got her.
See how she's curling up her legs?

We'll have to take the screen off anyway
now. She hangs there in the corner, shrunken,
her beautiful long legs twisted like arthritic fingers.

            - Victoria Stefani

I would really love to read your comments.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Today's prompt at Robert Lee Brewer's "Poetic Asides" blog, to "write a historic poem," led me to take out some scribblings I did on a cross-country road trip some years ago. I'd never been to any part of "the South" and the historic sites we visited were fascinating. We drove through Nashville and of course stopped to visit Andrew Jackson's estate, the Hermitage, which is, I suppose, beautiful and very impressive, but rather off-putting, what with those awful audio guides talking in your ears from little machines hanging around your necks, and the rooms of the main house blocked off by plexiglas sheets over the doorways, when roping them off would probably have worked just as well. I do remember that the bed Jackson and his wife slept in looked awfully small. (In contrast, we had an entirely different and much more enjoyable experience at Stonewall Jackson's far less grand but more interesting house in Lexington, Virginia, where a friendly, chatty, and well-informed docent treated us to a more intimate, even gossipy tour, answering all the visitors' questions thoroughly. Humans make much better tour guides than machines!)
Andrew and Rachel Jackson's tomb at the Hermitage
       I was relieved to get out of the slickly packaged "big house" of the Hermitage and explore the grounds - the slave quarters, the gardens, Andrew and Rachel Jackson's tomb, the smaller house Jackson had built for a younger relative, perhaps his adopted son or his wife's niece and her husband. I can't remember who exactly and the online materials available don't mention it, but it is quite lovely from the outside; it was not open to the public when we visited. But the most moving part of the visit for me was the small cemetery, which is not even mentioned in any of the promotional materials I looked at to refresh my memory. And I have no photograph of it, so the poem will have to do.

The Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee

The Confederate dead lie in neatly curving rows
ranged around an ancient maple:
5th Tennessee Volunteers, 22nd Tennessee Volunteers,
and so on, and so on,
all those old men, not battle-dead but dead
after decades of reunions and maybe regrets,
of periodically pulling out the old uniform, grown
frayed, faded, too tight or too loose across the belly.

In the farthest outside row, one "loyal servant" is
relegated to the margin but still part of the group.

It is all so tender, so genteel. The soft spring grass,
the tiny damp membranous leaves uncurling
on the thick old tree
that stands like a circuit-riding preacher
over his rapt and captive congregation.

So many years they have lain there
under that perfect sod,
listening to wind in the branches,
the murmurs of the visiting living
walking and talking softly above them.

So many years of shifting in their graves,
making room for the maple roots
spreading among them,
stretching out beside them like lovers,
twining among their bones.

That old tree anchors the ranks of loyal soldiers
laid there with tenderness and tears,
like the swords and pistols they kept clean and shining,
laid away carefully and brought out from time to time
to be shown to a child or wept over in solitude,
polished with aching papery fingers.

And in the farthest row that loyal servant,
who followed one of those old soldiers
into battle and back out again,
now equally embraced by earth and roots
and indistinguishable from the rest.

              - Victoria Stefani

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

DESERT PASTORAL - April poem #22

It's Earth Day! Of course, every day should be, or we should live as if it were. None of us are perfect, however. But Earth Day can be a reminder to slow down and look up from various screens to the real world around us. Certainly a poem about nature seems in order for today. Once I got started on this one it was hard to know when to stop, so I did so rather arbitrarily. I apologize to the hawks, house finches, goldfinches, thrashers, woodpeckers, and cardinals, and also to the coyotes, javelinas, bobcats, various snakes and spiders, including tarantulas, and other creatures who share our yard and neighborhood. Eventually I'll get around to writing about you. I promise. I love you all.


Welcome, spring, for your brief flowering
before we fall headfirst into summer’s cauldron,
never quite knowing how it happened.
Though it happens every year,
every year we are surprised by it,
every year we look at spring with its
tissue paper flowers, and wish it could last longer.
Welcome to the days of sitting outside
on cool sunny mornings,
watching lizards on the path
while birds talk in the background:
doves, quail, quarrelsome sparrows, finches,
the zip and zoom of hummingbirds.
Why do hummingbird feeders have so many portals,
I wonder, since they’re very bad at sharing.
Another approaches and the battle is on.
It’s thrust, feint, and parry with beaks for swords,
flash, dive, attack, and retreat in mid-air,
all begun and over in seconds.

Welcome, orioles. Childishly, I hope you will like me,
or rather like this space, my yard,
that you will want to stay here with your lady
and raise your own children here.
I offer you trees and food and water and my heart.

Welcome, black-headed grosbeak.
We’ve never met before, but you are welcome,
though I have a feeling you’re just passing through.

Welcome lizards, alone and in pairs,
skittering out from under rocks and bushes,
from behind ceramic creatures on the wall,
pale as flesh that never sees the sun and small,
some of you, with new skin that will thicken in the air
of summer, that hot thick air that pushes
the air from my lungs, pushes me down, like a heavy hand
on my head, making it hard to stand against the heat.
Chase each other all around and up and down
the mesquite trunk and act as if you don’t know
what to do when you finally catch up.
Or maybe you’re too shy to show me more than foreplay.
I’ve watched you lay your eggs in my herb garden,
first the digging in the soft soil,
frenzied and quick with tiny claws,
then backing up over the depression, the up and down,
ejecting the tiny rice-like egg and covering it.
Welcome to what emerges from that egg.

Welcome doves, building foolish flimsy
nests for your white eggs that may not hatch.
Sometimes you choose your nesting sites so badly,
like the top rung of a ladder left leaning against
the garage’s western wall, with no shade to
protect it, or your babies, from the sun.
That did not end well. I thought this year’s nest
in the jasmine might succeed,
but then the mother disappeared
and soon there were empty eggshells
on the walk below.

And quail, welcome too, most sincerely,
though you are more foolish than the doves,
laying your eggs in impossible places,
from which your precocious
babies cannot exit safely, or else
abandoning those creamy pointed eggs
dotted with chocolate before they hatch -
such attrition, whether they hatch or not.
It does not do to count the babies, day by day,
and watch their numbers shrink.
It squeezes the heart, urges tears.
We cannot spare the water.

White-winged doves, you are not welcome,
crowding the fence above the feeder designed to exclude you,
great raucous bullies, pushing and shoving everyone else
to gobble up what falls on the ground.
Birds of peace, my ass.

               - Victoria Stefani