Tag Archives: food

What Readers Need to Know

Bushel_MRDeepest thanks to my dear readers for attending the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore on August 20. I’ll be reading again September 12 at Wolverine Farm Books in Ft Collins and September 27 at the Tattered Cover in LoDo, with a signing at MacDonald’s Book Shop in Estes Park this Saturday. I appreciate my readers’ support as my book goes out into the world. For those who have asked how they can help, please remember your local library and suggest that they purchase A Bushel’s Worth for its stories of small-scale and community supported agriculture, fresh food, family genealogy, rural history, ecology of the West,  farmland preservation, and women’s farming lives.

Boulder Bookstore

I’m looking forward to returning to Pearlmoonplenty before long, but until then, here’s a guest blog on memoir that I wrote for SheWrites, the on-line women’s writing community.

What Readers Need to Know

“But you never say whether you found your brother’s bear. Readers will want to know,” my mother emailed me after reading “Silos,” a chapter from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. “Mom,” I wrote back, “that would be a different narrative arc, the ‘Did she find the bear?’ narrative arc.”

But what I might have answered was, “Mom, this story isn’t about my brother and his missing bear. This story is about my childhood discovery of independence based on an early memory of walking outside alone in the dark. The story is about something bigger than finding the bear or not. The missing bear provided the situation but was marginal to the discovery I made about myself. It’s that discovery that I want readers to understand by showing them a pivotal moment for me in forming a relationship with the natural world.”

All writers have to decide what goes in a piece of writing and what stays out. With memoir, the temptation can be to put too much in because, we figure, it happened in real life. However, memoir, unlike autobiography, is not an attempt to catalog the events of an entire life. Instead, memoir selects a moment or series of moments in order to explore the writer’s realization or perception of their significance.

This meaning is not drawn from the events as they occurred per se, but from the writer’s memory of them. As Judith Barrington suggests in Writing the Memoir, memoir both “tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of [one’s] current knowledge.” What memoir writers must show is not only what happened, but what new understanding—at the time or in recollection—emerged because of it. To take the reader along on this journey, the writer must ask which ideas and details shape the narrative toward that end.

When I taught writing at the university, the first piece my students wrote was a first-person essay about a significant life event. When they brought their first drafts to class, I asked them to cross out the opening paragraph to see whether they liked starting at the second one better. Almost every student preferred the new version to the original because they had started their essay with extraneous information or by telling the reader what the essay would be about with sentences like “Little did I know . . . .” The second paragraph, on the other hand, was usually where the narrative really began, often by providing a scene rather than a lecture. Students learned to not tell readers what the story was about but rather, to let the story unfold so that readers might discover its meaning for themselves.

Crossing out the first paragraph is an easy trick, but on a deeper level, we can think about what belongs in or out of a memoir if we remember how memoirs are shaped by the interplay between recollection and reflection. Following memory down the corridor of time yields many details, not all of which are important to the story we want to tell. Which details—of setting, background, character, time, intention—should be included will depend on what perception, meaning, or message the writer is pursuing.

When I write, I begin with a kernel of the story, often a scene, and build out from there by adding and subtracting ideas and information that lead the reader in the direction I want them to go. When I started A Bushel’s Worth, I drew scenes of my farming life from a journal I’d kept for years. I used these to create chapters based on broad themes like thrift, community, generosity, and grace.

But as I wrote, childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms kept coming to mind and I realized that to create what I call “ecobiography,” or ecology based memoir, I needed to go back further in my life. Those earlier experiences expanded the scope of the book by shaping it as a reunion with my family’s farming past rather than another memoir of escaping city ways. At the same time, some of the nuts and bolts of farming from earlier drafts had to come out, making the book more reflective of lessons learned from nurturing land, crops, and the community they feed.

And what of the bear? Perceptive readers will find him connecting my farming past and future with three little words: “another bear awaits.”

ShortSilos

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This is What Fresh Tastes Like

“What passes for cookery in England . . . is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables. ‘In which,’ said Mr. Bankes, ‘all the virtue of the vegetable is contained.'”

