Thursday, June 23, 2011

I Love the Idea of This

These bottles of milk in our local grocery chain may have been available for awhile, but they are new to me.  When I saw them, everything in my body screamed, “Yes, this is so right!”  You see, Whatcom County, where we live, is diverse in its talents and beauties and one corner of it, nestled in a valley just below the Canadian border, is home to some of the sweetest, most earnest dairies in the world. 
The town of Lynden, in particular, was founded by a collective of Dutch immigrants.  Their community grew around their adherence to the Dutch Reform Church and so morality was legalized and vice versa.  In Lynden, you can dance or you can drink, but never both in the same establishment.  A drive down Main Street conjures up the set of Pleasantville.  The streets are wide and clean and the modest homes have impossibly manicured lawns.  The children of Lynden, boosted by their genetics and steady calcium intake, are uncommonly tall for these parts and regularly dominate the high school basketball league.  Even the perfectly laid-out cemetery, the cornerstone of their city planning, is a continual reminder that we’re all going to meet our maker and we had better be wearing clean underwear when it happens.  All of this attention to cleanliness and self-discipline has also been applied to the dairy farms on the surrounding acreages.  Picturesque family owned and operated dairies, their round-roofed barns and silos marking the individual properties, are scattered from Lynden to the border. 
Back to the milk bottles.  The idea of buying milk, produced on these righteous farms, not 10 miles from the store, fits with all of my values.  The fact that the milk is bottled in reusable glass jars that you get a substantial refund for returning to the store made me squeal (inside) with happiness.  I still have growing boys at home and plastic milk jugs make up the biggest bulk in our recycling bins. 
And so these nostalgic looking bottles are sitting in my refrigerator while I continue to pour every last drop of milk and half and half from the plastic and cardboard containers we already had.  Sure it makes sense to use up the older product first, but is there a problem?  I can’t believe I am still dealing with this at my age, but I have had a life-long phobia about drinking milk that comes directly out of cows.  We had a milk cow on our farm in Colorado when I was a child and when she was giving milk, we had tons of it.  My dad would bring a 5-gallon bucket of steamy, raw milk into the kitchen where my mom would proceed with straining and chilling it. Then she would separate a substantial layer of cream from the milk, though there was plenty still floating around.  From there we actually churned butter and made cottage cheese.  These are all things I support in theory.  Problem was that I hated the taste of the milk.  It tasted cowy.  I also didn’t like seeing chunks of cream floating in my cereal bowl and so when it was homemade milk season at our house, I pretty much went off dairy.  My mom even tried to trick me once by pouring our farm-fresh stuff into a leftover cardboard milk container from the store, but I knew in an instant what she had done.  Now, staring at these translucent bottles, I can see that the color of the milk isn’t pure white, but an ivory color.  A thick head of cream is clogging the neck of the bottle and a true anxiety begins to wash over me at the thought of cracking open the lid and pouring/glopping it out.  I just don’t know if this is going to work for me.  I find myself yearning for the comfort and familiarity of the bleached white, plastic bottled milk I know. But I have an idea, I saw a jug of this milk in the store done in a chocolate version.  Maybe I will revert to my old "add chocolate flavoring" trick to resolve my dairy contradiction.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Solstice is Here!

            As the years go by, and the longer we live in cultures outside of the US, the sentimental holidays that used to mark the calendar year have fallen from our interest.  Birthdays are still sacred, of course, and we also love Thanksgiving and Easter, especially when we are in a Catholic or Orthodox country at the time, but many of the other seasonal holidays pass by us without much observance.  What I can get truly thrilled about, on the other hand, are the solstices, perhaps partly because they coincide with our twice-yearly homecomings.  I love the cloaking darkness of the winter solstice in the Northwest.  It feels like the perfect time to gather inside a cozy house with dear friends and great food to appreciate the goodness of this moment in our lives.  Conversely, the summer solstice in June indicates to us, at least psychologically, that summer has arrived and that we have a few upcoming weeks to revel in the dizzying natural beauty of the Northwest and partake of the generous bounty the earth provides at this latitude.  I really can’t understand what can be considered pagan, or unchristian, about pausing a few times each year to notice and appreciate that we are on a complex, yet rhythmic, planet that abundantly gives us what we need. 
            My friend Beth is a Feng Shui consultant in Fremont, Washington.  Being tuned into the energy cycles in life, she wrote some insightful thoughts about summer. 
The larger purpose of summer is to allow us to expand our sense of Self so we have more to offer the World … The summer season in our part of the world is a brief window of a few precious weeks. As August winds down and we approach fall, all that we have gained personally begins to come into form in the shape of the inspiration we have to offer the world. There will be ample time for sharing later in the year. For now, make your JOY the priority! Have fun and celebrate your life!

