Monday, November 25, 2013

Why Are We Studying Zombies? and Brains ... er ... Cauliflower Soup

The other day, during a meeting in which we reviewed the course offerings for the spring term (yes, really, all of them), it became obvious that the university was offering no fewer than three courses on zombies this semester, along with two one witches/mystics.  I never really got caught up in zombie-mania (that whole not-having-a-TV thing means that I never got addicted to The Walking Dead), but I have to admit, the fact that a student could practically minor in zombies at my place of employment shifted my perspective a little bit.

What is it about zombies, anyway?

I asked an old friend this question over tea the other morning; she works at a university press and was, herself, just about to go write copy for a book on this very same topic.  Her theory, which she'd borrowed from a co-worker, was that zombie-mania comes in waves, altering with vampires: that when the economy is tanking, we find fascination in vampires (a metaphor for our own guilty consumption), and when things are looking up, we like zombies: exuberantly consuming everything. Someone actually tracked this, and while the correlation is imperfect, it's not implausible.  But it doesn't get us anywhere.

There's another theory: that zombies allow us to express our fear of ourselves.  Of the unknown, the unpredictable in human nature.  The erratic infection that reanimates some humans, the frightening evil that lies embedded within us.  The thing that makes us heartless, soul-less, and nearly impossible to kill.  Because of all of the scary things in the world, zombies are just like us.  They are us.  And they're out to get us, too. 

I sort of prefer the second theory, probably because I'm a humanist and not an economist.  I'm interested in (among many other things, of course) the things within us that destroy us.  What makes people evil?  What makes us self-sabotage, and be willing to eat others alive?  What makes us lose our souls?  How do people prepare for the zombie apocalypse, and what does this mean about our own defenses against the dark arts?  This is, to me, the more interesting question for the college classroom.  It makes minoring in zombies seem like a worthy pursuit.

I'm not sure we'll ever get a satisfactory answer to that question; that's not what the humanities are about.  Studying patterns of zombie behavior isn't likely to protect us against them any better (though the writers of copious zombie survival guides would argue differently, I'm sure; they would encourage me, barn-owner that I am, to get the app.).  Then again, maybe it's like going to therapy: if you figure out the patterns of behavior, and can recognize them early enough, maybe there are some souls--even your own--that you can save?

Are you a zombie-lover?  What do you think about the fascination with zombies?  Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse, just in case?

Cauliflower Soup
The cauliflower just looks like brains, right?  Once you blend it up, only your inner zombie has to know.

1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
8 leeks, trimmed and finely chopped, white part only
2 onions, finely chopped
1 cauliflower head, finely chopped
2 small potatoes, peeled and diced
4 bay leaves
4 c. chicken broth
2 2/3 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter and oil in a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the leeks and onions, and saute until just beginning to caramelize.  Add cauliflower, potato, bay leaves, and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook, covered, until the cauliflower breaks apart easily with a fork, about 15 minutes. Discard the bay leaves.

Add the milk, salt, and pepper, and puree until smooth, either in a blender or with an immersion blender.

Top with shredded cheese, toasted almonds, creme fraiche, or snipped chives.
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Saturday, November 23, 2013

I'm Not A Food Blogger, and Chicken Chili

Over the years, I've struggled to define my blogging genre.  I guess it's particularly hard to do so when you don't write often enough to attract a large following, but the fellow bloggers whose opinions about this I respect most call me a "general diarist."

The term would probably confuse most people who glance quickly at my blog, which is punctuated by large, more-and-less-well composed pictures of what's on my table.

The thing is: I'm not a food blogger.  I cook, and I photograph my food, but for me, food is a metaphor.  As it is, I guess, for most food writers.  Food is about relationships: with each other, with our communities, with the earth, with our bodies.  Food is history: the history of cooking and eating chronicles everything from gender norms to social movements.  Food describes things like comfort, balance, and health in ways that are more concrete than we can sometimes articulate.  When people die, when babies are born, when people are sick, we bring food.  Offerings of nourishment that mean more than words.

