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Monday, September 28, 2009

To can or not to can

I hate this time of year. The leaves fall, and crackle under the feet like the bones of tiny children. And the light takes on certain harshness that reminds me that, even as I grow closer to death, I have gotten no closer to realizing my dreams.

Most of that is made tolerable with a healthy dose of self-medication. But there’s one autumnal rite that I can no longer obliviate with gin. Beginning in August, adherents of this practice descend on the U-Pick orchards like magpies on roadkill; and by September, this cult – yes, I think it can be called a cult – is fully engaged in a perverse ritual of self-flagellation involving steamy kitchens, boiling water, blistered fingers and sterile jars. Sometimes even death and disease.

Yes, it is the season of canning, when certain Caucasians of elevated socio-economic brackets come together and prostrate themselves on the altar of the root cellar, and “put up” the harvest. And then they talk about it.

Like any cult or religion, this one has its evangelists; and its guilt. “I put up 60 pounds of tomatoes this weekend,” one of the followers of the cult said the other day, her voice sticky with self-righteous, semi-competitive verve. “And today, as soon as I get home, ten bushels of pears await me.”

Seeking my own accomplishment, I imagined replying. “Well, I made it through 200 pages of Infinite Jest this weekend, and I think I finally understand the plot.” But I suppose that would only prompt a reply like, “Oh, Infinite Jest? Isn’t that an heirloom tomato?”


Last week, my wife Wendy, apparently feeling a bit inferior with all the canning chatter, and my mother, who since moving to Hotchkiss has joined the Locavore sect, spent a full day preserving tomatoes and salsa. This worries me. As I was growing up, my mother generally avoided the kitchen. When forced to cook, she relied upon Kraft dinners and frozen enchiladas in tinfoil platters. Wendy, meanwhile, is alarmingly blasé when it comes to foodborne illnesses, and has an inherent oblivion to “sell by” dates. I suspect that she figures if she poisons someone, she’ll never be expected to cook again, which is just fine by her. Still, possessed by some back-to-the-earth demon, they forged ahead into the battlefield of boiling water and sterile jars.

Wendy’s description of the ordeal was so awful that I was overcome with enough guilt to agree to partake in the next session. I wanted to educate myself first, though, and I soon discovered that there’s a plethora of literature on the subject. Indeed, there may be more people writing about canning than actually doing it. In addition to several books, the cybersphere has exploded with blogs extolling the virtues of “putting up”. One advocates a Canvolution; another goes so far as to compare canning to sex, which leads me to think that my sex life, which only occasionally involves boiling tomatoes and finger-scorching jars and food processors, needs some spicing up.

As I read, I try some of the salsa canned before. Not bad for salsa without lime, or salt, or a hint of chili pepper. Then I reach the scary chapter of the book, where I discover that canning is like sex; that is, it can lead to various forms of bacterial infection when done recklessly. Turns out, canned stuff is a leading cause of botulism – a nerve toxin that can paralyze and even kill you. Tomatoes are especially prone to the bacteria, and so, the book says, one should always add acid to them before putting them up.

As I take another bite of lime-free salsa, I feel my eyelids drooping, and I have a hard time moving my arm. And when I ask whether they boiled the jars for long enough, I must slur my words beyond recognition, for neither my mom nor Wendy seems to hear me.

“Couldn’t we just freeze these?” I ask, eying the pile of tomatoes that we’re about to can. I receive a caustic look in return; it’s just not the same. And besides, as the manifesto of canning explains: What if the power goes out? You see, no cult is complete without an apocalypse fantasy, and the canvolutionary’s vision of Armageddon is as frightening as any, with pesticides and disease; GMOs and Peak Oil; and deep-chest freezers without electricity regurgitating rotten produce. As with all good end-of-days scenarios, the canners’ version include those who will be saved – that is, people who have put up plenty of green beans and peaches; and the damned – who put up nothing, and now must spend eternity, or at least a few minutes a day, wandering the supermarket aisles to ensure sustenance. The Bible tells us that the Prince of Darkness will one day burn in the flames of Hell. In the canners’ version of the Rapture, the CEO of Monsanto will spend his eternity trying to eat his way out of a pit of the North Fork Valley’s excess zucchinis.

