Monthly Archives: September 2012

Vegetable Wrangling (Not Zucchini)

It’s like the potato thing, in a way. 

Fifteen years ago I did the cooking for Pilar and Geordie’s rehearsal dinner on Chebeague Island off the coast of Yarmouth, ME. In planning the menu (roasted beef tenderloins; roasted red peppers, eggplant, summer squashes; warm red potato salad with curried dressing, among other dishes I can no longer remember), Pilar and I went to Hannaford to place orders for what we’d need. After consulting with one of the produce workers, a lovely man from Senegal or Burundi and part of the refugee community here, we decided a medium-size potato and a half per person would be right.  For 35 people, we figured somewhere around sixty potatoes would do fine. When we picked up the order a week later en route to Chebeague, we found ourselves with sixty pounds instead. The potatoes were twice the size we thought we’d get.

Do you know how long it takes to wash and cut sixty pounds of potatoes?  Being stoned helped.

After the potatoes were steamed and cooled, they were placed in plastic bags and stored in refrigerators in six guest houses that were rented for attendees, since Geordie’s parents’ refrigerator couldn’t accommodate them. Come the day of the event, I realized we needed only half of the potatoes. God knows what eventually happened to the others.

Except for one outlier.

I was back home in Abita Springs several days when I got a call from Pilar. Chatty, catching up on their trip, recalling funny stories; then she asked me if I found the potatoes.  “What potatoes?” I asked. “You mean you haven’t found them? We stuck a bag in your luggage!”

It’s a good thin this was well-before the hysteria about toting peanut butter, yogurt, baby formula, etc., on planes, or the query, “Has anyone but you touched your luggage?” I would have had some tall explaining to do, and there I was, innocent as a lamb. Not wanting to know from potatoes for a long time.

To this day, we get a lot of mileage out of that story, never failing to laugh at the memory.  In our family, stories are premium, and the more awkward or embarrassing in the moment, the more precious they are later. Like the time Mama smashed Nanee’s titties down in her coffin because they were standing up like snowball cones, and Nanee never wore a bra in her life.

This time it’s garlic.

I love garlic, cooked or fresh, and am of the belief that, once it’s cooked, you can’t really have too much of it in anything. Witness that divine baked chicken dish cooked with 40 cloves of garlic and white wine, something Don and Kim Marshall introduced me to decades ago, served with crispy French bread for dipping and spreading the mashed garlic on. Or just plain roasted garlic. Yum.

Our UU church service auction fundraiser is coming up in November, and I volunteered to make black beans. Mary Brunette said I should aim for enough to feed thirty people even though sixty were expected. “We’ll only need small portions of everything,” she said. Not that I believed that to be true: my scarcity issues rang alarm bells. Unh unh. Gotta make more than just for thirty, I said to myself.

I bought four pounds of dry beans, four large red onions, four large heads of garlic, a celery and eight red bell peppers. I put half the beans and spices (bay leaves, coriander seeds, oregano) to cook overnight in my crock pot the first day, cooked them longer in the Dutch oven the second day, cooled them and stored them in the refrigerator.  Day two, I repeated the process. I had 24 cups of cooked down beans. Definitely not enough, I thought. So I bought two more pounds, two more onions, two more heads of garlic, and cooked them the same way. Day five, I cut and roasted the red peppers, then peeled and stored them. Day six, I began chopping the seasonings: six red onions, the celery, the roasted red peppers, and after 45 minutes of peeling the garlic, decided I couldn’t bear the thought of standing on my feet while chopping them with a knife, so I ran them through the Cuisinart, reducing the mass to tiny minces.

Bad Move. This released enough garlic essence/oil to fuel a space rocket. Still, undaunted, I sautéed the onions and celery in olive oil in the Dutch oven, removed them, then added more olive oil and the garlic. It immediately stuck to the pot no matter how quickly I moved it around, and the smell–well, let’s just say that the heat did NOT tighten its shorts so as to raise its booming baritone to falsetto.

Nevertheless, I divided the seasonings into three pots and added the cold beans, thinking surely that long, slow cooking would make everything all right. By the time I put the pots outside to cool overnight, the smell was still pungent and the taste too strong–as if the garlic had not been cooked at all.

As a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes, and my spirits plummeted. All that damn work, all those materials! Wasted! And, as a child of a child of the Depression, waste is a cardinal sin.