            Fremont hosts a unique annual parade that is precisely about enjoying being yourself, outside.  You can Google it if you would like to see pictures, but there will be naked people on bicycles so be forewarned.
            My favorite solstice celebration ever was the summer we were in Norway.  Scandinavians have good reasons to be in awe of the earth’s rotation as it plunges them into nearly 24-hour darkness for part of the year and 24-hour daylight for another.  We were staying with Allan’s relatives in Allesund about ten years ago and were lucky enough to be there for Mid Summer’s Eve.  The tradition is for families and neighbors to build towering bonfires all around the fiords and then go down to the rocky beach to share food and drink.  The adults, wrapped in blankets, ate barbecued hotdogs and potluck dishes while visiting on the beach or in boats.  The children, including our Gabe, ever the seal, took dips in the near-ice sea then ran back to their parents to get warm and have a bite of food.  It was all rustic and elemental and communal.  I have wanted to bring this tradition to Lummi Island, but so far we’ve just kept the fire to our own backyard.
            I have developed a ritual meal that we have twice a year, called Solstice Stew.  It is an adaptation of the German-style Square Soup that Allan’s grandmother used to make.  The perfect ending to this meal is a hunk of gooey chocolate cake, eaten, of course, around a roaring bonfire with people you love.  Have a joyous summer!

Solstice Stew

Ham Stock
1 meaty, smoked ham hock
16 cups water
1 large onion, quartered
4 ribs celery, chunked
3 carrots, chunked
2 bay leaves

Simmer the stock for one hour.  Remove the hock, pull off all of the meat, and reserve.  Strain the liquid and discard the bone and vegetables.  Cool the stock, skim off the fat, and reserve.

Egg Noodles
3 whole eggs
Enough flour to form a dough
Pinch of salt

Crack eggs into a mixing bowl.  Add a pinch of salt and then begin adding flour until a soft, but workable dough forms.  Turn out onto a floured surface and roll to 1/8 inch thickness.  Cut into desired shapes, preferably with star or sun shaped cutters.

Simmer the ham stock.  Add the reserved meat and then the pasta.  Serve when pasta is chewy, but still tender.

Confession:  My family much prefers that I make this soup with a package of those Lil’ Smokey sausages that are nothing but fat, and salt, and smoke flavoring.  I continue to resist.

Monday, June 20, 2011

It Wants to Go Wild

            Sitting half a world away thinking about my five acre farm on Lummi Island, it’s all pastoral perfection and seaside serenity.  But pulling into the driveway, after six months away, I see that nature has once again exerted her dominance over the place and I think our home could be in an episode of that television show that speculates how nature would undo man’s edifices in short order if we suddenly vanished from the earth.  My house already has a head start and during my first 48 hours at home, I shook my head several times and muttered Karen Blixen’s lament from Out of Africa, “Everytime I turn my back, it wants to go wild again.”  It does. 
The most noticeable effect of nature’s invasion is a solid sea of grass as high as and right up to the window sills.  We can’t even figure out where to jump in to begin forcing it back.  My sons had been working at it with a weed eater for a few days before we arrived and had barely cleared a swath to the door.  Of course, our Husqvana riding mower is no match for this type of tenacious growth and so it is perennially in the shop, which is a contributing factor to this whole thing getting out of hand to begin with.

  The garden berms and flagstone patio we have been working on developing over the past two summers are undetectable, also grown over with tall grass and big bruisers of invasive weeds that have taken advantage of a lightly supervised garden bed situation.  Trees and shrubs we planted late last summer, Japanese evergreens, miniature fruit trees,  and a couple of olives are either dead twigs or stumps that have been chewed to a nub by the deer.  What could deer possibly find palatable about pine trees?

The pump in our “good” well had already broken at Christmas and we weren’t able to get anyone to fix it during the holidays.  Since then, the house has been running off of the ancient hand dug well that the property came equipped with.  Did I mention the herd of cattle who live happy lives right uphill?  Fortunately, living in Kathmandu for five years built such bacterial resistance in us that we can live in these sorts of conditions without stomach disturbance. 
Then the boys broke the news to us that as they were running loads of laundry, the sewer began to back up into the showers, requiring, of course, every towel in the house to prevent damage to the floors.  Quick thinking.  But we came home to mounds of soaking wet laundry, sewer sludge in the bottom of the showers, and no water evacuation from the house.  It turned out to be a broken pipe where the house waste empties into the septic system, no doubt caused by winter freezing.  For the first two days, we couldn’t jump into large scale cleaning like dishes and laundry, took fun outdoor baths from 5 gallon buckets, and poor Allan spent many hours with his head stuck in our septic manhole.

