Author Archives for theRaggedys

How to Cook a Wolf (along with Pigeons, Calf Brains, Kidneys… and Water)

Ann’s bedside reading stockpile

[Note: Andy and I have swapped roles for today’s BigLittleMeals post. Andy is doing the blog and I am taking over Andy’s Corner].

The other day I noticed a book on Ann’s night stand with the curious title How to Cook a Wolf. Out of curiosity, I picked it up and began to randomly thumb through it. It was written by MFK Fisher, about whom I knew little except that she was supposedly a renowned food writer and that she had lived in a house on the property of the Bouverie Preserve not far from our place.

Additionally, I knew that Ann was so intrigued with a photo of MFK Fisher with her cat that she tried to emulate it for a Facebook post. What I didn’t know was that Ann and MFK Fisher had an “unexpected” Louisiana connection, which she reveals in today’s Andy’s Corner.

From Ann’s Facebook post. Ann is on the left with our cat (then a kitten), Choco Latte. MFK Fisher is on the right with her cat, Charlie.

Admittedly, How to Cook a Wolf is not the kind of book I would normally take to the beach for pleasure reading; I prefer obscure sociological thrillers such The Social Construction of Reality or The Division of Labor in Society. However, it didn’t take much thumbing through the book before I was hooked.  Not only is Fisher entertaining and witty, she has a keen eye for the social and philosophical significance of our daily food-based routines. What better sociological thriller could I hope for?

Last House – Fisher’s home in Glen Ellen

How to Cook a Wolf was published the year before I was born, in the midst of WWII. A glance at her chapter titles, such as How to Be Sage Without Hemlock, How to Keep Alive, How to Make a Pigeon Cry, and How to Comfort Sorrow makes it clear that this is not your run-of-the-mill cook book.

WWII Poster: Basic rations per person.

On a practical level, Fisher’s essays and recipes are aimed at helping folks to survive while at the same time eat well during the food rationing and wartime hardships of her day. But she is writing about much more than that. For her, how and what we eat is metaphorical for our basic human needs.

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it (a quote from her 1992 NY Times’ obituary – which is worth a read in itself).

When reading How to Cook a Wolf it’s hard not to think of the many parallels between the stresses of the war-time 1940s and the current stresses we are experiencing in the pandemic. While these two crises are different in many obvious ways, Fisher’s words are still particularly relevant to our current situation.

Anne Wallentine, in a recent Eater post, claims that Fisher’s book is “essential reading” for right now:

As our human-made systems are wrenched apart, Fisher’s advice on attitude, thrift, and how to nourish yourself and others in a crisis is newly relevant. Right now, the future is unknowable, the present uncertain. But the past is always available, and Fisher’s exquisite prose offers it up for both insight and escape.

Beyond the metaphorical side of food, Fisher does offer up some solid non-metaphorical recipes. As today’s guest food blog author, I feel obligated to say something about these recipes.

I’ll admit at the outset that a few of her recipes are a bit off-putting to me. I’m not real keen on trying such dishes as Calves Brains, Kidneys in Sherry, Roast Pigeon, or Aunt Gwen’s Cold Shape (quartered calf head).

I realize that my preferences are culturally biased and I feel the sting of Fisher’s admonition (although I actually do like Rocky Mountain Oysters!):

One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the red fibrous meat of a beast… when you eat a stuffed baked bull’s heart, or a grilled lamb’s brain or a “mountain oyster,” you need not choke them down with nauseated resolve to be braver or wiser or more potent, but with plain delight.

A good source for some of the more interesting Anglo-Saxon-friendly recipes in the book can be found at Four Pounds of Flour, a blog from about 10 years ago that reproduced and discussed many of the her recipes. It’s worth taking a look at.

In today’s blog we are including one recipe. It is from the chapter entitled “How to Boil Water” which begins with a story about a young woman who “didn’t know how to boil water” until she got married. You have to read it to appreciate her tongue-in-cheek narrative, even if it seems a bit gender insensitive by today’s standards.