Okay, so forget about the freezer. We’ll can the salsa, already. I throw in as much bacteria-killing garlic, lime, and chili as I’m able. After the third burn blister erupts on my hand, I ask myself: Wasn’t technology intended to free us from such chores so that we could work less and spend more leisure time doing the things that make us human, like reading, doing art or watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica? Isn’t that why our grandparents gave up home-canning in the first place? Or was it just because canning sucks? After all, canned fruit isn’t even all that good – it’s basically a less tasty, slimier shadow of its original self. Not unlike Mickey Rourke.

Five hours after beginning, our canning ritual is complete. I must admit, the salsa looks beautiful in those jars. And it’s going to be tasty come mid-December. I get it. Okay? I get the canning thing. And to prove it, all of you canvolutionaries can come try some of the salsa I put up. Don’t worry. I sterilized those jars really well. At least I think I did.

Monday, August 24, 2009

How a Paris Carnival differs from an American one

There are certain things I expect when I go to a carnival: The gnashing of gears mingled with the exhilarated screams mingled with that creepy music. Diesel fumes intertwined with motor grease mingled with cooking grease. Funnel cakes, neon snow cones, cotton candy. The prototypical carny, his hands smeared with grime, his teeth blackened with rot, his smell soured by a string of Thunderbird-filled nights, his leer enough to make David Lynch shudder. And a low lying fear that one of the clamps on the 40-year-old Graviton wasn't clamped down tight enough this time, and the whirling orb will soon rip itself and all its nauseated occupants free and sail into the crowd and crush us all into the dusty ground.

When Wendy and I stumbled upon a Paris in May, it seemed, at first, to fit the bill. The nauseating colors were there, and the music and screams and whir of gears, too. A few moments of wandering around, and getting over our surprise at being in a carnival in Paris in the first place, revealed that this was a much different place. The ferris wheels were gigantic, which was a good thing. We needed a good vantage point to figure out where the hell we were, so that we could find our way back to the hotel. We had started out in the city's center hours earlier, our bellies full of a lovely lunch and wine and cafe creme, and began walking along an abandoned rail line that had been converted into a trail, park, and green space. And we didn't stop until, quite disoriented, we reached the end, way out at the Boulevard Peripherique in the city's fringes. There, next to the Bois de Vincennes -- a gigantic park replete with a boat-filled lake -- was the carnival and its towering ferris wheels.

The scarf-wearing, beautiful people of Paris were mostly absent here; this was a place for the working class, the immigrants. The carnies, if you can call them that, were meticulously arranged: Each a distinguished -- at least by rural American standards -- looking man in his 40s, often working alongside a young woman, probably in her early twenties. Most memorable, perhaps, was this: In one food tent, one could order not only German beer on tap, but also soft-served ice cream. And it wasn't just vanilla, or chocolate, or some tasteless swirl, but was cassis, citron, banana, pineapple.

It's these tiny, perhaps insignificant, differences that I love about Europe. Yes, one is dazzled and overwhelmed when the plane lands, and one finds himself in another country struggling to speak and understand another language. It is both remarkable and scary to step onto an airplane in Grand Junction, Colorado, a place that, to be charitable, suffers from aesthetic anemia, and end up less than a day later in Paris, where every person and every baguette and every little planter in every apartment window is infused with some sort of beauty and history. And yet. After one stumbles through ordering that first jambon de Paris, that first cafe creme, that first vin de rouge, and he is sitting there taking it all in, he starts to notice those small things, be it the curbside, automated bike rentals, or the way the waiter allows a patron to linger for hours and hours on end without hassle.

It is these small things, I think, that matter the most. For it is in the most mundane acts that we make the most significant statements about our attitude toward life. I'm sure it says something that Paris has the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and New York does not. But I think we can find much more significant clues to how one lives in the smaller things, whether it's the cassis ice cream in the Paris carnival, or the way things are presented and packaged in a little store. That's why I could spend hours in a corner grocery in Paris, poring over the selection and noting the quirky-seeming things they sell. Yes, it can be embarrassing for those around me: More than once, Wendy has had to drag me out of a little shop as I picked stuff up from the shelves and exclaimed things like: "Look! They sell Campari and soda in a bottle, like it's soda pop!" as dismayed Parisians tried to steer their way around me in the narrow aisles.