When I came home tonight, my son's most recent composition from school was lying on my computer, waiting to be read.  It describes the Thanksgiving he's going to have (which is actually somewhat inaccurate, because we might not have told him about our slight change in location this year,), complete with the meal he's going to eat (an interesting, and also inaccurate, variation on our usual meal, complete with pumpkin pie and corn on the cob).  Though I don't generally very much like Thanksgiving because I don't actually like the meal that most other people like, it got me thinking about how this is one time during the year in which people think just a little bit about the metaphor, about the stories that are buried in the meal: both the stories we are taught are buried in the meal, and then the stories of our own meals and their metaphors, that have nothing to do with Pilgrims or Native Americans or even turkeys, really.  They have to do with family, and tradition, and comfort, and our roles and places in the world, and what we believe is important.

We've started to hunker down again lately.  Like we do every year.  Get ready for the winter, for the cold months.  The slow cooker has come out of hibernation.  There are soups and stews and chilis.  There might be Christmas cookies.  And there will be all kinds of things that I never say, in so many words.

What are the stories on your table?

White Chicken Chili

2 lbs. skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 c. finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. dried oregano
1 t. ground coriander
2 4.5 oz cans chopped green chiles, undrained
1 c. light beer
2 15 oz. cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 14 oz. can fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
2- 3 T. cornmeal
shredded Monterey Jack cheese
chopped fresh cilantro
chopped green onions

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add chicken to pan; cook 10 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add onion to pan; sauté 6 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Add garlic; sauté 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in cumin, dried oregano, and coriander; sauté 1 minute. Stir in chiles; reduce heat to low, and cook 10 minutes, partially covered. Add the chicken, water, cannellini beans, cornmeal, and broth; bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in hot sauce. Ladle 1 cup of chili into each of 8 bowls; sprinkle each serving with 2 tablespoons cheese, 1 tablespoon cilantro, and 1 tablespoon green onions.
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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Being Prepared, and Powdermilk Biscuits

There are, I suspect, a few moments in everyone's life when you feel completely unprepared to be you.

Like, for example, the first time you walk out of a hospital with a baby in an infant car seat.

"They're just letting us leave," I'd said to my husband, amazed, as the double doors swung open and we stepped into the hallway, baby bucket in hand.  "Don't they know we don't know what we're doing?"

"My father tells me that by the second day, you're an expert," my husband reassured me, with less than complete confidence in his voice.

It turns out, of course, that you're not an expert by day two.  Or by year seven.  Or, from what I can tell, by year forty.  But you muddle through somehow, and some days you feel like you have conquered the windmill, and other days you use every atom in your body to combat feeling like a failure.  And behind it all, maybe you sit with amused disbelief that you're really the one in charge; maybe, like me, you marvel at how this could possibly have happened.

Last night, as I walked from the dark parking lot towards my son's school for second grade parent-teacher conference, I felt that amused disbelief again.  Here we were, a handful of shadowy figures, older that we believed ourselves to be, marching towards responsibility, for which we were, at best, laughably prepared.  My mother was the one who went to parent-teacher conferences.  But me?  The thought is still weird.

My son's teacher is a very sweet, energetic, and enthusiastic twenty-something who says "like" a lot and probably sees me as "one of those older parents who wants to linger too long."  Like my mother would have been.  She tells me how well my son is doing, what a delight he is, walks me to the door, and I feel a little like I'm being herded.  Maybe I fit this role better than I think I do.

photo credit: S. Levine
Powdermilk Biscuits
My husband made biscuits the other night, because he's much more like an adult some days than I am, because we had leftover powered milk, and because they "give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. Heavens, they're tasty and expeditious."

2 - 2 1/4 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
3 t. baking powder
3-5 T. softened butter
1/4 c. powdered milk & 3/4 c. water (or just 3/4 c. milk--but powdered is better in this recipe)
1 T. sugar

Preheat oven to 450F.

Combine all dry ingredients and cut butter in with a pastry blender until you have small crumbs.
Add wet ingredients; if you need more flour to get the dough into rollable form, feel free to add a bit.  It should still be somewhat sticky.

Roll out dough onto a floured surface, and use a round object of your choice to cut out biscuits.

Bake 10-12 minutes or until tops are lightly browned.
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Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Quick-Change, and Pumpkin Pie Smoothie

I have a long-standing history of overcommitment.

Though my early childhood schedule of piano, flute and dance lessons doesn't hold a candle to the insane co-curricular schedule of some of my children's peers, I was definitely always busy.  And as I grew older, I held on to those commitments by choice, adding new ones that fit my interests.

