Sunday, April 30, 2017

Springtime Trifle

After the winter we've had in the Pacific Northwest, it's easy to get distracted by spring's sudden explosion. We've had hints--the scent of daphne hitting us suddenly when we turn a corner and then disappearing just as suddenly, and grape hyacinths and daffodils popping up around us.

But on a walk this morning, the sheer abundance of springtime hit me. The green of the lawns, shrubs, and new foliage on trees are unstoppable. It seems you could lean over and wring out the near-constant rain we've been under for the last six months (and which seems to still threaten!).

Clematis is eager to get in on the game, climbing over whatever sits in its path, reaching, much as we all seem to be, for as much sunlight as we can get.

But what struck me this morning were the sounds of springtime. Walking under Ladd's Addition's towering elm trees, I heard thousands--surely!--of baby birds, chirping with all they could, demanding food. I didn't see a single one, their nests hiding in the branches. I imagine there are more than enough worms this year to feed them all.

And then in the distance, I heard a little kid: "13, 14,15..." I circled the small park and saw a little boy, standing alone, his hands over his eyes, a tricycle behind him. "32, 33, 34..." Then, further around, his mother, crouching behind a bush. "Ready or not, here I come!"

It's all so reassuring.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Yes, and

I've been thinking about the lines we draw, about how we decide where to draw them and when to cross them and when to erase them. I suppose this has come up in response to the news, when I think about Romney deciding whether or not to accept the position of Secretary of State, if it's offered to him.

I'm glad I don't have to make that decision. When is it better to be stand up for what you believe to be of the utmost importance? When is it better to compromise your belief, in the hope that your presence, your compromise, could bring necessary improvements to the situation in which you find yourself?

Life and decisions seem blurred these days. I've noticed that sometimes when people are asked about their dietary restrictions, they blur the line between foods they can't eat (to which they are allergic) and foods they just don't much care for. Or they announce they hate a food (or even a whole class of food, like soup or cake), when perhaps they really mean it's not the food they like best.

When I was little, you reserved the word "hate" for foods that had suspect textures or bitter tastes, which just might make you gag.

I'm thinking that using language more precisely will be helpful in the days ahead.

I'm also thinking that reframing how we think may be necessary. I just read Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections)  by Stephen Prothero. Talking about the current division here, he calls for the need to turn culture wars into culture debates. "Americans have traditionally affirmed both the Federalist's beloved order and the Jeffersonians' beloved liberty. Their values have included both life and choice" (emphasis his).

Or in Citizen, an American Lyric, Claudia Rankine writes about discussing the merits of sentences constructed with "yes, and" rather than "yes, but." She and her friend decide that the "yes, and" sentences "Attest to  life with no turn-off, no alternative routes."

This brought me up short, I've been thinking that saying and thinking "yes, and," instead of "yes, but" will help us move from wars to debate, from talking to hearing.

But clearly we also need to be thinking and saying, "yes, but." How do we decide which to say when? Again, precise language will be important in the days ahead.

I was just in California to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. My sister loaded me up with two huge bags of persimmons, which are sitting in a bowl on the table. I realize that many people hate persimmons. Their texture can be suspect. If you eat them before they're ready, the tannin will make you pucker. But surely everyone must think they're beautiful.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Cake That Cures Everything

Last week, it was my turn to host our book group. When my turn comes in the fall, I usually end up baking some sort of apple cake. But this had been a tough week. Sure, we had all gained an hour earlier in the week. But that's always so unsettling, and leaves people in a haze. Instead of apple cake and tea, I decided chocolate cake, milk, and whiskey were called for.

Casting around for which chocolate cake to make, I pulled Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year down from my bookshelf. It fell open to a picture of a piece of chocolate cake. The recipe was called "The Cake That Cures Everything."  

Reichl wrote of the day she baked the cake. She had learned a few weeks earlier that Gourmet Magazine would be shuttered, and now the shock and numbness were turning to grief. "I'd forgotten that loss can be so painful, that life can feel so bleak. I looked into the future seeing endless empty days, incapable of imagining how my life would ever change...What I needed, I decided, was to bake a chocolate cake."