                                                            Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

At Stonebridge Farm, we like to say that fresh is a flavor. Some students discovered that this weekend when our friend brought four of her sustainability students to the farm to help us weed the newly emerging spinach and carrot beds. As we worked with horis and hoes in the soft spring sun, one young man, a former student in John’s calculus class, asked me what my favorite thing was at the farm.

“Besides John?” I teased him.

I have so many favorites here, I had to think a bit. “The flowers,” I said, “and the chickens because they’re so friendly.” From his laughter, I don’t think he’d ever heard that chickens are friendly before.

Another new discovery was the taste of vegetables right out of the garden. After we finished weeding, we picked radishes for everyone to take home. I told the students they could eat some as they picked. “Is this what a radish tastes like?” one asked in wonder. “I’ve never tasted one like this before.”

“That’s because,” another friend said, “you can’t get a fresh radish at a grocery store. Not fresh like this anyway.”

“Fresh is a flavor,” I told them. “This is what fresh tastes like.”

When we moved to the spinach bed, another student declined the offer of spinach. “I don’t like spinach,” she assured us.

“Just try a leaf, okay?” She tentatively chewed a piece–and then smiled.

This is spinach? . . . Okay, I’ll take some.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. How sad for 18-year-olds—from upper middle-class families who undoubtedly have some access to raw vegetables in stores—not to know the fresh taste of vegetables. A salad bar may be the closest they’ve encountered and that’s just not the same.

Fresh is a flavor. Years ago, before processed food composed the majority of people’s diets in this country, even the Morton’s salt company knew about the flavor of fresh. Here’s an ad from a 1940s Life magazine that features the taste of “tender, young” vegetables as part of a flavor duo:

At Stonebridge, spring means fresh, tender vegetables like the ones pictured in the ad. Our members anticipate the sweetness of newly harvested spinach and the sparkle of plump radishes on opening day. Our season starts a few weeks earlier than most CSAs in our area because we can grow early vegetables so well in our foothills microclimate. Green onions, radishes, and lettuce offer a first salad to our members, while spinach and chard are the main ingredients of so many of our favorite meals: lasagna, fritters, enchiladas, quiche, and pastas. Even fresh chives can flavor the filling for a goat cheese tart.

In the foraging class we recently hosted, we learned about other spring plants that provide delicious and nutritious meals. Dandelion greens, of course, are great in salad (watch a 92-year-old cook prepare her Depression-era salad here), but did you know that nettles make a wonderful saag? We got to sample some, along with nettle gnocchi, at our workshop, right after we picked nettle tops for everyone to try at home, a new taste for spring since it’s one of the first plants to emerge. (You can learn more about foraging at Hunger and Thirst for Life).

Asparagus, too, means spring. We have two patches on the farm, one we planted and another along the fence line that we didn’t. There the birds “plant” the asparagus as they sit on the wire and sing. We let some of those plants go to seed every year to help them spread.

And in the foraging class, our teacher discovered another wild spot for asparagus near a bridge over our irrigation ditch where we’d cleared willows last fall.

With asparagus at $5 a bunch in the store, we’re rich in asparagus. Tonight I’ll drizzle some fat spears with olive oil to roast and eat with grated goat cheese and walnuts over pasta. Last week, I placed a few spears left out of the previous night’s quiche on a pizza—delicious as it roasted on top of the cilantro pesto.

This is what fresh tastes like as April turns to May: the virtue of spring vegetables, the scent of lilacs and dogwood, and the down of dandelions drifting in the breeze.

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Still Winter Granola

Those of you who don’t live along Colorado’s Front Range of the Rockies would probably be surprised at the vicissitudes of our winter weather. Last weekend felt like spring with sunshine and highs in the 60s. Now it’s bleak winter again: highs in the teens today and ten below zero tonight with just enough icy snow falling to make the roads slippery and dangerous.

As one friend wrote this morning, it’s a good day for seed catalogs. I agree, but since we sent in our orders last week, I’m making granola instead.