It didn't pose a problem until things came to a head in the eighth grade, when my choral concert directly conflicted with my dance school's dress rehearsal for its biennial recital.  You'd probably think that given this kind of conflict, one would simply skip the dress rehearsal for the show, but generalizations don't account for my dance teacher, who was certain the world revolved around her recital (and to be honest, in my town, she was right).

I had a solo in the choral concert.  Not just a piece with choral backup, but my own piece.  Which probably made skipping that concert potentially easier, but also harder at the same time.  Sure, they could take my name out of the program.  But voluntarily giving up the spotlight I'd worked so hard to earn?  Not so much.

So I plotted, with the support of my parents, to attempt attendance at both.  Dance the first number at the dress rehearsal, hop in the car, drive to the concert and sing, get back in the car, return to the dress rehearsal for the remainder of the evening.

This plan was made more challenging by the fact that my school was about twenty minutes away from where I lived.  And I had to change from a tutu and tights to civvies and back to a skimpy little jazz number.  While the car was in motion.  No small feat for a self-conscious pre-adolescent.

I remember, clearly, sitting in the back seat, all limbs and tuille, trying to angle myself into the next costume with my seat belt on, while my eight year old brother looked on in amusement.  I'd done "quick changes" before--that was a standard in dance school once you got old enough to be in several numbers per show--but doing it in motion was something entirely different, something more than a little nausea-inducing.  Mastering the art of the quick-change, my dance teacher would tell us, meant understanding that we could do it all.

Body memory goes deep; every time since then when I've found myself racing from one overlapping commitment to another, I've been right back there in the back seat of our ancient tank-like Mercedes, my father gunning the engine through the dense neighborhoods of suburban New Jersey, my mother gripping the door handle and worrying out loud.  Occasionally, when I've re-experienced this feeling, the stakes felt high: when my son was born, for example, leaving work on time meant that I only just barely got home in time to feed him, and being stuck behind a slow-moving truck meant a meltdown at home in my absence, and a thirty-minute pumping session at home at the end of a long day, before I could sit down for dinner, if there was time to eat at all.  Other times, the stakes were less high, when I double-booked myself at meetings of community organizations, or made promises to two different groups of people, knowing that I could technically get it all done.  Still, sometimes, the quick-change works less well than others.

I'm much less overcommitted these days; working full time with a commute makes it impossible to promise my time to much of anything else after hours back home, if I still want to see my family.  I've had to come to terms with that, and it's been at the front and center of some of my conversations after the election, since one of the things I gave up to work full time was my position on the school board.  I gave up my committee chair position at our fellowship.  (I tried to give up the Friends of the Library Board, too, but they refused to take my name off of their executive board roster, so I've decided to take my son to meetings in the future, which would work well for everyone.)  There have been less-satisfying sacrifices, like my favorite yoga class.  But the most important thing is that I no longer pretend to have it all.  The quick-change approach to life is fairly unsatisfying; you're always thinking about the next place you need to be; and, as I learned that one spring, it just isn't practical to put on a leotard in a moving vehicle.

It's been over a year now since Anne-Marie Slaughter's article on "Why Women Can't Have It All" went viral, and it doesn't feel like very much has changed out there.  I still get the feeling people wonder why I'm not doing everything I used to do.  And it's astounding to me that we'd never most likely never ask that question of a man.

I hope not to overschedule my kids, not just because they "deserve to be kids for as long as possible," but because they need to learn that it's OK to make choices.  That adults shouldn't be overscheduled, either.  That's it's not a healthy way of life.  Sure, we are in a rush to get out the door in the mornings; I'm not sure how else to do it, short of getting everyone up at 4:30 a.m.  But there are also days with Legos, and books, and stickers, and a long walk through downtown, with no destination in mind.

Do you do your own quick-change?

Pumpkin Pie Smoothie
One way we try to buy a few extra minutes in the morning before my kids do their own not-so-quick change from PJs to clothes is by throwing breakfast in the blender.  Usually, there's some version of mango or strawberry-banana smoothies; this weekend, I figured I'd try a pumpkin pie smoothie on them for a change.  My son turned up his nose, and my picky daughter licked the glass clean.  This could also work as a dessert.

