Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Birthdays, friendships, and funerals

             Celebrating my birthday with friends in 1974

"Will do anything to make a friend," Mom recorded this assessment pre-kindergarten in my babybook. It pretty much sums up who I was then and who I am know. Not much else stands out in that book other than weight/height charts and report cards that document a "social, friendly, and talkative" child who "clamors for attention." The report cards show that I had an early affinity for writing, and (eh-hem) talking, and collecting friends. 

Which brings us to birthdays. I live for my birthday, and for my friends' birthdays should they choose to share them with me. Birthdays bring parties and good food, maybe a present or two wrapped in glittery paper. I love birthday cards that express affection or humor. I learned early that the best birthday cards contains cash and a press-out paperdoll and are signed in familiar shaky cursive, "Love, Grandpa."

This year things were a little different. This was the year I attended a funeral on my birthday. I lost a friend on my birthday rather than gathering friends around me.

Usually I enjoy funerals in the same way I enjoy birthday parties. Just as with birthday parties, funerals are a celebration of a person, of their life, of who they were.

When a young person dies it isn't always easy to celebrate. We grievers are left feeling the loss not only of our loved one but of their potential and everything they would have experienced had they lived a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century longer. Reeling in pain we plead with God, fate, or the stars, "Give me just one more moment, let me look at her beautiful face just one more time." If we are lucky our begging is heard and those we lost appear to us in dreams.

My friend Cutrina lived a life that overflowed with faith and joy. She was electric. At her funeral I listened as others spoke about Cutrina's deep faith. She was the kind of woman who ran to the front of the church when a favorite song was sung. I heard about Cutrina's kindness and generosity like when she gave a bus pass to a stranger who later became her friend. We all knew Cutrina for her over-the-top celebration of life. She could kick above her head and do the splits without so much as a pre-dance stretch. Her smarts and hard work helped to conceive of and create the Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference. We'll remember her for all of these things as well as her outlandish hairstyles and crazy designs polished on 1-inch fingernails.

Yes, Cutrina died young. Yet she lived past her potential. She crammed a heck of a lot into 41 years. I thank her for this gift received loud and clear on my birthday: Cutrina reminded me to live BIG every single day. Live loud. Sing loud. Find gratitude. Talk a lot. Make friends. Make some more friends. Be kind and generous. Work hard. Kick high. Wear sassy hair and paint your nails. When it is your time to go, be sure and leave your loved ones with plenty to smile about when they remember you. And never miss an opportunity to celebrate your birthday.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cat People Unite: Saintly City Cat Club Cat Show

T and I renew our love of All Things Cat each January as we mingle with like-minded folks at the the Saintly City Cat Club Cat Show in St. Paul. Just when we think perhaps we are going overboard with our unabashed love of Olive, Oskar, and Orson we meet some people who are just a tiny bit more cat crazy than we are, and we return home to our kitty kids feeling ever so slightly less odd (and yes occasionally slightly superior to our fellow cat people). 

"That lady with the tattoos of her cats who have passed away, now she is really making a statement about her life," I say to T, and he nods his head in agreement. We would never go that far in our declarations of cat passion. (I wonder how convincing I sound ... those tats are pretty neat.)

Cats and their owners are perched together in rows of tables that take up most of the auditorium. Cages are plastic or mesh, and I make my annual joke about the Cat in the Plastic Bubble. A pretty little cat sits in a cage behind an adoption sign. I giggle and start singing the Sarah McLachlan song that plays whenever the ASPCA commercials air. No one else laughs.

Long haired cats patiently sit on folding tables while their owners brush and fluff them into perfection. Cats are carried to the judging areas which sets within the interior of the auditorium. Small white boxes with wire fronts line the back of the judges table, and a few dozen chairs are arranged in front so that the public can watch judging. Unless you sit in the first row it is impossible to hear what the judge has to say about each cat. After each session the judge places tags and ribbons on the cages which owners collect along with their cats once judging is complete. 

"I feel like I am cheating on our cats," I admit to our friend K as we wander from cage to cage, admiring the Persians and Maine Coons, pausing long enough to watch the judges award ribbons to the best Rex. She just smiles and asks a Ragdoll owner about a litter of kittens for sale. K, like T and me, already has three cats at home but she isn't opposed to adding another meow to her collective. 

We've all got it bad, and none of us is very far from adding another feline to our clowder or cat tattoos to our limbs.






Monday, January 19, 2015

Testing tempura

When I create menus for the cooking classes I teach, tried and true typically trumps innovation. I do, however, usually throw in at least one unfamiliar dish that sounds like a challenge and that I hope my students won't mind testing. I love presenting menus that are slightly ambitious: we cook a variety of dishes in an hour or two, then sit down together to enjoy our results. A successful class is when students leave feeling like they got a bit more than they paid for.

