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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Still Life

What is the point of this still life, the bowl or the fruit? How much can I say about a bunch of bananas and one leftover apple? I suppose I could talk about the 12-hour window that separates not-quite-ripe-enough from "Oops! Time for banana bread." But there you are: I just said all there is to say on that topic.


Who keeps fruit bowls these days? One of my daughters was given a fruit bowl as a wedding gift. She had asked for "beautiful things," and she and her groom were given many beautiful bowls, platters, and goblets of all sizes. At the time they lived in a renovated chicken coop (oh, don't even ask!) outside of Santa Fe. The floor in the pretty little kitchen (part of the renovation, obviously, for what use would a kitchen be to chickens?) was laid with brick-red square Mexican ceramic tiles. In the course of the nine months the young couple lived in that chicken coop, most of the pretty bowls, platters, vases, and goblets slipped through their fingers and smashed onto the tiled floor. Tile is a very unforgiving kitchen flooring. The one beautiful item that survived the chicken coop kitchen floor was the large, flowered fruit bowl that our long-time neighbors had given her.


The bowl is still in use now, almost fifteen years later. When we visit her in her current home, the bowl is filled with bananas, avocados, oranges, grapefruits, pears, apples, and often peaches or apricots. Sometimes a couple of tomatoes are at the top of the heap, ripening from Mexico-green to pale winter red.


I'm always inspired by her fruit bowl. My own lacks not only her colourful riot of diversity, being limited to a bunch of bananas and a couple of apples or pears, but also the bright cheerfulness of her ceramic bowl. However, my bowl has its own rustic charm. It is an antique wooden bowl, two feet across at the top, and an inch thick, with a single decorative line gouged or routed around the outside.


This was originally a dough bowl. The housewife mixed her bread dough in it, kneaded it in the bowl, and then let it rise, still in the bowl, resting on a layer of flour. As she shaped her loaves, the cook set aside a chunk of dough to serve as "old dough" to raise the next batch of bread. Between breadmaking sessions, she kept the little ball of "old dough" in the bowl, protected by a mound of flour.


This is what I have been told, but I take it with a grain of salt. I tried for a while to make my bread this way, in this bowl, but never very successfully. The bowl was hard to clean—and I wasn't sure how much I should clean it, to be authentic. I had the impression that the pioneer housewife didn't clean it beyond scraping out some of the dried-on bread dough. She surely didn't use water to clean her wooden bowl.


But my attempts to make bread like a pioneer woman ended completely when I forgot to tell my new household helper, years and years ago, not to wash the bowl. While I was at work, she spent the better part of a morning cleaning it with soap and water, immersing it in the sink as best she could, given its size, and soaking it for as long as it took to loosen the dried dough stuck to the bowl. When I got home, my bowl was swollen with water, and a gaping mouth of a crack ran two-thirds of the way around the perimeter, threatening to break off the rim. That bowl was badly damaged.


I babied it and cajoled it back to a semblance of its former wholeness, and I promised it that I would stop pretending I was a pioneer housewife. I would stop using it to make bread. Its swelling diminished, the gaping crack shrank to near invisibility, and its retirement to fruit-bowl status has suited us both very well.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How to Spend a Long, Hot Summer Day

One day when I was home from university for the summer, we had lunch around my family's dining room table. Some non-family member had joined us for the meal. After lunch, Daddy went back to the office. My mother and I, the guest, and my sister Sari stayed at the table, my mother and the guest smoking and drinking coffee, the table littered with the remains of the meal. We talked. We told jokes.


Half an hour later, two other people stopped in to see us. They sat at the table (we cleared off the plates to make room) and we found a cake or some such dessert to bring out with the new pot of coffee.


We talked. We gossiped. One of the newcomers left, but her sister arrived just as she left, so our numbers stayed the same. More cake. More coffee. Time to empty the ashtrays.


Another hour went by. We talked. We laughed. We told more jokes and gossiped some more. Someone else arrived. We were still around the table, still talking.