1 banana, peeled and frozen (they are sweeter that way)
3/4 c. pumpkin puree
1 container Greek yogurt (honey, vanilla, or plain)
2/3 c. milk
splash orange juice
1/2 t. cinnamon (or to taste)
1/2 t. ginger (or to taste; I added more as I went)
1/4 t. nutmeg

Toss everything in the blender and whirl until smooth.  Pour into a fancy glass, preferably with a fancy umbrella, which will make your breakfast feel leisurely even if you really don't have time to dally, and serve.
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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie: Moosewood Apple Krisp

People can be particular about pie.  I should know.

I'm one of them.

According to my pie Rule Book, apple pies have apples in them.  In fact, when you cut an apple pie, you should have to use a knife.  None of this spoon nonsense.  If it's so full of goop that you need a spoon, you might as well be eating custard.

The problem with having pie standards like these, of course, is that they're impossible to meet on short notice.  You can't drive to the diner (blessed as we are in New Jersey with said establishments) for a slice of apple pie ... and expect pie.  That three dollar pie from the supermarket?  No dice.  Basically you have to make it yourself.  Which happens sometimes around here after 9 p.m., but not often.

Both S. and I have been craving pie, though.  And when I told him I was going to the supermarket for condensed milk to make Diwali sweets, he said, "if you're going out, pie would be good."

Of course pie would be good, we agreed.  But where would I get pie?  There's no pie around here.  Or at least, nothing worthy of the title.

I rummaged in the refrigerator, preparing lunches and snacks for tomorrow for the kids, informing my son, who had been in the shower for about half an hour so far, that he would have to eat around the bruise on his apple.  I don't think he heard me.

"I don't want to be here when you tell him again," commented my husband.  And then, thoughtfully: "Maybe it's a good night for crisp."

There's an idea, I thought.  Cook the damn apple, and my son will be none the wiser.  "Shall I start it?" I asked.  Of course I should.  I sprang to action.  An hour later, with marginal work: crisp.  Which is almost like pie.  Or at least, more like pie than pie pretends to be around these parts.

Moosewood Apple Krisp
I love the Moosewood version of apple crisp, because you don't need to feel too guilty about it, and because it comes together quickly.

8 - 10 medium apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 c. butter
1/3 c. honey
2 c. raw oats
3/4 c. flour
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. allspice
1/2 t. salt
1/4 c. pumpkin seeds
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 juice

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Toss the apples with lemon juice and a little cinnamon.  Spread half of them into a large baking pan.

Melt the butter and honey together.; add oats, flour, nuts, seeds, salt and spices. Crumble half of the oat mixture over the apples in pan. Cover with the remaining apples and the rest of the topping. Drizzle orange juice over the top.

Bake 40 - 45 minutes (25 minutes covered, 20 minutes uncovered).  Serve warm with ice cream.
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Monday, November 4, 2013

Light in the Darkness, and Doodh Peda (Indian Sweets)

"Your first night driving home in the dark," my boss commented, nodding towards the window as I gathered my things to leave work.

I said something dismissive about having driven home in the dark before, because I've spent a few late evenings at events on campus, but as I crested the mountain in the middle of my drive, in the pitch black, tensely hunched over the wheel as I scanned the road ahead for deer, I realized he was right, in a way; this darkness felt different than it had just three weeks ago.  More permanent.  Or at the very least, more sustained.  I could sense winter coming.  There would be snow in these mountains.

Diwali, the five day Hindu festival popularly known as the "festival of lights" and the first in a two month series of  light-filled holidays from various traditions, began on Sunday this year.  The festival celebrates the victory of light over dark, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance, honoring of the return of Hindu god Rama and his wife Sita to their kingdom after years of exile.  During Diwali, celebrants clean the house and light small clay lamps filled with oil to make the goddess Lakshmi (of prosperity) and Ganesh (remover of obstacles) feel welcome, and there are lots of sweets shared with friends.

More importantly, perhaps, the holiday celebrates awareness of the inner light, the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance, the awakening that brings compassion, awareness of the oneness of all things, and eventually, ananda (which my yoga teacher translates as "bliss").

While of course the parallels between the celebrations and the daylight hours depend on the hemisphere in which you live, there's something to be said for looking inward when the light outside wanes.  I've written here before about the practice of pratyahara, withdrawing from the senses, in order to better focus our inner awareness; though I haven't been to my beloved yoga teacher's studio in a while to practice there, I suspect that's what they're preparing to do this month and next.