Clearly, this was the cake I needed to bake. A bonus was the fact that it serves 20-25 people. Everyone would be able to take home an extra slice or two for their partners. Or for their breakfast. I wouldn't ask.

The one problem was the frosting. A person's frosting preferences are deeply held opinions, possibly determined by their genetic make-up. I have a feeling that most people end up with the same frosting orientation as their parents, much as they do with their religious and political orientations. I don't care for cream cheese frosting, like my mother before me.

But you know what? A lot of people apparently do like cream cheese frosting. I can't explain it. To me, it's difficult to understand how they could prefer the tangy/sweet juxtaposition to a buttery, creamy frosting. It seems so clear to me that it's just not very good, and the frostings I love are obviously much better.

I decided this time to give the recipe a try. This frosting, after all, also had chocolate in it, which surely would help. That and the large amount of butter helped offset the cream cheese's tang. It might not have been my first choice, but I have to admit, it went down just fine. Especially with a slug of bourbon on the side.

I'm picking and choosing my battles. When called for, I can be flexible, and do something that maybe isn't my first choice. I'll make this cake again for a crowd, and I'll even use the same frosting. But if someone wants a carrot cake with straight cream cheese frosting or oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips (sorry, another hard-to-explain dislike--give me raisins every time!) or mango sherbet, I'll stand my ground.

Sometimes, you just can't compromise. We all have to pick the battles we think are worth fighting.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trifles, indeed

Waiter at U Gregorů 
I like to think this grainy photo is fittingly Sebaldesque 

The reason I named this blog Giovanna's Trifles was twofold. I like custard and cake, but I also really like the small things in life, such as morning small talk with the barista and coming across a still life of candy on someone's windowsill a week after Halloween.

Sometimes those small things are buried in bigger things. I was just in the Czech Republic with my husband and friends for a few weeks. There's so much to see and think about there, but one of the clearest image that stays with me is of a waiter in a small restaurant in the town of Nymburk. The restaurant was smoky, the duck breast was tender, and the waiter looked as if he'd been transported straight out of the Hapsburg Empire, circa 1895. It made me so happy to see him, and somehow made the world seem smaller, both in geography and time. It's a thought that brings me some comfort, when things are confusing.

I'm reading W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn right now. It's a wonderful book, and I think became only more dreamlike because as I read the first half, I thought we were about to elect a president I was excited about. The second half I read in a bit of a haze, the haze that many of my closest friends and family have been occupying for a couple of days now.

Anyway, I came across a line, about Charlotte, a 15-year-old British woman in the end of the 18th century, listening to the Vicomte de Chateaubriand talk about his journeys in America. It helped that not only was she completely interested in learning all she could--she was also in love with him.

On hearing of a hermit's dog who led an Indian maiden, "in her heart already a Christian, safely through the dangerous wilderness" (it was the 18th century, remember), Charlotte was so overcome, she ran out into the garden. When asked what had moved her so, she answered that it was "the image of the dog carrying a lantern on a stick in his mouth, lighting the way through the night for the frightened Atala."

Chateaubriand went on to say "it was always such little details rather than the lofty ideas that went straight to her heart."

The little things can say so much. I can relate to Charlotte, I respond to detail often. And I'm left to consider the people who see things in big strokes, big ideas, and those who respond to detail. It all matters. How do we bring those people together?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Choose and Chews

Towards the end of last year, an acquaintance of mine talked about her word for 2014. Apparently, each year she picks a word to keep in mind for the year ahead. The words just come to her. While the idea struck me as dangerously close to being a little too New Age for comfort, I have to admit I was intrigued. And when as she'd promised a word came to me out of nowhere, I decided what the heck.

Late in December, choose settled over me. It seemed so obvious. My skepticism evaporated. I could use this time saving device. For all those days that I waste time on deciding where to meet a friend for coffee. Just choose!  Or for the times I can't figure out what book to read next. Pick one!

A few years earlier I'd made a New Years resolution to make decisions. Part of that resolution was to embrace the likelihood of making bad decisions. Knowing that the real success was in deciding and moving forward. Choosing seemed to fit in well here as well.