So that’s what I mean: It’s an uphill battle.  But it’s our little square of paradise, even if we have to beat the natural world back with a whip and a chair.  Bit by bit, we will reexert our dominance and will once again project the illusion of an effortless island life.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Satisfying Ending

Working in schools as an adult gives your life a distinct rhythm.  You pour yourself into setting up the course of instruction each August, strive to deeply get to know students throughout the fall, press them to make the gains you know they can make through the winter, and then assess them in the spring.  In a nutshell, that is the pace.  The thing is that none of this can be accomplished in a relational vacuum.  I just completed my 26th year of teaching and one thing I know is that I have to contribute my “pound of flesh” to match the gains I want my students to achieve.  The other thing I know is once you give so much of yourself to an effort, the result is a deep bond of trust and affection and it is difficult to end the relationship.
All schools have their year-end rituals and to anyone who says “They’re not doing anything at school the last week,” I defend that we have to end an intense relationship in a way that feels like a satisfying ending, not unlike a story.  We actually put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into the last week of school.  It feels very much like bringing a train into the station.    International schools, however, have the added intensity of families and faculty who are moving on from that location, so there is the overhanging melancholy that you aren’t going to see some of these people, ever again.
          The last day of school at an international school reminds me so much of the last day of summer camp.   When I was growing up, my family was very involved in Christian summer camps.  For as long as I can remember, my dad was on the board at Miracle Ranch, in the ponderosa pines near Dove Creek, Colorado.  Every one of my five siblings and I, throughout our different years of attendance, experienced significant life challenges and teaching at that camp.  I do remember, though, the tearful goodbyes and promises to write as my parents herded me to the car, where I collapsed in the backseat, grimy and exhausted. 
            This time of year, I bring that background experience to my overseas life.  We have had multiple parties, dinners, lunches, outings, wanting to make the parting as complete as it can be.  Last night, we had one last party at our house, but it wasn’t about goodbyes, but hellos.  Some dear friends of ours are moving here to help us do this work and they are in Tunis for a few days to settle their dog and see where they will be living.  We had a barbecue in our backyard with some of the staff, who are not leaving, so they can begin to make their new friends.  And the cycle begins all over again.
            I made a custard cake I have wanted to try.  The recipe calls for raspberries, but we have cherries at the moment so I substituted them and I can’t imagine it being any better.  Clearly, you could use any soft fruit.  There were several unsolicited comments of, ”This is the best cake I have ever eaten,” so I think it is worth posting for friends who are just heading into berry season in North America.  

Raspberry Custard Cake
Recipe adapted from Alice’s Cookbook by Alice Hart
Makes one 9-inch cake

2 cups light cream or half-and-half 
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise   
2 egg yolks 
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan
3 cups raspberries (or any soft fruit) 
1 1⁄4 cups granulated sugar    
4 eggs    
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour   
2 teaspoons baking powder     
1⁄2 cup milk     
1⁄4 cup Demerara sugar

1. Make the custard: In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the cream or half and half. Using the tip of a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the cream, then drop in the empty pod. Meanwhile, mix the egg yolks, cornstarch, and sugar together in a heatproof mixing bowl.
2.When the cream is almost"but not quite"boiling, remove from the heat and pour slowly into the egg mixture, stirring constantly. Pour the mixture back into the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture bubbles and thickens. Boil about 1 minute; the cornstarch will prevent the custard from curdling. Remove from the heat and cover the surface with plastic wrap or a circle of parchment paper so a skin cannot form. Let cool; once cool, remove the vanilla pod.
3.Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-inch spring-form cake pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Crush the raspberries roughly with a fork to release their juice. Stir half the crushed raspberries into the cooled custard and set aside.
4.In a medium bowl, beat the 1 cup of butter and granulated sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition; if the mixture starts to look a bit curdled, stir in a spoonful of flour. Sift in the remaining flour with the baking powder. Pour in the milk and gently mix together. Fold in the remaining crushed raspberries until just combined.
5.Pour half the batter into the prepared spring-form pan and make a shallow well in the center with the back of a spoon. Pour the raspberry custard into the well, then cover with the rest of the cake batter. Sprinkle with the Demerara sugar. Bake until golden but still a bit wobbly in the center, about 1 hour.
6.Let the cake cool in the pan, then chill in the refrigerator overnight or for at least 4 hours. Remove from the pan when completely cold; you may need to run a knife around the edge to loosen. Cut into slices and serve.
            And now, with a huge feeling of satisfaction about our first year’s work in Tunis, and excitement about starting it all up again in August, we are leaving tomorrow for Lummi Island and our fabulous boys.  It’s going to be a wonderful summer.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Making Stuff