So as I headed into the valley, I turned off the radio, slowed down, lowered my high beams, and listened.

The silence was wonder-ful.

Happy Diwali; wishing you all the light of andanda.  Enjoy the darkness.

Doodh Pedas
I love Indian sweets because they're so different from our cloying candy.   These are pretty easy to make, and the "dough" is fun to play with, whether you have kids or not.  Next time I might even add a drop or two of rosewater, just for the heady sent .

1¾ c. powdered milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 T. butter
6 green cardamom pods, peeled and seeds crushed to fine powder
small pinch of saffron, dissolved in 2 T. warm water or milk
small pinch of salt
nuts (cashews, almonds, pistachios etc)

Microwave the butter in a deep bowl for 20-30 seconds until just melted. Add the milk powder and condensed milk and stir well until you no longer see any lumps.

Microwave the mixture again for 1 minute. Mix well again, and microwave once more for 1 minute.

Add the cardamom, salt, and saffron, and mix well. Microwave for one more minute.

Allow the mixture to cool a bit, and dump it onto a piece of waxed paper or parchment. Cover with another sheet of waxed paper or parchment, and roll the dough into a 1/2" thick round. Cut with a cookie cutter or into whatever shape you like, and press nuts into the center. (The dough, as it cools, becomes lots of fun for children to play with.) Cool completely.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The In Between: Kale with Chard, and Day of the Dead

Our last CSA pickup for the season was last Friday, and so this week was the first in many months that I had to plan a menu that didn't involve kale, chard, or tomatoes.  I don't tend to can or freeze our share, so there was something wistful about eating the last local-farm-sourced meal of the season, as much as it's freeing to have the entire supermarket open to me again.  Watching the fields turn brown and white is like watching a loved one die, and yet, after eating so much green for so many months, I start to crave things that are brown and white, the root vegetables of winter.

I've always loved this time of year, though, this in-between when it feels like the door to another world is open, when death and life collide.  We more or less suck at dealing with death in this country, in my experience; death is something we don't like to talk about, something we distance from our own lives, something to be feared.  These silences make grieving more difficult, not to mention significantly limiting our experience of being human.  Other cultures cope with death and dying much more effectively by making it part of life, particularly during this season of the year: the Celtic holiday of Samhain both celebrates the end of the harvest season and welcomes the souls of the dead, who were beckoned to attend feasts where a place was set at the table for them. The three-day long celebration of El Día de los Muertos, likewise, sets aside a specific day at the end of the traditional harvest period to remember lost friends and loved ones.  The only thing we have that comes even close to honoring this liminality is Halloween, and we're too busy gorging ourselves on candy to really appreciate it.

My daughter asked me what I was going to be for Halloween this year, and--not wanting to do one of the usual ghost/zombie/vampire affairs--after giving it a lot of thought (not to mention spending a lot of time admiring the creative costume ideas at Take Back Halloween), I decided that if I needed to dress up, I would be Frida Kahlo, the feminist Mexican artist famous for her self-portraits.

Kahlo lived on the boundaries.  A victim of childhood polio that left her with legs two different lengths, and a bus accident during her teenage years that resulted in life long pain, multiple operations on an injured pelvis, and multiple miscarriages, she also pushed the limits of traditional gender norms, smoking, drinking, and having bisexual extramarital affairs. After several years living in what she referred to as "Gringoland" with her husband Diego Rivera, with whom her relationship was complicated at best, she painted a self-portrait in which she stands between Mexico and the United States, herself a physical boundary (or bridge) between indigenous culture and technology, natural resources and industrialization.

While I don't identify with Kahlo as I did once long ago with Jane Eyre, I appreciate her embrace of the space between, her strength and resilience, her joie d'vivre, even given her difficult life.  A few days before her death, she wrote in her diary: "I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida".   Kahlo accept and embraced her fragility, and still did her best to live a life and produce art that suggested her power and serenity as a woman in the world, living courageously into a future that is unknown. And perhaps, at this time of year, that's the most we can hope for.

Do you celebrate a holiday that remembers lost loved ones?  What's your experience of this particular kind of in-between-ness?

Spiced Squash and Chard with Walnuts
This was I did with the last of our CSA produce of the year.  Not quite salad, 

not quite side dish, not quite root vegetable or leafy green, it lives somewhere in the in-between, too.