I like the big differences, too, of course. For example, if one of the Parisian carnival rides were to tear loose from its pivots (which seems less likely, since the equipment appeared relatively new), and then mangle me and my fellow carnival-goers, none of us would have to worry about being turned away at the hospital because we didn't have health insurance. Which is a wonderful thing.

But those little things are important. Like this, which was emblazoned on the "Family Fun Hall" at the Paris Carnival. I have to say, I've never seen this at an American fun house. I wonder why?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cobblestone Aioli

My grandparents were farmers. Their place was in the Animas Valley, in southwestern Colorado. They had dairy cows, and corn, and veggies, and sheep. It was a tough life, I think, but they had a lot of kids -- seven -- around to help out. My mom was one of them. So, as a child, she was a farmer, too, by default. Folks from the valley remember her and her sisters picking raspberries and selling them to passersby.

That pretty much did it. My mom swore she'd never be a farmer, that's for sure. And for about 50 years she succeeded in keeping that vow. Until now. Not long after Wendy and the girls and I moved to the North Fork Valley, my mom, Jan, and stepdad, Gary, moved to a little place on Hanson Mesa, outside of Hotchkiss. At first, they just had a pretty big garden. Then, last fall, they planted 600 garlic plants. They harvested them this summer, and have been selling the Cobblestone Farm varieties (a bunch of them) to the local outlets and a couple farmers' markets. Now, they are farmers.

Which leaves them exhausted. But it can be really great for us, because we can pick stuff right out of the field, and pretty much have a meal. Last weekend, on a scorching Saturday afternoon, we got: basil, garlic, fennel, squash, squash blossoms, chard, new potatoes, and eggs from "The Farm" (which is exactly how we referred to my grandmother's house when I was a kid). We then stopped at Delicious Orchards for some Avalanche chevre and a bottle of Plum Creek sauvignon blanc.

Back home, after I started swilling the sauv blanc, Wendy stuffed the squash blossoms with the chevre and lightly sauteed them in butter. I made pesto and some pasta and marinated the squash for grilling and we got the potatoes roasting. Then, my favorite: the aioli. In case you don't know, aioli is essentially homemade garlic mayonaise. It's also divine, when prepared correctly and with good ingredients, and, like bacon and butter, it makes any food taste good. But where bacon and butter are imbued with a sort of loose lasciviousness, aioli is more erotic; or perhaps that's just me thinking about the look on Wendy's face when she eats aioli.

I stole the idea of using roasted garlic rather than fresh garlic from the brilliant cookbook: Artichoke to Za'atar, by Greg and Lucy Malouf. It mellows out the garlicky edge. In fact, this whole recipe is an adaptation of the Malouf's.

Cobblestone Aioli

• 2 very fresh egg yolks
• 1 head of Cobblestone Farm garlic
• A dollop of Dijon mustard
• A dollop of honey
• 1/2 - 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (if it's very strong oil you might want to substitute a bit of canola oil for 1/4 cup of the olive oil)
• Some fresh lemon juice
• 1/4 cup white wine vinegar

Start off by roasting the garlic until it's nice and soft, then squeeze all the garlic meat out of it's skin and into a blender (yes, a blender, with my apologies to the mortal & pestle purists out there). Add egg yolks and vinegar and mustard and honey to the blender and fire it up. As it whirs, drizzle the oil in one drop at a time. This is important -- drip it too fast, and your aioli "breaks," a condition that can be repaired only by drinking large quantities of wine and going hungry for the night. When the aioli emulsifies, you can go more quickly with the oil. Stir in the lemon juice and salt and pepper. Spread it generously on everything, as there's nothing worse than being stingy with the aioli. Eat it sooner rather than later.

For another lovely aioli recipe, check out david lebovitz's blog.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Blossom Sno Cones

Blame it on Fishtank Ensemble.