Soup prerequisite?

Eventually, the chapter evolves into a discussion of how to make soup, for which boiling water is generally a prerequisite.

As a steady diet, plain (boiled) water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast-days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavor of the hot liquid.

One of Fisher’s “mightily improved” boiled water recipes, which we include below, is for A Basic Minestrone. According to Fisher,

Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone. (Just so you know – “hugger mugger” used as an adjective can be defined as secret or clandestine. Minestrone sounds perfect for December 2020!)

Ann made a pot of this soup a couple of weeks ago to serve for lunch with our good friend Lynne. As we sat on our deck on that chilly day – separated by six feet of social distance – and savoring the hot soup and each other’s company, I couldn’t help but think of MFK Fisher’s suggestion that food, security and love are entwined, maybe even more so during trying times like these.

So, enjoy the soup and find security and love during this season of uncertainty.

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Hygge (pronounced hue-gah or hoo-gah)

I’m a little slow catching onto trendy things. If it hadn’t been for David in Albuquerque, I’d still be uninformed as to the au courant meaning of “woke.” Our daughter recently explained to me that “sex positivity” was neither a nasty nor embarrassing thing to mention. And – though “hygge” was all over the U.S. news in 2017 – thanks to our son’s input, I’ve just now learned to pronounce it and appreciate it.

For those of you who share with me unawokeness, let me summarize hygge. This Danish word possibly comes from an old Norse word meaning “protected from the outside world.” The Danes, known for being some of the happiest people in the world, believe hygge to be all about emphasizing coziness and comfort.

The official website of Denmark has this to say: Hygge is often about informal time together with family or close friends. Typically, the setting is at home or another quiet location, or perhaps a picnic during the summer months. It usually involves sharing a meal and wine or beer, or hot chocolate and a bowl of candy if children are included. There is no agenda. You celebrate the small joys of life, or maybe discuss deeper topics. It is an opportunity to unwind and take things slow. 

A Hot Toddy might be perfect for your cozy evening by the fireplace – or outside in the freezing cold!

Another few recommendations for this Danish life style are that we should avoid multi-tasking, ride our bikes a lot, and wear comfortable clothing. Andy likes the bike thing; he’d also recommend fishing (see today’s Andy’s Corner). While I’m totally into comfortable clothing, I’m really, really working on the multi-tasking issue. Board games are also encouraged.

I think I’m safe to say we all need a little hygge time right now. Unfortunately, unless you have a safe and secure “pod” (and here’s a good article on forming a pod – and protecting it) to gather with around your fireplace, gatherings this holiday season may need to be outdoors. A great New Yorker article – “The Year of Hygge” from 2016 – concludes, “The hard-earned lesson of frigid Scandinavian winters is that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothes—that all you really need to get through difficult times is shelter and sustenance, kith and kin.”

Nice warm blanket, kith and kin together, snuggling close – a good example of hygge? HA!

To get into this hygge-during-a-pandemic thing I suggest that some evening soon you don some comfortable, toasty-warm clothes, invite a couple of non-pod friends or family over (of course, be sure to wear your masks except when eating and do the social distancing thing), light some outdoor-friendly candles (preferably non-scented), bring out wool throw blankets for everyone if you don’t have an outdoor heater, and serve some chicken soup. Since what gives you comfort food-wise may vary as to where you grew up, maybe you’ll want to serve our Pho, or Gumbo, or Pozole. Or try one of our two new recipes, Danish (spot-on!) Hen’s Soup or Indonesian Soto Ayam. They are oh SO good!

BUT – should you be unable to find hearty friends who are willing to share a chilly night out – you might have to resort to the Finnish concept of “kalsarikannit (pronounced cal-sar-y-cuhn-eet), defined as “the feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear with no intention of going out.” Sounds like fun to me. It’s time for that Hot Toddy! 🙂

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The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be....

from Live In London – “Anthem”

I know I’m not the only one who loved – and still loves – Leonard Cohen. Do you recall that he passed away on November 7, 2016, just one day before the U.S. Presidential Election…though his family didn’t announce his death until 3 days later. On November 12 of that year SNL did their cold open with Hillary Clinton (played by Kate McKinnon) singing Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It was bittersweet .