I started making my own granola several years ago and couldn’t believe how many years I’d wasted buying granola. As many of you undoubtedly know, making your own granola is really easy, but even better than that, you can customize your own recipe in so many ways, why settle for less? Ingredients, sweetness, texture, and, best of all, toastedness are all under your own control. To make granola, all you need are ingredients—most of which you can buy in bulk, a large baking dish, and half an hour when you’re hanging out near the kitchen taking care of some other domestic task like balancing your checkbook, folding laundry, sending emails, or writing your blog lol.

To me, granola is SO 70s, part of the “back to the land” and “natural foods” movements that inspired me as a teenager. Unlike my memory of my first quiche, I can’t remember exactly when I first tried granola but I did make “Back to Nature” granola cookies in high school from store-bought granola (or “store-boughten,” as we say in our family).

I like making granola because it combines two kinds of activities: mindless and mindful. When I’m mixing the ingredients, I like to be mindful of the textures involved: the round flakiness of the oatmeal with the shredded flakiness of the coconut, the precise size of the walnuts chopped in my vintage chopper, and the smoothness of the honey drizzled gently into the oil and vanilla.

But once granola’s in the oven, you don’t have to think much about it, just enough to stir every five minutes or so until the end, when you better get mindful again or you can ruin the whole batch. The last few minutes are when you need vigilance to attain the perfect shade of brown and crunchy texture for your personal granola. No one can put that in a recipe—you have to discover that for yourself.

This past Christmas I gave my daughter and son-in-law—who have a beautiful new house with a perfect kitchen for cooking—my granola recipe and bulk bags of ingredients. They made their first batch right away and now can adapt the recipe to their liking.

Also last Christmas, a dear friend gave us a huge bag of homemade granola, a wonderful gift because she’d used walnuts AND almonds, honey AND maple syrup, while I always use just one nut and only honey, since we’ve got our own farm hives. It felt luxurious to eat such exuberant granola, a welcome change from our own.

So to celebrate the last day of January by warming up our kitchens as well as our palates, I’m including my Stonebridge Farm granola recipe below in the hope you’ll share your own granola recipes, favorite ingredients, and innovations.


Stonebridge Farm Granola

4 cups organic rolled oats (not instant)
1 cup coconut flakes (I use 2/3 cup shredded and 1/3 cup larger flakes)
1 cup chopped nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, or pecans
2 Tbl of seeds like sesame, ground flax (or wheat germ)
¼ cup honey (1/3-1/2 cup if you like it sweeter)
¼ cup safflower oil (or same as for honey, plus some for oiling pan)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp good ground cinnamon like Vietnamese cassia
1 cup raisins or other dried fruit like cranberries or cherries or apples

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Very lightly oil a 9 x 13 baking dish and mix first 4 ingredients right inside the dish. If you’re using larger coconut flakes, you may want to reserve them because they brown more rapidly than the shredded kind.

Place in preheated oven and bake for 5 minutes.

Take out of oven and stir well.  (Add large coconut flakes now if you’ve reserved them.)

Bake 5 minutes, remove, and stir. Repeat. (15 minutes total).

Sprinkle cinnamon over granola and mix well.

Mix safflower oil, honey, and vanilla in a two-cup measuring container with a pouring spout and pour uniformly over granola. Mix well.

Bake 3 minutes, remove, and stir.

Now comes the mindful part. Bake another 1-3 minutes depending on your oven and how brown you want your granola. I’d suggest baking for one minute, checking and stirring, and then repeat until you’re there.

Once you’ve attained perfection, stir well, being sure the granola isn’t sticking to the dish. Cool a few more minutes and stir again. If you don’t stir a couple times initially while it’s cooling, it’ll stick to the dish.

If you like your granola chunkier, you could mix 1/8 cup honey with 1/8 cup oil and drop in spots to harden some of the granola into chunks during this cooling period.

Once cooled, add fruit and mix.

Store in gallon glass jar or container.


