Monday, November 10, 2008

Musings on Food, and (different) Abilities

Thursday, October 10, 2019
11 p.m.

Inventoried the pantry today, with Evita’s help. Pretty good list! After Dolores and Zuza helped me with the canning, we have:
24 quart jars of tomatoes
15 quart jars of tomato sauce
18 quart jars of green beans
8 pints carrots
5 pints of yellow wax beans
3 pints of mixed pickled veggies
4 pints of jalapeños

There are four large bins of potatoes under the stairs (carefully screened to keep the cats from sleeping on them). Hanging from the rafters are 9 braids of onions, 5 ristras of chilies, and a basket of garlic (the hard stemmed kind, that you can’t braid.) I already put 12 tubs of pesto in the freezer earlier in the summer, before the heat turned the basil bitter. All of this makes only a minor dent in feeding us this winter—I know the satisfaction I take in the gleaming rows of jars is all out of proportion to their effect on our budget.

I can’t help but notice, as we work, what is not in the pantry. Sardines, which have become impossibly dear in the wake of ever more frequent El Niño events. Tuna fish (poor tunas! I have read they are so rare, now, they have trouble finding each other to mate.) Anchovies. I remember clearly being taught, when I was in grade school, that man would never run out of food because the sea was an inexhaustible resource! Hah. I do, however, have an abundance of dried seaweed, which is quiet good in steamed rice, and soups. And I still splurge on olive oil and on chocolate, despite the price.

Last night I butchered rabbits. Two dozen was entirely too many to take care of, so over Evita’s and Chevre’s protests (they became attached to them, just as I feared) I culled one dozen. I don’t mind dressing them, after the deed is done. I would far rather cut up warm, fresh meat than cold stiff flesh reeking of formaldehyde (memories of dissection in college and graduate school.) After a carcass is gutted, skinning is actually a rather interesting puzzle. I feel a great sense of accomplishment at getting the pelt off in one piece, with no nicks. I remember the swell of pride the first time I accomplished this, after a full year of generating tattered fragments. After skinning, each body slides into a dated zip-lock bag, and popped into the chest freezer. Cliff's friend Sheila, who keeps pet rabbits, is absolutely appalled. She refuses to come to dinner now, even if I assure her it is vegetarian. I think she views me as a monster for whacking bunnies. What can I say? In China they eat Chow Chows (or used to), and the idea of anyone eyeing Barsook as food makes me upset. 

When the hens start getting old enough to stop laying, I will have to learn to whack them as well. Scalding and plucking does not sound fun. The Tilapia are the easy. Sprinkle some fish chow in the big tank to bring them to the surface, dip in a net and haul out a nice big guy (Evita begs to wield the net), reach in and grab him firmly (this is the tricky part!), slap him on the butcher block and whack off the head. I suppose there are less dramatic ways to kill a fish. After all, in the fish store they sell them with the head still on. (What do they do, pull them out of the water and let them suffocate? Decapitation seems kinder.) Fish guts smell gross but they come out quite easily. It would be very efficient if the waste (rabbit and fish) could become pet food, but the cats won’t touch the offal for love or money. Spoiled brats! They are quite happy to come crying for their share when the good parts get cooked.

Having to put all this work into our food stock makes me much more careful about how I cook. I’ll be damned if I put all this work into raising, preparing and preserving this food only to toss leftovers in the trash. Not that there is much chance of that with Cliff, Flaco and Cintio sitting down to the dinner table (I swear each of those guys eats enough for two). And Iphan and Tenciero have started joining us for dinner once or twice a week. They were doing ok cooking on their own until a small fire resulted from Iphan taking a stab at making fried donuts. (He put the paper towels for draining the donuts too close to the burner.) After that they were rather spooked, and sometimes prefer to come over to our place. They are more than happy to do the actual cooking, even for all twelve of us, but they like having me or Dolores looking over their shoulders and letting them know all is well.

Iphan has phenomenal knife skills. He is the only person I know (short of a professional chef) who can dice vegetables and actually have them come out as perfect tiny cubes, each exactly the same size. Yet another illustration of how “differently-abled” is a better descriptor for his condition than “disabled.” And what would Russ do without his autistic employees to watch over his bees? Everyone else is scrambling to find pollinators, with all the various bacterial and fungal diseases conspiring to knock them off.