I’ve listened to “Anthem” over and over the last few months. Though it’s not considered one of Cohen’s very best or most popular songs (like “Closing Time” – which I love – or “Suzanne“), the lyrics seems just right for this day and this time.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

While I’ve been obsessing over Cohen and his lyrics, Andy has been focused on finding comfort during these rough times. What brings comfort to post-middle-aged, home-bound, masked, smoke-and fire-weary Sonoma food/life bloggers? Check out today’s Andy’s Corner.

To me listening to Cohen is not only comforting but hugely thought-provoking. What a great line – “America…the cradle of the best and the worst” – which comes from another Cohen all-time favorite song of mine and which has a moving, beautiful video that goes with it. I should wait until after tomorrow’s election to recommend that song, but here goes: Democracy is Coming to the USA.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

May you RIP, Leonard Cohen.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater

Delving deep into history can be fascinating – even if you’re not by nature a history lover. Can you guess why we know that “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” probably came from the U.S. – and not England, as so many other Mother Goose rhymes did? Because the English weren’t familiar with pumpkins when it was written (and, apparently, they still aren’t big pumpkin fans).

From Eulalie Osgood Grover’s Mother Goose.  Chicago, [1915].  
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

I admire Peter for being a pumpkin eater – but egads, he kept his wife in a pumpkin shell? And – as a naive little kid – I was supposed to read that and think it’s okay? It’s all for fun? And, actually, the story gets more sinister when you read that supposedly it was about unfaithful wives and murder!

Or how about another familiar ditty from Mother Goose

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. 
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do. 
She gave them some broth without any bread; 
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Oh and there’s so much more. Babies falling from cradles (Hush-a-bye, Baby, on the tree top), drowned pussy cats (Ding Dong Bell), lady bugs with burning babies (Lady-bird-Lady-bird, fly away home), starving dogs (Old Mother Hubbard), blind mice (no doubt you know that one.).

There may be some complex political references in the rhymes, but they’re tricky to figure out w/o Wikipedia or some web search or in-depth historical knowledge. Who could possibly know that “Mary Mary, Quite Contrary” may be about England’s Bloody Mary – and “Ring Around the Roses” about the Bubonic Plague? It’s just more fun stuff for the young’uns to think about!

The cover of Eulalie Osgood Grover’s Mother Goose.  Chicago, [1915].  

Have you ever wondered who this delightfully fun Mother Goose was? In 1697 a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, wrote “Contes de ma mère l’Oye,” which gets credit as the original Mother Goose, but it’s mostly comprised of fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Puss in Boots. According to my 1915 edition of MG, there has been speculation that a Boston grandmother, Mistress Elizabeth Goose (I kid you not) told these stories and her son-in-law assembled her ditties and published them as Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children in 1719. Our 1916 edition of The Real Mother Goose states that the rhymes were first published by John Newberry in 1791.

Our version is the Fifty-Fourth printing of this 1916 classic, released in 1970, just before our daughter was born. We were ready to give her nightmares!

Digging out our 1916 Mother Goose book gave Andy pause about the bedtime tales he told our kids and our grandkids when they were little. Had he ruined their lives? See today’s Andy’s Corner.

But back to eating pumpkins. My grandmother may have sometimes made her own pumpkin puree (using the small pie pumpkins, of course) for her wonderful pumpkin pie, but I’m too lazy. Canned pumpkin works fine for me – and anyone who wants to simplify things. And there are so many great pumpkin recipes that it’s a shame we mostly think of pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving. Here are two winner recipes for pumpkin (eaters). And because I like pumpkin seeds maybe even better than I like pumpkin, let me remind you of some of my favorite recipes with pumpkin seeds….for snacking, for dipping, for a salad, for breakfast, for tacos (of course!).