The week I am teaching a Nordic Pub class, combining the clean and sustainable philosophies of New Nordic with the down and dirty fun of eating in a bar. We'll prepare lefse pizza and meatball sandwiches, both dishes I've made many times. To keep things challenging I've thrown myself into perfecting an aquavit tempura to use as a batter for dill cheese curds.

Today is the sixth and final tempura testing round. Fried cheese curds are proof of God's existence. Add some aquavit and dill, and it is proof She loves us.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Running from the flu

Over the holiday break T and I sequestered ourselves, only leaving the house for supplies. It was like living in a mild version of the zombie apocalypse. The newspaper headlines and TV announcers declared this "the worst flu season ever," and we did what we could to avoid confrontation. Echinacea and zinc tablets seem like weak weapons when fever, aches, and nausea are the enemies.

Break concluded, we tentatively straggled back to work only to find half of our colleagues had been taken down by illness. Every cough, sneeze, and sniffle has me running for cover. I imagine my cubicle walls are a fortress shielding me from battle. I maniacally wash my hands and use a tissue to touch public surfaces.

Until this weekend.

We arrived at church to witness the marriage of our daughter's best friend. The ceremony was lovely, the priest both playful and wise, and it was a joyful day watching these girls, friends since childhood, now grown and happy. When it was time to offer handshakes of peace to everyone around us, I admit it, I hesitated. I grew up Catholic, and parochial school kids kept count of how many hands we shook and offered peace to. After Mass we'd compare and the kid with the most "Peace be with you's" won. When I was a child I didn't understand germs, and I certainly didn't fear the flu.

With a smile and a wince I offered my hand to strangers, "Peace be with you."

"And the flu be with you."

I'm not ready to surrender. For now, we are enjoying the peaceful solitude of a flu-free house. I'm popping more zinc tablets and eating lots of oranges. I've got chicken carcasses boiling away practically 24/7 for a sturdy broth that will fortify us in sickness and in health. On a healthy day, chili provides us with strength for the coming battle.

At last week's Called to the Table is a recipe for Bloody Mary Chili.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Locally inspired: The Northern Plate

The last few months of 2014 brought quite a few opportunities for me to speak about one of my favorite topics: New Nordic cuisine. I am a bit of a zealot when it comes to trumpeting this lifestyle especially because it translates so beautifully to a Midwestern plate. Those of you who are still worshiping at the Mediterranean diet alter, listen up.

New Nordic is the North's answer to both the Slow Food movement (striving to preserve traditional and regional foods through promotion of healthy sustainable ingredients) and the Mediterranean diet (health-forward, eat more vegetables and healthy fats, eat less meat and processed foods). Ten years ago a dozen Nordic chefs got together and created the cuisine. New Nordic is all about eating the best regional and seasonal ingredients available prepared using traditional Nordic techniques (think pickling, curing, smoking, brining, salting). The effort promotes sustainability (health of the individual depends on health of the planet) and ethical values. Recent studies show that eating a New Nordic diet lowers cholesterol, weight, and blood pressure. The diet makes sense in Midwestern America where our climate and region are so similar to those that our Nordic cousins enjoy.

During a Minnesota summer, eating local and seasonal ingredients is easy. In fact we suffer from abundance. In late June our lips are stained red from eating every strawberry and raspberry we can find. When the tomatoes come in we have tomato sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Corn in August means cobs on the grill, raw corn salads, and corn salsa. What we can't eat, we preserve for winter's coming months.

And there begins our challenge. How do we eat local and seasonal during six months of deep freeze? First, we reach for those preserved summer fruits and vegetables. We round out our meals with root vegetables, grains such as barley and wild rice, hazelnuts and legumes, cranberries, maple and honey, mushrooms, and sturdy greens. Year-round farmers markets and co-ops offer local humanely-raised meats and fish, organic eggs and cheeses. All we need it a little time and creativity to pull these ingredients together for months of delicious meals.

The folks from Minnesota Historical Society Press recently gifted me with cookbooks from their Northern Plate series, "... celebrating the bounty of the Upper Midwest by focusing on a single ingredient, exploring its historical uses as well as culinary applications across a range of dishes." Each book focuses on one regional ingredient, with recipes for every season. When I talk to other homecooks about the possibilities of eating local and seasonal all year long, these four books top my inspirational reading recommendations.

"Rhubarb Renaissance," by Kim Ode
120 pages, available for $16.95 at MHS Press website and in area museum gift shops.

Opens with Ode's signature wit in a charming story about childhood dares and biting into a raw stalk of bitter rhubarb. There are loads of great recipes for traditional cooks such as rhubarb mostarda, compote, and salsa, Rhubarb Crisp, and several cakes. The recipes that really shine are the slightly more unusual such as Rhuba-Dillas (a sour play on quesadillas), Spiced Rhubarb-Squash Ravioli, and Rhubarb Foster. (My Minnesota winter tip: If you haven't got a freezer full of rhubarb many of these recipes will adapt nicely to cranberries as a substitution.)