Russ has found that his “Auty Boys” (as he calls them ever so sensitively) will sit absolutely patiently for four hours on a shift, scanning the bees as they arrive back at the hive, catching and killing any that show subtle signs of disease in their morphology or behavior. I sat with Dan for two hours one afternoon, as he tried to show me what he looked for. I couldn’t see for the life of me what clued him in—he became quite cross and impatient with my stupidity! This culling, while ruthless, has given Russ one of the few healthy colonies in the area. And my skill at recruiting suitable young people from the Independent Living program give me an inside track in trading for the resulting honey—a blessing in an economy that relies increasingly on barter.

Off to a well-earned rest. Biscuits in the morning, I think, which Dolores is slowly beginning to accept as real food. Then finish my report for the Museum of the New Orleans Diaspora, and over to the fencing club to set up for the competition on Saturday. Oh the pain of trying to run competitions for groups limited to twelve! More on that later…

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Day of the Dead, Celebration of the Living

Saturday, November 2, 2019
3 am

Sitting in the laundry room again, on the drier, this time, since it is running. I like its gentle rumbling and warmth, and so do Em-dash and Stet, who are curled up at my side. Barsook is snoring on the floor.

I am happy and exhausted. Cliff is on the mend, the Bakery is restocked with flour, the grant proposal is in, the fish tanks are still running and all is right with the world. There are eleven people sleeping in the house tonight (Cliff in our bedroom, Flaco and Dolores in the guest room, Evita, Juan Pablo and Chevre bundled together in my study, Zuza and Cintio in the living room, our friends John and Julianne on the futon on the third floor.) The detritus from 60 other happy guests are scattered about the house.

Yesterday was the first Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)--a holiday celebrating the memory of friends and relatives who have died. For over a decade Cliff and I have thrown a party on DOD, at first semi-ironically adopting the trappings and traditions, and using it as an excuse for great food. Over time, and especially since the ReDS epidemic ramped up, it has become much more serious. The Offrenda is crowded with pictures of the many friends and family members we have lost. The sugar skulls bear names of people we know, not just the famous and infamous, as the collection originally began.

This year the crowd was bigger than ever. Flaco and Dolores brought many friends from the Smithsonian, including a large Mexican contingent whose contributions put my cooking to shame. Everybody pitched in, stretching the food to feed a multitude, hauling out instruments and making music on the porch deep into the night. John brought his ukelele, Cintio has a "seis" (kind of like a guitar) and Angelita, from the SI, brought a very impressive set of samba drums. Vitali brought his electric guitar and a very large amplifier. The neighbors would have complained, I'm sure--if they were not already all at the party!

We were in flagrant violation, of course, of "assembly 12" guidelines but frankly, we didn't care. And the amount of alcohol consumed was presumably sufficient to kill any microbe unwise enough to make an appearance. Everyone needed release, for one night, from the unending pressure to be responsible, to be careful, to be obedient. Day of the Dead, All Hallows Eve, Chuseok, Bon--many cultures have festivals asking the dead to protect us in life. We need this protection now more than ever. And we need to feel comfortable with death, uncertainty, chaos. We need a night to cozy up to the fearful and unknown and reassure ourselves that it is, in fact, a normal and inevitable aspect of life.

It was a raucous release of frustration, worry and fear, a celebration of life and an optimism. Evita supervised the many, many children making sugar skulls on the third floor, but foil, sequins, beads and tissue paper are scattered throughout the house none-the-less. Tenciero and Iphan helped me in the kitchen, turning out 247 tamales (Iphan counted, of course), dozens of flour tortillas, as well as iswas dulces (fresh corn tortillas) and sopapillas (fried dough.) A fierce but civil discussion about health care (or lack thereof) raged in the dining room. Lewis, on learning my neighbor Ed is an expert on the Ottoman empire, cornered him for an hour to get background for his historical novel (third in a modestly successful series). After everyone had moderately too much beer, some of the fencing crew got their equipment from the cars and staged a demonstration on the second floor balcony. (Conveniently just big enough to accommodate a standard fencing strip.)

Finally it wound down, people drifting off into the mild night clutching sugar skulls, pitching marigolds at each other, singing the tail ends of songs. A dozen or so of us remained, sipping home-made wine in front of the fire, washing up in fits and starts, talking quietly about the lost ones we honored this year, and speculating on what this next year would bring.

At last I extinguished the last candles, checked on Cliff (he is still weak, though much improved, and conked out early) and came down here to meditate awhile before heading to the Bakery. I'm contemplating how this celebration exemplifies much has changed, in the last ten years, and how much remains the same. There are so many people missing--dead, displaced, or afraid to attend a large gathering--and more new faces than I could have imagined. It is so much more complicated to find the food to feed such a crowd, arrange transportation, ensure the police turn a blind eye (fortunately the local patrol is very, very fond of Badger Bakery cupcakes.) Ten years ago I did almost all the work myself, with Cliff, John and Julianne pitching in. This year all our house guests, and a dozen others, started in on Friday afternoon and made quick work of everything.