            The theme carried throughout the presenters at yesterday’s TED conference was “Do It Yourself”.  Speaker after speaker got up and passionately talked about his personal need to do hands-on projects as an adult and how he believes the act of making things is vital to children’s learning. 
            This got me thinking about my own childhood.  I still don’t know if I had a common or peculiar childhood.  I grew up on a farm in southern Colorado.  We lived a solid 45-minute’s drive from the nearest town and, not being flush with cash, we just didn’t have a habit of buying things.  When we wanted something, we often made it ourselves, whether it was food, clothes, or repairs. 
I already wrote about learning how to can and preserve food with my mother.  Another activity my mom and I shared was sewing.  There was an understanding in our house:  If I wanted to buy clothes, forget it, but if I made them, I could have them.  From an early age, maybe 8 years old, I remember having a sewing project constantly on-going.  My mom was an excellent seamstress as she grew up making all of her own clothes.  Just last Christmas, I was marveling at pictures of her and my dad and some of their friends as teenagers having an outing in the Arizona desert.  The pictures are, of course, in black and white and every shot looks like it is from a Ralph Lauren or J Crew photo shoot.  I know that my mom and all of her girlfriends sewed the detailed, fitted outfits they were wearing, themselves, and they were cool outfits, right out of the Vogue pattern book.
I don’t think I ever became the disciplined seamstress my mom was, making lined suits and such, but I did once make my own Gore-Tex parka.  This was in 1980, the early years of technology infused outdoor gear, and there was a company that sold kits from which you could sew your own tents, backpacks, and outer wear.  I bought the parka kit, which came as precut pieces and some barely complete directions.  I was just moving to Washington State and I spent several days that first summer sewing it up.  When school started, I wore the parka everyday.  One of my enduring memories of attending Western Washington University is of walking to campus from my apartment wearing my parka, zipped to the neck, drawstring cinching the hood around my face.  In the drenching rain, it was the equivalence of wearing an umbrella.  When I met Allan a few months later in anthropology class, I had to ask for his help one day getting the zipper unstuck.  He still claims it was a ploy, but the zipper really was stuck!  I guess saying that wearing homemade clothes can help you find your life partner might be going a little too far, but it didn’t hurt me.
So why did I stop making clothes?  I guess it was a matter of economics and time.  Ready made clothing got cheaper and cheaper and fabric got more expensive, changing it from a self-sufficiency item to an expensive hobby.  I also had my sons and no longer had the luxury of spreading a sewing project all over the kitchen and losing myself for hours in the process.  I still create a lot, though.  When I lived in Kathmandu, I had great fun designing items of clothing to have sewn up by a local tailor and of course I continually usher people through the custom-design process in my Tibetan carpet business.  Lately, I am enjoying renovating houses, building furniture, working with photographs and writing, and always, making food.
I am going to try to offer my students more opportunities to make things of their own design.  Besides making them feel satisfied, though, what do projects have to teach by way of academic or social skills?  Here are some things I can see that I learned from my childhood sewing endeavors.
o   Art and Design: color (complementary and contrasting), layout, texture (including nap), composition of fabric, proportion, vertical, horizontal, diagonal
o   Math:  measurement (linear, area, perimeter), fractions, ratios, percents, multiplication, division, symmetry, line of reflection, cost per unit
o   Literacy:  reading directions
o   Personal development: persistence (you don’t get to wear it if you never finish it), patience, learning to make choices, learning what I like, pride about working hard and getting a good outcome, being comfortable with uniqueness
The photos show two of the “making” opportunities the kids at the conference had yesterday.  One was making a chair out of some pine boards.  Some held up better than others, but all claimed their chair was “really comfortable”. 

The second was using a 3-D design program to create something that could actually be produced, using a 3-D printer. 

Hacking into computer software to personalize it was another highly encouraged form of self-expression and learning at yesterday’s conference. I am interested in subscribing to a quarterly journal I learned about called Make. It is directed toward individuals or families who want to engage in making something from an electronically wired gadget to a better birdhouse, at home.   It will be fun to see how students might pick up any of these outlets to fulfill their DIY drives.