1 medium acorn squash
1 bunch of swiss chard, ribs removed and chopped, leaves chopped separately
2 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
2 t. cardamom
3/4 c. chopped toasted walnuts

2 T. orange juice (preferably fresh squeezed)
3 T. local honey
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1/4 c. oil grapeseed oil
1/2 t. apple pie spice
1/8 t. ginger
1/4 t. salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

Slice, peel, and cube the acorn squash. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and cardamom. Roast in a single layer for 30-35 minutes, flipping once half-way through.

While your squash is roasting, shake together the orange juice, vinegar, oil, apple pie spice, ginger, honey, and salt in a jar.

When the squash is done, move to a skillet  over medium heat and add the the chard, continuing to stir until wilted. Chop and toast the walnuts; you can toss them into the same roasting pan you've just emptied, and put them back in the oven for just a few minutes (check every two minutes or so to make sure they're not burning).

Add your walnuts after 3-4 minutes.

Toss the warm chardwith 1/4 c. of the vinaigrette. Enjoy immediately or at room temperature.
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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jane Eyre, Feminism, the Gothic, and Cardamom Scones

I was eleven.  My aunt and uncle, in a moment of uncharacteristic attentiveness to my interests, had bought me a copy of Jane Eyre for my birthday; the 500-and-some-page Illustrated Junior Library edition, it boasted a full color hard cover and plastic dust jacket.  Though I remember my mother saying something about the fact that I was probably a bit too young for Jane Eyre, there was something special about that book from the beginning, about the thickness of the pages, the tantalizing illustration on the cover, its sheer weightiness.  My first real literature, perhaps.  And though I struggled a bit with the tangled language and the length of the sentences, I soon fell in love with its heroine, just as I'd fallen in love with Louisa May Alcott, Girl of Old Boston, even before I read Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables after that.  Jane Eyre is one of the few non-children's books I've read multiple times in my life, some assigned, and some not.

A few weeks ago, on the anniversary of the book's 1847 publication, the Huffington Post featured what amounted to "lessons we can learn from Jane Eyre."  I found the piece a little Pollyannish : one of the author's takeaways is "Be Positive!" as if Victorian heroines had any choice but contentment with their lot, or at least the forced moral fortitude to embrace it as a "lesson."  After all, Helen Burns tells Jane that "it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear."  Still, it brought back fond memories of reading the book and identifying with Jane, as I identified with Alcott's Jo March: a plain, outspoken young woman who lived both completely in the world and completely apart from it.   To this day, there's something about the name I find powerful; it was on my short list of names for our daughter.

There's the proto-feminism, of course; as she leaves Thornfield, knowing that a relationship with Rochester would mean the loss of her self-respect, Jane (and, by extension, Brontë) offers some thoughts about independence which I think are relevant even now: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”  While I think that oversimplifies things (do we respect ourselves for being "unsustained"? or is there something respectable about knowing how to lean on others, too? what lessons do we teach our children about finding balance between independence and interdependence?), I confess, it's a principle by which I've lived most of my life. 

And then there's the fact that Brontë gets Romanticism right for me: though I wouldn't consider myself a sucker for Romantic novels of the Victorian period, I wept through the death of Jane's friend Helen from consumption, wondering whether one got consumption now, and whether I should be wary of catching it. I remember, too, wishing for a champion like Miss Temple, and resolving to have tea in my chambers for students, should I ever end up teaching in a boarding school--a resolve which was later re-kindled by my crush on Professor Keating of Dead Poet's Society.

I was also drawn to the Gothic aspects of the novel, especially the powerful shadow-figure of Bertha Mason, and feeling sorry for her, even long before I read Wide Sargasso Sea, which attributes Rochester's rejection and her subsequent descent into madness to her (literal) "dark" Creole heritage.  Jane defends her without knowing, in her first weeks at Thornfield, musing that women "suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation"; they are, quite literally, trapped.  Bram Stoker was born the month after Jane Eyre was published, and dressing my son as Dracula this year for Halloween, I found myself thinking about the madwomen in the attic, about how Halloween enables us to plumb our own darker sides, to play with the shadows within us.  As he moved from house to house, I watched my son begin to walk differently, cape billowing behind him, fangs brilliant against the ghostly face I'd painted; he was absolutely getting into the character, in a way he hadn't done in Halloweens past.