The following day I tasted the cold beans, and they seemed to have tamed some, but still not to a comfortable level, because when I opened the lids, the aroma was still evident. Now, with the addition of the seasonings, I had 48 cups of black beans, more than enough to feed the masses at the church dinner, but still risky, especially to the garlic-averse.

So, I did what any right-thinking person would do: bought two more pounds of beans, two more onions, four more red bell peppers. But no garlic. And repeated the whole process again.

The original 48 cups are in the freezer at church, and I’ll be bringing the rest over.  A couple of days before the event, I’ll remove them to thaw in the refrigerator, and on Nov. 2, I’ll find a pot large enough to mix them all together and then set them to simmer, sending novenas to the divinities of garlic-taming, that this will solve the problem.

If not, the streets are going to run black beans for a long time to come.



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Life’s Little Lessons

Class, today’s lecture will focus on that adorable 1967 admonition, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”  I can see you rolling your eyes, but bear with me for a moment because I am certain you’ll come away enlightened and energized.

Take vacuuming.

Got your attention now, haven’t I? I’m sure, if you’ve followed this blog, you’ve read posts by a certain person whom I’ll refer to as The Whiner. She kvetches endlessly about how she hates the chore, yet also would like to rid her floors of dust bunnies, a collection of which would qualify for petting zoo status. Months–yes, months–go by and she ignores the chore, keeping her gaze at least two feet off the floor, writing in her journal how the house is driving her crazy, promising herself that Today Will Be the Day.

But no. It never is.

So this morning, she’s determined to wrangle that beast, even going so far as to sing, “I’m going to vacuum today, I’m going to vacuum today,” in the shower, hoping to trick her brain into thinking it would be fun. The brain is so easily fooled: it doesn’t know the difference between imagining something and actually doing it.

After an hour of “pencil sharpening,” as it were, shaking out the sofa covering and putting it in the wash, moving things from one spot to another, she plugs the thing in, and begins with the stairs to the second floor. Soon enough, in that closed stairwell, her brain knows it’s been taken for a ride. “Goddamn noise,” she curses, much like her grandmother who vented her well-earned anger at her grandfather, as she cleaned her O’Keefe and Merritt white stove within an inch of its life, filling the air with daisy chains of words strung together that evoke the German language. Donaudampfschiffahrts­elektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamten­gesellschaft handily comes to mind.  (Translation: “Association of sub-ordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services.” Her grandmother’s bursts of temper were more terse, however, and leaned more toward the “Goddamnsonofabitchinbastardgoddamnit”-style, always tacking whatever particular grievance or grievances spurred her on to the task.

Oh, our friend can throw in her own grievances–the house is too Goddamn small, she doesn’t have enough Goddamn money to hire someone to clean it, it gets so Goddamn dirty so fast–but she doesn’t have the luxury of someone to blame, like her grandmother did. That’s when her brain switches from victim to activist. And, what it comes up with is staggering in both its genius and simplicity. Why hasn’t she thought of this before? Why isn’t it on the lips of everyone who’s suffered silently (or at least, whiningly)?

It is as if a voice from above speaks in stentorian tones:  Earplugs. Yes, earplugs! Can you imagine? For at least six decades she’s bitched and moaned, and now that unmufflered Harley racket is reduced to a cat’s soothing purr. She’s part of the solution now! 

And, Class, each and every one of you can make that leap as well. The next time you’re bitching and moaning about something you loath doing, no matter what it is–washing dishes, cutting the grass, cleaning the bathroom, changing the cat litter, paying bills–don’t try to fool your brain, because it never works. Instead, make a mad dash for earplugs. 

Yes, earplugs. Such a simple solution, one that spirits you away from being part of the problem.




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Energy Policy (not what you’re thinking)

Okay, so I brought the vacuum cleaner up from the basement yesterday and pushed it out of the way in the dining room, and still tripped on it every now and then. That was step one. G-d only knows how many times I glare at the innocent little machine (I can’t even complain that it’s a piece of shit, because it isn’t), propped up against the wall, begging me to take it upstairs and use it. I hate vacuuming. And what, it takes maybe all of 45 minutes to do all three floors? I make it a habit to ignore dust, so I can generally whiz through this tiny house. I hate the noise, I hate that the canister gets caught, and more often than not, I resort to unladylike words. Mieles are one of quietest kind.  Still . . . 