When I told my mother about my word, she asked, "which one?" I was confused for a second, but then realized that when I said choose she heard chews. It seemed even more appropriate now, and it was a good story--I trotted it out at dinners and coffee dates all through January and February.

And then I looked up the etymology of choose. From the Old English, ceosan, choose, seek out, ...taste. I was pleased to see the word also meant to taste. How can you taste without chewing? She who chews, chooses.

But it gets better. The etymology of ceosan stretches back to Old Saxon and Old Norse words and beyond to the Proto-Indo-European--the hypothetical reconstructed ancestral language.  (A side note. Proto-Indo European is abbreviated as PIE. I just wish there were also a CAKE language.)

The PIE root is *geus, which means to taste, to relish. As in gusto. In German and Celtic languages that root came mainly to mean try or choose. But in Greek and Latin it formed the words for taste.

And how fun to follow the PIE root up other branches of the tree. Whereas *geus on the Germanic branches went on to mean test and decide, if I follow it up the Indo-Iranian branch I see in Sanskrit it evolved to jus, meaning enjoy, be pleased. And in Avestan zaosa meant pleasure.The Old Persian dauš meant enjoy.

I love the notion of linking choosing with pleasure (and taste and relish and gusto!). I know that's not exactly what all this means. But it's the way I'm choosing to think about it. I figure I have both of these language traditions in my makeup. So why not have them work together? Embrace the PIE?

I like the idea of taking the more analytical approach, choosing by evaluating and selecting. But all the while, I'm going to aim to do this with gusto--make those decisions with relish, pleasure, and enjoyment.

Whether it's the big decisions (what the heck should I be doing with my life?) or the seemingly small (Little T or Bakeshop? Extracto or Ristretto?), my goal is to enjoy the process, to take pleasure in being able to make free choices, and to enjoy the ride.

Above all, to remember to taste. The food and drink, of course. But everything else along the way too. Because isn't that really the point?

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Valentine's Trifle

Here's a Valentine's trifle for you. Much as I love fine chocolate--and there's so much to be had these days!--people who know me know about the soft spot See's occupies in my heart.

It's not so much their chocolate (I believe they use Guittard, which I find perfectly fine) that speaks to me. It's the brown sugar grainy filling of their Butterscotch Square, and the Apricot Bonbon's bright yellow fondant that is so sweet it almost--almost!--hurts my teeth before giving way to a slightly tart apricot filling. It's the sprinkles on the round Bordeaux and rectangular Mocha bonbons. It's the unlikely height of the Scotchmallows. And the four-in-a-cup crispness of Molasses Chips.

But it's much more. It's the spic and span white and black of their floors, counters, boxes, and uniforms. That white and black that never changes, and never goes out of style.

It's their slogan 'A Happy Habit', that seems to run directly counter to today's tendency to think of foods as naughty or guilt-inducing.

It's the free samples they give out to all who visit, and always with a smile. Even when it's a group of three teenagers who probably aren't buying anything. Or an old man who's picking up a box for his wife and gratefully accepts his prize, even when it's not his favorite.

And yesterday it was because it was the day before Valentine's Day. My local See's was full of men, apparently buying chocolates for their loves. I noticed one guy, paying, who looked as if he wished he didn't have to be there. But the man in front of me was picking out chocolates for a box, and smiling to himself after each selection. And the man behind me asked for the largest heart box, pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket, and began making his choices.  It was the See's cheat sheet, marked up with felt pens circling various types. I don't know if he'd made himself notes (I like to think Pavel has a list somewhere of all my favorites!), or if his wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, mother, father, or child had given him the sheet. Probably just to be helpful.

I know a lot of people don't like Valentine's Day. But yesterday, as I stood in the See's line watching other people carefully select chocolates for people they love, celebrating being loved and being in love seemed like a good idea. The best idea there is.

Here's to love and chocolate!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Preserving Summer

Up now on Culinate, 'Preserving Summer'. I hope you'll read it (and explore the Culinate site). Enjoy!

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