Well, off to the Bakery for a few hours, ensuring that Pruittiporn and the boys (who went home early for a few hours sleep) actually show up and are functional after the modest amount of alcohol I let them consume. Then home for a long nap myself, and a good brunch and a proper day of practice, not these short stints of bouting I have been getting in.

Oh, and before being dragged off to bed, Evita whispered to me my Spanish word for the day--"puta." I really am going to have to supplement my vocabulary, or I am only going to be suited for the very rudest of conversations. Goodnight.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On Illness, and Adopted Families

Wednesday, October 30, 2019.
3 a.m.
Sitting on the washing machine, writing. Even the laundry room is an uncertain place of refuge, now. My Ecuadoran guests can't seem to grasp that I actually WANT TO BE ALONE sometimes, and if they notice I am holed up here, writing, happily come it and plop themselves down to talk, knit, mend or read me the newspaper. Evidently they feel that for people, solitude is an profoundly unnatural state.

But I need time to just breath, think and figure things out. My world is so fragile--the whole network of support, supply, relationships that binds together my life, family and friends seems strong until one thread snaps, and the whole superstructure begins to sway. How can I mend the pieces?

Cliff is ill...not ReDS, thank heavens, but that nasty virus Gilles came down with in Tuscany. Night sweats, fever, coughing, vomiting, aching all over. Oh for the days when we could simply trot off to the doctor and be sent to the hospital if needed! Now the calculus is much more complicated--will going to the hospital expose him to something even worse? Will waiting until it gets even worse mean a visit to the emergency room, which, from what I hear, is in the running for one of Dante's circles of hell? And how can I stay healthy to help? I was already getting by on five hours sleep, spread over the course of the day between supervising the bakery, managing the fencing club and trying to get some of my consulting work done. Any less and my body will just rebel.

Today I put in a request for a visiting nurse-practitioner. (Who ever thought there would be a resurgence of house calls!?) The nice scheduling volunteer explained that this could take anywere from a day to a week, and in any case, if it is Gilles' virus, what can they do? Give him something to keep the fever down, make him more comfortable, until it works its way through his system. And hope, in the meanwhile, it doesn't leave him vulnerable to something worse. He looks awful--has lost at least fifteen pounds from his already lean frame. His breath is labored, and I am afraid if he has an asthma attack it will mean a emergency room run despite the dangers and frustrations.

Thank heavens for Zuza and Dolores--I don't know what I would have done without them. I have to finish a grant proposal to continue funding skill-mentors and training for my Badger Bakery crew. Iphan, Tenciero, and Pruittiporn are doing pretty well despite their disabilities, but only because of the support I have managed to patch together providing medication, counselling and training. Another fragile network. Without my Ecuadoran guests I would have faced a terrible choice--my husband or "my kids?" But Zuza and Dolores are treating Cliff like their own brother. Heck, they are pampering him more than I would! Coaxing him with fresh, hot soup. Rigging a steam tent to help with his breathing, massaging his feet with some special herbal oil. (I did draw a line at going farther than the feet...)

I feel ashamed, now, that I was trying to nudge Zuza and Cintio out the door. Even though the house now is bursting at the seams, with six adults and three children, this "family" is pulling together to take care of its own. Little Evita has taken on taking care of the rabbits and the basement fish tanks entirely, and has begun taking the extra eggs to market. (I thought eight is a little young, but Dolores seems to think it entirely appropriate.) Even Flaco and Cintio are being helpful, popping over to the bakery to check on the boys early in the morning. They are still total slobs, leaving clothes all over the place and expecting that "the women" will pick up after them, but I find it hard to stay mad at them. I think I will simply make sure that little Evita's reading includes Simone du Beauvoir. Well, maybe I should start her on old Wonder Woman comics, first.

My thoughts just keep running in circles. What is the use of all my Zen practice if I can't quiet my mind, and accept that I can't control what will happen? It is so hard, faced with real adversity, to believe Joko Beck's teaching that whatever happens is "o.k." I will take a firm seat, recite the sutra on "full awareness of breathing" and then curl up down here to get some sleep. Tomorrow will bring what it brings...but I know it will include a house full of people who care for each other very much.