I shoved it sort of out-of-the way in my dining room, fully intending to reclaim my floors from what looks like shag carpet of dust bunnies, leaf pieces, general gradou; but somehow, stripping the bed, washing the sheets, blankets, and whites; handling the crock pot of black beans from the night before and setting another batch to cook (for upcoming church supper); steaming asparagus; boiling two artichokes w/ garlic, lemon, olive oil, then reducing the liquid for pasta; taking down all the laundry; re-making the bed; walking Lucy; and washing a big honking pile of dishes left me drained. 

This morning I woke at eight, earlier than I’d wanted.  My neighbor insists on talking on her cell phone outside in the space between the back of her house and the front of mine, where her voice projects very well through the open window of my second-floor bedroom. This is not a rare occurance, I might add. Nevertheless, somehow I managed to stay upright instead of crawling back under the covers. And once I was up, having my coffee, doing the usual FB and email-stuff, I found that I had energy for a change. I was going to be a house afire! My outlook was good, I was keeping the craziness of the world at bay, and I. Was. Going. To. Vacuum. 

I pondered this difference, this optimism. Was it simply because the weather is cooler, two gorgeous days after a much-needed 24 hours of rain, taking the hour-long chore of watering off my to-do list? I can’t attributed it all to that. Was a shift in attitude due to a random lifting of what’s been a low-grade depression I didn’t even know I had? I mean, who feels optimistic in these crazy world times? I want to bottle it, follow whatever steps that led me to feel good when that tide of energy slowly wanes again, when everything seems so difficult and Takes So Much Energy.  

 I’m sure you know where this is going. After washing yesterday’s second wave of dishes, putting the duvet for my down quilt in the washer, handling yesterday’s batch of black beans and setting another one to cook, hanging the duvet to dry, prepping two bags of red bell peppers and roasting them (for black beans), making fried rice and bok choy for a very late lunch, I am pooped. My energy has waned. Maybe later? Who knows? I still have dishes to wash, roasted red bells to peel and store, the duvet to take down, Lucy to walk. I just want to sit here and read, do research for the shrine I’ve been commissioned to make. 

But I am determined not to kick myself for leaving the floors undone for another day. At least I brought the vacuum cleaner upstairs. That’s a huge step all by itself. 

I feel like Neil Armstrong. 


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Several weeks ago I sawed down two massive holly bushes, a couple of birch saplings about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, two boxwood shrubs, and a woody trunk of a bittersweet vine as big around as my wrist. All were crowded into the space on the front and side of my small porch, and the hollies extended outward about five feet. Their now-stubby wooden bases, composed of several once-six foot tall stalks, are about the size of a large cantaloupe. These babies have been there for decades.

But I want flowers there, a riot of color: wine-colored bee balm, blue perennial lobelia, some deep yellow daisy-like flowers (I’m sorry, I don’t know the name), echinaceas in red, pink, lavender and rose (my newest craze!), orange and yellow day lilies, bearded lavender/purple irises, vermillion poppies, coreopsis–the list goes on.  Color: it’s so healing.

Taking the bushes down was only the first stage, difficult as it was with a hand saw, followed by carrying the limbs to the back of my house and tossing them onto an already high pile from similar shearings. The real labor is digging up all those roots; I’ve spent four days, so far in this frustrating, back-breaking labor, pulling, digging, teasing them apart with a pitchfork.

On Monday, while hard at it, lifting the upper layer of leaf mulch and topsoil, pulling out masses of the finest roots, I began to think about roots as a metaphor for having a sense of place, a feeling of belonging to a community. When we think of a large shrub or tree sapling, we focus our attention on the taproots, the thick woody veins that hold the plant in the ground and travel for yards. Yet, from these extend sequentially thinner roots of near equal length, holding the preceding ones fast, criss-crossing and intermingling on down to the masses of tangled strands that evoke some Hollywood art director’s take on zombie hair. It is these seemingly inconsequential roots that conduct the business of survival by taking in nutrients and moisture from the soil. And one cannot uproot the larger ones until the smaller ones are dealt with. Combine the roots of several shrubs, and you can get a sense of just how much these plants want to stay put. They’ve invested decades working toward that goal.  (My guilt over herbicide is for another time.)