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A Rogue Tomato and ’70s Quiche

I’m making a favorite recipe tonight, Tomato Tart, something I traditionally make with green tomatoes picked right before the first fall frost and ripened in the greenhouse. But this year the first frost was so late (Oct 27), the tomatoes had finished ripening well before, as if staying on the vine until the end of October was unnatural. I could have made it earlier with tomatoes gone red in the field but I hadn’t thought of it. No green tomatoes in the greenhouse, no tart.

Then last week John brought in a partially ripened tomato from a rogue tomato plant still growing in our greenhouse. Not in the shelf garden where we plant cherry and cluster tomatoes, but from a monstrous vine that had seeded itself in the soil floor of the greenhouse and grown up through the slats of the long table where we set out flats of starts each spring. In the greenhouse’s humidity, the vine had grown more exuberantly than it ever could outside in our dry heat; now in December tomatoes as big as our fists are slowly starting to ripen and one is red and ready for tonight’s tomato tart. Yahoo!

Made in the oversized stoneware pie plate that I routinely use for our Stonebridge Big Quiche, this tart is rich with a buttery crust and two cheeses and savory with herb-spiked olive oil drizzled over the tomato slices. I like that something delicious can be made from a tag-on, leftover vegetable that might have been disregarded after the season’s over.

But then I love anything on a crust. I grew up with my mom’s Bisquick pizza and grandmother’s pumpkin and apple pies, but the discovery of quiche when I was a sophomore in high school opened my eyes to pie crusty cuisine.

I drove my parents crazy in high school for all the usual reasons but also because I took up natural food. Even before the dangers of transfat were warned in the media, I insisted on butter instead of margarine. I would only eat whole grain bread or cook with whole wheat flour. I didn’t completely quit eating my mom’s homemade cookies, but I wouldn’t eat them frosted, or frosting on anything for that matter. I made granola cookies and unfrosted carrot cake and banana bread, a big change from my junior high daily snack of root beer floats and Ding Dongs. I also ate at least one banana every day, which earned me enough of a reputation that one friend gave me six bunches of bananas for my seventeenth birthday.

That was the spring—1976–my friend J. and I discovered quiche. A new restaurant had opened “near the college,” which was code in our small conservative town for “kinda kooky.” It was literally on the other side of the railroad tracks in a neighborhood we hadn’t even known existed. I’m not sure how J. and I heard about the place but we went looking for it one day, driving around the unfamiliar and slightly seedy side streets until we found a little hand-carved sign in front of an old, two-story house: The Harvest Restaurant.

We were seated in a booth with the requisite macramé and given simple menus listing salads, sandwiches, and something we’d never seen before and certainly didn’t know how to pronounce. The description sounded intriguing: cheese, egg, and vegetable filling on a whole wheat crust. We pointed to the dish and told the waitress we wanted that. “The quiche,” she said, undoubtedly realizing we had no idea what to call it. Yes, the quiche please.

The dish more than lived up to our expectations. To eat something with flaky crust that wasn’t just sweet seemed revolutionary to me—or European, same thing. I wouldn’t get to Europe until right after graduation but I had a sense that food was more extraordinary there than the casseroles, fried chicken, and roasts of the time. I loved the quiche, so much that I took my mother to The Harvest for mother’s day. I don’t think she was quite as impressed as I was, and probably more concerned with the neighborhood than with the food, but it was a step in forging my independent cuisine identity, and a well timed one since the restaurant closed shortly after that.

I wouldn’t have quiche again until I went to Europe. Until then, I didn’t have a recipe and I didn’t know where to look for one in those pre-epicurious days, but after I got back, I found one somewhere for an authentic “Quiche Lorraine.” That fall when I went to college, I found the Moosewood Cookbook and changed my eating forever, and two summers later I learned how to make great crusts from my former mother-in-law who got tired of making pies from all the blackberries I picked in Maine.  So now I’m making tomato tart for dinner, delicious and homegrown and still slightly Europeanish. Bon appétit!

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