See, they played in Ridgway, in the Pickin' in the Park concert series, and Fishtank Ensemble rocks (gypsy style). And Ursula -- that's her in the picture -- is oh so sawcy. Yeah, that's a saw she's playing, and she can make it SING. So we had to go. Great concert (see that look she's giving me? Sizzling sauce). Much dancing.

On the way -- it was sweltering hot, you see -- we saw a big sign in Montrose that said "Snow Cones." Jay insisted we stop. We did.

Overwhelmed, I was, by the scene: Teenaged girls licking syrup off their lips while a mediocre jazz band played. Then there was the wacky flavor selection. Dragon's blood? Blue (blue???) coconut? I ordered some combo with Cajun (cinnamon) and Mango. Refreshing, but just not that tasty. Syrupy sickly artificially sweet.

What if? I thought. What if there was a snow cone stand that sold really yummy snow cones with homemade syrups, seasonal and local and the like?

Turns out, there's at least one other place like this, but it's way over in Kansas City, and that's too far to drive for a snow cone.

Then we started talking: What if the snow cones were not just ice and syrup, but actual snow cone CREATIONS? What if they were inspired by great art? Or literature? What if our cart flew under the radar, and it would show up randomly at selected places, with just a few select snow cone flavors, and people would find out where by word of mouth or our twitter feed? Like they're doing like crazy in the Mission of San Francisco (everything from a creme brulee cart, to a sexy soup cart, to salami cycle).

Yeah. What if? So, it's on its way. We call it Blossom Sno Cones. Best way to keep track of Blossom's awesome flavor ideas is to follow on twitter.

And, of course, we'll have to have a Fishtank Ensemble snow cone. Hmmm... something spicy, something fruity, something oh so saucy...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A distorted sense of place

It's been cool here lately, and cloudy. Downright weird for this part of the world and this time of year.

So I took a walk on the ditch thinking there was nothing better to do. Once up there, away from the people and the streets and all the rest, it was still cool. I wore a sweater. A breeze. Clouds, dark up the North Fork, a curtain of rain obscuring the mountains.

The temperature, the clouds. It felt like being up in the mountains this time of year. In Silverton, perhaps, 4,000 feet higher than here. Yet along the gurgling water of the ditch, the place was so full of life just like it's supposed to be this time of year, only it wasn't wilting under the heat. Apricots hung from the trees, still green and stone hard but with silver fuzz and a cleft slightly erotic. Plums, too, shiny green. Wild roses pale pink and waxy green leaves. Above, a hawk sailed effortlessly, pestered by a tiny swallow. Milkweed flower like an explosion of stars. I picked it for Wendy, though she's not here. The air felt moist, as though the sky would soon open wide.

I felt the same way. Just the slight change in expected weather had turned the utterly familiar into something novel, and full of possibility. It's like being married to someone for a long time; so many nights spent at the altar of her flesh, exploring every inch. Then, one day, you look at her from a different angle, and see a freckle right there above her clavicle that you had never noticed before from that angle or in that light.

And suddenly, it's all new.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rura'sexual wristwarmers

These here are my rura'sexual wristwarmers. What's a ruralsexual, you ask? It's like a metrosexual, only in a rural area. We like nice clothes, and nice food, and good wine (and really good gin), and sometimes comb our hair, just like our urban counterparts. Only we're a bit more pragmatic about things. Like, we're not afraid to crawl around in the mud under a crappy old car in order to save some money on an oil change. And it's sometimes hard to find our grade of clothes or food or culture (or conversation) in rural areas, leaving us perpetually frustrated.

Luckily, we're usually able to find someone special to connect with. And if we're really lucky, they'll help us out in the clothes department. My talented wife Wendy just picked me up a lovely silk and cashmere Banana Republic sweater from a local (rural) consignment store. And, better yet, she made these wristwarmers that no self-respecting, PBR-drinkin' rural guy would wear, but a rura'sexual would love. They're not only fashionable, but they also keep my hands warm when I'm typing.

That's rura'sexual. (roora sek sh ooel). And I'd bet Wendy would knit a pair for you, too, for the right price.

Monday, February 9, 2009