And so it is with people, their commitment to their land, their sense of community and belonging. There are familial taproots that go back generations, and, in my case, just six years short of three-hundred years in New Orleans. I’m one of six children, now five living, and our parents are dead. My father’s family goes back to the founding of the city; my mother’s a shorter time, but still many generations. Only two first-cousins, and their three generations of offspring, left back home. I was the last to leave, in 2004 (I had left once before when I moved to Hollywood in 1964, followed by six years in upstate New York, then returned in 1973), having spent a total of fifty-one years there.  I love the city; I also cannot live there, heat, hurricanes, humidity being the top three reasons. I’ve said this before, and some, both here an in New Orleans, find this dichotomy difficult to understand, how one can so love a place yet shun it.

Even so, the greater New Orleans area was the only place I felt I belonged.  There are many voices calling for my return, which heartens and reminds me that I my spirit is still there.  It helps that the area is defined by its sense of community and the extraordinary percentage of people who never leave, or if they do, many return.  It also helped that I was well known in the art community, which is large and very strong, and, over the course of my 15.5 years as society photographer for the Times-Picayune, my byline and some 20,000 (give or take) published photographs gave me even wider name and face recognition. Uprooting to a place where I knew virtually no one was and still is a shock.

Digging a section of upper-level tangled masses of roots, I began to see a relationship between the various sizes as metaphors for my sense of belonging or not belonging. Here in Concord eight years now, I have some roots, more along the size of a perennial than a shrub. My finer roots are the day-to-day engagements with those who provide sustenance, such as my mail carrier who takes time to pet and scratch Lucy, and makes certain that his substitute knows she’s friendly; familiar cashiers in supermarkets, like Marlene at Hannaford, who greets me with a genuine smile of recognition; Laura, the woman behind the pharmacy counter at Rite-Aid, who works hard to meet my needs, always taking the extra step.  Then there are the larger roots, neighbors, like Roger, who’s 80 and never fails to bring his snow blower to help with clearing my driveway, Cathy, Gary, Rebecca, Andrea–all helpful with pet sitting or fixing something; other neighbors who are Lucy’s friends and make her day when they fawn over her; still larger roots, church members–a fairly long list of people who’ve been particularly warm and welcoming, and my women’s artist group: Laura, Kendra, Ethel, Elizabeth, Janet, Rosemary, Tara; other artist friends, Susi, Donna and her partner Bonnie; Chris, a former writing partner who is also a Goddard MFA graduate; my therapist and doctors; and even larger, my close friends, Mark and Mary, Kurt and Monie, Karen and John, Tim and Carol. I have no family here (no other deep rooted shrubs sharing a similar space), no history, other than my eight years. And since I spend so much time alone, away from the larger community of Concord, mostly by choice because I’m an introvert (different from depressed), which began manifesting itself when I moved to the Northshore and commuted to New Orleans for work, and has deepened as I age; even when I lived in a sweet little artist’s hamlet of 2,000 people, I stayed in my house when I wasn’t driving to the city for work or out on errands.  The plain truth is that I enjoy my own company and my creative work; and there are financial restraints to my being out-and-about, which most often requires spending money. Therefore, I’m not likely to develop a wider and deeper root system akin to those hollies and boxwoods. 

If I am to find a larger engagement here, it won’t be through volunteerism or engaging in politics, usual routes; I did teach in the community colleges for four years, although that was not satisfying, and I have no lingering connections. Rather, it will be through my writing (from my mouth to the Divine’s ear that my meta-farce about New Orleans gets published) or my visual art, perhaps through readings, exhibits, and accompanying reviews in the Monitor. I write about local issues, also, firing off biting satire in letters-to-the-editor when Tea Partiers and their ilk step over the line of human decency, which is pretty often. I may develop a smattering of name recognition that way.

Yet, even if I were to gain personal and financial success in these areas, it will not be because of a deep-rooted history and its cultivated connections, but because of the irony of writing about my homeland, and visual art informed by its culture. I’ll bloom, hopefully a perennial with gorgeous, flaming colors that attract humans, birds, bees, amphibians, reptiles, helpful insects and furry pets.  My local community, here, where I am planted, in my garden of companion plants, with Lucy and Honeycat, and perhaps soon, a kitten to keep him company, and whatever deeper friendships that develop along the way.

And in the meantime, there is always my wide-reaching community held together by emails, phone calls and FB–a godsend, particularly, in times of crisis and difficulty for all concerned. Beyond the posts about social/political concerns, sprit-lifting does of mirth, genuine caring and support abound in a virtual garden of companionability. To be sure, there are the occasional destructive pests and invasive species, but these are easily removed either through silence or deletion.



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