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Too Much of a Good Thing?

Can there be too much of a good thing?

Are 11 Aussie pups too much of a good thing? Colorado’s Desert Storm, this mama, – who is related to our Aussie, Oakley – would probably say “YES!!!”
Are too many flowers too much of a good thing? And I love Brooklyn’s stoops!

Yes, this September 14, 2020, New Yorker magazine cover speaks to me. Along with many others, I over-planted this summer – as the pandemic impacted our daily lives, and colorful flowers and veggies took on a new role – a bright, lovely and healthy respite from life with masks and isolation and dreariness (as an aside, Andy finds his respite from life in one of his dresser drawers – see Andy’s Corner).

Have I said it before? I don’t “do” annuals – at least not until this year. During all of our years with our gardening business, MiniBlooms, I was happy to plant annuals for others, but I stuck with perennials and shrubs for our home. My argument? Life is too short to have to buy and replant year after year after year.

The summer of 2020 was SO different. I enthusiastically, almost obsessively, brought home 6-packs of zinnia orange ‘Profusion,’ 4″ pots of mango-colored calibrachoa, and a few of the fabulous little petchoa (a cross between calibrachoa and petunias) in an amazing dark reddish-brown color. I stuck those between the ‘Vancouver Centennial’ fancy leaf geraniums – that are normally considered annuals but actually survive our Northern California winters.

It was a great summer diversion. But in the long run, it wasn’t my style. I still love my more simple and permanent perennial beds. Now we’ve got the lovely echinacea ‘Tangerine Dreams’ (from Cottage Gardens of Petaluma), sempervivum ‘Centennial’ (from Sonoma Mission Gardens), achillea ‘New Vintage Red’, and chrysocephalum apiculatum ‘Mini Gold Buttons’ (both from Friedmans). If you live in Northern California, fall is a perfect time for planting perennials.

And do I have advice about planting your perennial beds? Of course! The biggest mistake I see folks make is planting just one or two of something. You need repetition of the same plant to unify the bed. Don’t plant too many different varieties. Stick with drought tolerant if you’re in the west. Mulch. Don’t line plants up. And PLEASE have a color scheme!

Our annual bed – summer of 2020.
Our newly-planted (and still very young) perennial bed – fall of 2020

Vegetable gardens can also produce way too much of a good thing. Take zucchini plants, for example. We have neighbors who wince when they get their box of CSA (community-supported agriculture) produce, dreading the amount of zucchini that may be included. While we are one of the few who are only fair at raising zucchini, we have enough Thai chile peppers on our one plant to burn our tongues and make our eyes water and noses run through about 20 meals. Actually, make that 40 meals. The plant has more than 20 little red hot chiles and we can’t bear to put more than half of one into any recipe.

Can you have too much zucchini? 🙂 I hear “YES!” from y’all. Whether or not they’re a “good thing” might be debated.

If you’ve got too many zucchini – and maybe don’t even like them much – I heartily recommend our zucchini bread recipe. I guarantee that even the biggest zucchini hater won’t detect their presence. And it’s such a refreshing change from banana bread! If you have lots of zucchini and just need some more recipe ideas, you can’t go wrong with Zucchini Fritters, Zucchini and Mint Frittata, Zucchini and Mint Turkey Burgers, or Sesame Noodles with Zucchini and Ground Beef.

Are the 20+ crazy-hot peppers on our Thai chile pepper plant too much of a good thing! For sure.

If your one Thai chile pepper plant is over-producing, try Thai Spicy Basil Chicken (which just happens to be from one of our daughter’s cookbooks). And, of course, a teeny bit of minced Thai pepper can go into any recipe calling for Serrano or Jalapeno pepper. Just remember that Thai chiles are about 20 times hotter than a Jalapeno, using the Scoville Heat Units.

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