"Modern Maple," by Teresa Marrone
168 pages, available for $16.95 at MHS Press website and in area museum gift shops.

Includes history of making maple sugar, hints for using the ingredient in place of sugar, an entire chapter on making maple condiments, and recipes both savory and sweet. Marrone's North Wood's Hollandaise and Candied Bacon are two of my favorites.

"Sweet Corn Spectacular," by Marie Porter
136 pages, available for $16.95 at MHS Press website and in area museum gift shops.

Porter's corn saga began when she married "the King of All Corn Freaks" and she was thrust into life with a man who wouldn't mind eating corn for every meal, every day. Includes tips for selecting and cooking corn, and recipes for every meal, every day, just as the King of All Corn Freaks would like. Must-try recipes include Beer-Battered Corn on the Cob (proof that love inspires creativity, pleasure, and bliss), Low Country Boil (for my local twist I substitute walleye for the shrimp), and Corn Cob Jelly.

"Smitten with Squash," by Amanda Paa
168 pages, available for $17.95 at MHS Press website and in area museum gift shops.

Book is divided by the versatile vegetable's seasonality: summer squash and winter squash. Few of us could resist Tomato and Summer Squash Cobbler with Rosemary Biscuits, or the under-appreciated squash blossom starring as Stuffed Squash Blossoms with Burrata and Capers. Need inspiration for cooking during this January super freeze? Paa's winter squash section focuses on subgroups and varieties, offering advice for harvesting, preserving, and cooking. Recipes have a gluten-free component that many cooks will appreciate, and Paa provides useful general cooking tips, not only for squash preparation.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Cat Blogging: Biggest Loser in the New Year

"You are starting to look like a cat!" exclaimed our vet, referring to Orson's Butterball turkey physique.

Trying to kick-start your weight loss in the New Year? Take a page from Orson's diet journal: slow and steady beats the scale. At Orson's post holiday weigh-in this week we learned he is down to 18.4  from September's 20 pounds. That means he has lost more than 6 1/2 pounds since this transformation began. We think he is about a pound and a half away from his goal weight.

Orson's restricted calories diet started last spring after he gained weight on his previous diet. Initially  he lost about a pound each month, and I am happy that things are slowing down now. As with humans, cat who drop weight too quickly can get sick.

The answer to losing weight is simple enough: consume fewer calories and move more. We all like to imagine that weight loss would be a heck of a lot easier if we had a food Nazi measuring out our kibbles and demanding we run the stairs, but Orson is the one doing the real work and it shows.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Selfie Nation: The Year of the Narcissist

According to Twitter, that time-honored bastion of journalistic integrity, 2014 was the year of the selfie. From fish lips (a.k.a. I still look beautiful with a funny face) and no-makeup (a.k.a. I still look beautiful without mascara) to inflated butts and egos (the K-clan shall remain nameless; they get enough attention for having no talent.), we are obsessed with self-marketing. And why not? Aren’t we all supposed to be famous when we grow up? We all want our own viral moment, our own YouTube "I've never ever been on live television before" getting songified (yes, that is an actual word). Pshaw, those fifteen minutes that Warhol promised? We want our own scripted reality show, or Food Network show, or twice monthly thirty-minutes on Andy Cohen’s couch. 

Welcome to a culture gone terribly wrong, where celebrity, wealth, and self-indulgence rules. Welcome to world of a million voices raised in a collective whine: I lack talent or personality, but I was born to be Somebody. 


I am as guilty as everyone else for glorifying this celebrity culture gone all selfie-rogue. I’ve been known to check on the activities of housewives from Beverly Hills and Jersey. I’ve simultaneously cheered and recoiled as tables were thrown and wigs ripped off. I feel dirty and need a shower afterwards, but I still watch. 

And there are few more self-indulgent activities than blogging, so who am I to criticize? There was a time when writers would seek hire and, if they were witty and resourceful and perhaps talented, they would find gainful employment. Now, to standout among the celebrity-seekers we sometimes have to do the ridiculous, tout a Lady Gaga-esque gimmick, and often we have to do it for free. We millions of would-be writers dogpaddle together in a sea of blogging and facebooking and tweeting and begging to be noticed. Soon enough the dogpaddling becomes treading water, which is death to creativity.

For writers, it isn’t about becoming famous. Of course there is always a thrill when I earn a paid byline, but the thrill is fleeting. A writer is only as good as her next story, and we want our words to get the attention, not our butts.

So ends 2014, year of the selfie. It would be nice if 2015 became year that narcissists used their power for good. Or perhaps the year the narcissists and their enormous egos and behinds disappear.