I took a few of the dirty plates to the kitchen. One of my brothers arrived home from his summer job. The sun was streaming in the west-facing windows. We offered iced coffee, iced tea, cookies. Some of us harmonized on a song or two.


Finally, Daddy arrived home, bringing two friends with him. He made a large pitcher of manhattans. There were nine people around the table, which had not been empty all afternoon. Now another brother came home.


After a second round of manhattans, dinner materialized. Guests stayed. Family members stayed. Ten people ate dinner, drank more coffee, smoked more cigarettes.


At nine, my mother rose from her chair. The guests departed. The talk stopped. Someone took up a position at the sink to start washing dishes.


The table was empty. Tomorrow would be another day.



Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Celery Is Like a Tiger

Natalie Goldberg once compared celery to a tiger. Is that a valid comparison? How is celery like a tiger? Let me count the ways. Celery has ribs. Tigers have ribs. Celery has a stalk; tigers stalk. If you bite off more than you can chew from a celery stalk, you'd better have strong sharp teeth to handle that mouthful. Tigers have strong sharp teeth.


I must admit that I know considerably more about celery than I do about tigers. Celery lowers the blood pressure, but only if you eat three or four long stalks a day. Celery is easier to chew if you peel the strings from the outside stalks. Celery is best when you dip it in sea salt (but that certainly doesn't help the blood pressure). And it's wonderful spread with peanut butter (preferably chunky organic freshly ground peanut butter). People used to spread celery with "pimiento cheese," a favorite Southern form of cheese back in the olden days (and probably still, but I haven't been in the South since 1968). You could buy Kraft-made pimiento cheese in little jars and then use the empty jars as juice glasses. It's a mixture of roasted red peppers (pimientos) and grated cheddar (?) cheese.


When I lived in the South I was contemptuous of pimiento cheese, as I was of so many things there. I was very young and very snobbish. I hated pinto beans cooked with ham and served on cornbread. I hated collard greens boiled with salt pork and served over corn bread. Both of these are favorites now (though I use less pork fat in the cooking than my mother-in-law did).


But pimiento cheese? Well, I wouldn't buy it from Kraft, I can tell you for sure. I might make my own, but I think I can live without it.


Back to the celery. Braised celery. Now there's a concept. Why would you do that? A waste of good cooking fuel, since no one in the family will eat it. Maybe you could puree it after braising and make a nice celery soup.


We haven't even touched on celery root (celeriac), which I'd never heard of it until I moved to Toronto and saw bins of it at our local greengrocers. What were those softball-sized lumps covered with black dirt? How were you supposed to peel them? Or eat them? Black dirt hid under every rootlet and in the pockets and crevices that seamed the ball. Celery root was a mystery for years, but now I love it.


And tigers? Here's what I know about tigers: "Hold that tiger! Hold that tiger! Hold that tiger! Has anybody seen that tiger?" And so forth. Also, imprinted on my mind is the picture of the tigers in "Little Black Sambo", each one dressed in one of the little boy's pieces of finery, and each one saying, "Now I'M the grandest tiger in the jungle!" Vanity, vanity. The tigers ended up, you will remember, chasing each other in a circle, faster and faster, until they melted into a pool of sweet butter, which Little Black Sambo took home to pour on the pancakes his mother was making for him. There's a moral there somewhere.


You could, of course, forget about the tiger, forget about the celery and the celery root, and simply perfume your soups with celery-tasting lovage instead. Plant lovage in your garden and it will come back every year, giving you more celery flavor than you'll ever be able to use.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Farmhouse Grates

When I was little, we and our cousins used to eavesdrop on the adults when we went to the farm for holidays. The two-story farmhouse was very simply built, with no heating vents on the second floor. Instead, each room had an opening to the first floor, predicated on the notion that hot air rises. The openings were covered with cast-iron grates, presumably to keep the children from falling through, and the heat from the first floor was supposed to rise up through the grates and thus warm the upstairs rooms.


As a heating system this never worked very well, but the grated openings were ideal for eavesdropping.