What are the books you've read again and again?  Which literary characters have spoken to you over the years?  Did you channel your inner madwoman for Halloween?  What are your thoughts on the balance between independence and interdependence?

Cardamom Scones with Cranberries
Miss Temple offered Jane and Helen seed cake during their first visit to her chambers.  While these aren't exactly cake, I suspect that they're more like what Miss Temple had in her room, given the conditions at Lowood school, and the cardamom pods count as seeds in my book.  Enjoy them warm out of the oven on a dark night or cloudy morning,with a cup of tea.

3 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. cardamom pods (or, if you must, 1/2 t. ground cardamom)
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 c. plain Greek yogurt
1/2 c. sugar (I used evaporated cane)
2 eggs
additional sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Peel the cardamom pods and grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle (or use a very small knife and carefully chop until you have powder).  Stir the cardamom into the flour mixture.

Cut the butter in with a pastry blender or two knives until small crumbs form.  Add yogurt, sugar, and one egg, and mix (you can use your fingers).  At this point you can also add anything else you want (candied ginger, cranberries, raisins, chocolate chips).

Divide the dough into 12 equal parts (you can also use an ice cream scoop to get rough 1/3 c. balls); place the dough on the parchment.

Whisk the other egg and brush over the dough.  Sprinkle with additional sugar.

Bake 25 minutes, or until pleasantly golden brown.  Serve warm.
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Friday, November 1, 2013

I'm Not Katie: A Case of Mistaken Identity

In my freshman year of college, I joined one of the university's two all-female singing groups.  Though we were there for the music, in some respects, it was also sort of like a sorority for girls who wouldn't ever pledge a sorority: we were each assigned a "big sister"; we would gather in small groups around campus; and many of us (not me) would semi-regularly get drunk together.

As a non-sorority sorority, we also had a "brother" organization: the all-male Glee Club.  They functioned like any fraternity would, providing built-in dates for the members of our group (some pairings actually resulted in marriage), serving as an organization to co-sponsor co-ed events, rounding out the sound when we needed to sing something for mixed voices, and occasionally getting drunk with us (not me).

In my second week with the group, we new recruits found ourselves being inducted into the ritualistic post-rehearsal gathering at a semi-seedy pizza restaurant and bar just off campus.  I was trying, shyly, to make small talk, and be as invisible as possible, when I realized that someone was trying to get my attention.  Only they weren't calling my name.

"Katie," they were saying.  "Katie?"

Katie was another new member of the group, a slight girl with a powerful, fabulous voice who had already found her pairing in the Glee Club: an equally small and talented male.  She was on the fast track.  The only similarity between us was our shoulder-length wavy brown hair, which, if you were looking even just a little bit closely, wasn't that similar at all.

Still, the call was insistent.  "Katie.  Katie!"

Now, others had joined in.  They were all clearly shouting at me, trying to get me to turn around.  Finally, I did.  And spluttered, at the top of my lungs:  "I'm NOT KATIE!"

The bar erupted into gales of laughter, and after a minute of feeling awkward and annoyed all at once, I had to laugh, too.  To this day, one of the friends I met in those Glee Club days still calls me Katie (or "not-Katie"), and I occasionally sign my emails to him, simply, "k."


I've been thinking about this case of mistaken identity a lot lately, at my new place of employment.  Where, it's pretty obvious, people worshiped at the feet of my predecessor.  Or, at the very least, were very chummy.  Sometimes it feels a little like they're measuring me, sizing me up.  And then, they decide, frowning ever so slightly, perhaps: not Katie.

It's true, I think.  I'm not Katie.  I'm sorry that you're pining away for your lost lover, but she's gone.  She made her choice.  And you can't use the same yardstick for me.

I imagine (because this has never happened to me) it's sort of like being in bed with someone who suddenly calls out the wrong name in a passionate moment.  Of course the speaker is embarrassed, but no one feels worse than the newly beloved, who can't help but wonder where she stands.  Is the speaker still smitten with an old flame?


These things take time.  People grieve love lost in their own ways, and I didn't expect to step too quickly into my predecessor's shoes, which are, admittedly, quite large. Still, I can't help but feel some days like I'm orbiting a well-established solar system, and I wonder when gravity will start to kick in.

Until then, maybe it's best to respond to whatever I'm called.

Have you ever been mistaken for someone else?
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