The adults knew where all the grates were, and they surely knew that we clustered around them. But in the flush of gossiping or arguing, they always forgot that they had an audience. They held nothing back until one of them would suddenly mutter, "Little pitchers . . ." and they'd all look toward the kitchen ceiling and become silent. For a moment or two. But then they'd be irresistibly drawn again into unguarded, delicious, adult conversation.


I can see us now. We five siblings (the sixth came later) and our three boy-cousins, huddled on the bedroom floor around the grate that overlooked the farm kitchen, where the adults always congregated. We looked like a scene from a Busby Berkeley movie, heads to the grate, legs and feet straight out behind us making a star-wheel. We knew how to be silent, since our silence was the key to hearing the good stuff. But inevitably one of us would bump another (accidentally on purpose) and the whispered bickering that followed would escalate into sounds that the adults could hear. And then it was, "You kids get away from that grate!" and we'd scurry away, scattering to the farthest corners of the upstairs rooms, only to creep back again as soon as they'd forgotten us.


What on earth did we hear? I implied above that there was "good stuff." Actually, we heard about the state of the farm crops and the chickens (at one point Uncle John T. had been seduced into investing in an egg-farm facility—the kind with caged hens and automated egg collecting). There were interminable discussions of the mileage and routes of recent trips to Indianapolis. Or death reports on old people in the county—people we'd never heard of and about whom we cared not at all. Perhaps we occasionally heard a cross word exchanged between our mother, Eileen, and her sister-in-law, our Aunt Jeannette, who was tinted permanently green with jealousy over Eileen's high-achieving offspring. Or so Eileen told us when we were grown.


We really never heard anything juicy. But the very act of getting away with eavesdropping was its own reward.


 Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Mustiness. The smell we love to hate. We profess an allergy, a physical problem, when exposed to that smell of dead and rotting paper, or fabric that has forgotten how to breathe, or abandoned objects.


But is it really the musty smell itself we're objecting to? Could it be that the musty smell reminds us, in the reptilian part of our brain, that death is what it's all about? And boy, do we hate being reminded of that! The neo-cortex, all shiny optimism, recoils at being reminded that it won't get out of this alive.


Instead of confronting that revulsion, however, the neo-cortex just says, "I'm allergic to musty rooms. They make me sneeze. They make me sick." Whereas "they make me think" might be closer to the truth.


We have plenty of musty boxes, corrugated cardboard boxes that have been stored against the outer wall of the basement and have absorbed the moisture seeping in through the stone foundation. These boxes hold the things we no longer need in our lives but refuse to let go of. Surely someday my children will be delighted to read the short stories I wrote when I was 18. I can't bear to read them, but I'm sure my children will be thrilled to see me as I was then. Why else would I be holding on to them at this late date? And I know they will also want to read my answers, in French, to the questions on my third-year French exams, to know that once I had a brain—or at least a capacity to learn a little and parrot a lot.


What else is in these boxes? All the letters I sent my parents when I was in France. Tiny handwriting, blue ink now running from the moisture, still reveals the ebullience, the homesickness, the excitement of a different culture seen when I was only 19. All musty now.


Every four or five years, my husband suggests that we "clean up the basement." Because he is innately, incorrigibly organized, tidy, and responsible, he is always hoping that this will be the year when I say, "Oh, I see. I don't need to keep these reminders of my callow youth. From now on I can stand on who I am today."


And each time I go through the boxes I do let go of a few additional things, downsizing from seven boxes to five, from five to three-and-a-bit, from three-and-a-bit to two. But so far I haven't been able to let go completely. Do I think that one day I will reread all those papers and letters and then start over from these, reshaping my life so that I reach maturity sooner or with fewer missteps or fewer regrets? Do I imagine that on this second go-round I will achieve clarity while I'm still young enough to benefit from it? Or do I just hope that some day I will read the pages and feel pity and love for that lost, unguided girl, instead of heaping scorn on her.


Perhaps a musty smell is simply a physical manifestation of scorn and contempt, an olfactory trick of energy. Replace the contempt with love and the mustiness will disappear.


Copyright 2010 Ann Tudor