Childhood Forays in Food Foraging

I was a food forager long before the current foodie trend. I kinda thought we all were. But maybe not.

Did you slip out the back door on a luminous summer eve, eyes to the ground in search of snacks? Did you tug at what looked like over-achieving grass to find tiny onions on the end? Then rub the dirt off with your shirt and crush the white bloom between your teeth? Did you somehow discover that the ends of those big curly green leaves growing in the alley, looking like so much red celery, had a bite that made your whole mouth pucker? I ate stalks of rhubarb and foundling chives as I caroused around our neighborhood, at the adventurous age of six.

Finding things to eat from the bushes and vines and sidewalk cracks near our home on Oxford street was adventure in the same way building dams out of sticks and stones in the rain-filled gutters was, or learning to trumpet through a single grass blade held taut between my thumbs, or setting maple seed pods a spin like so many helicopters. All of nature mystical, with secrets to be discovered just for the meandering.

But eating from the earth made me feel especially clever and free and somehow in tune, and at the same time, wild. There was something clandestine about it – I had a suspicion that my mother wouldn’t approve, like, perhaps she’d think it was stealing. So, I didn’t tell her. Or anyone else, for that matter. And when I broke out in a case of hives, everyone was stumped. The doctor said it was too many acidic foods, so my mother forbade me pickles and tomatoes. But I kept on with the rhubarb until a second outbreak, and my six year old sense made the connection.

At the time, I was enthralled by Jackie Jackson‘s book The Pale Faced Redskins (actually, by all her books) that told of children’s wild imaginings on hot summer nights. So, I started my own gang of makeshift natives, myself the appointed chief. We learned to short-sheet beds, and I tried it out on my brother. We braided our hair and drew our mother’s tubes of lipstick in red lines across our cheeks. And we ate flower petals, nibbled on early fruit from the trees out back, and stocked up on rhubarb and berries.

Somehow, I heard about Euell Gibbons. By the time I was six and enjoying my food foraging, Gibbons had already written three books, the first of which, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, was a national best seller and established him as the father of the wild food movement. Later, he appeared on the Sonny and Cher show and made a commercial for Grape Nuts, but although I have vague memories of both, they happened long after my food foraging days. Perhaps I heard stories of him at the dinner table. In any case, I recognized a kindred spirit, and must have asked my mother to tell me more because I definitely associate my coming out as a food forager with Euell.

My coming out came one autumn afternoon. Entering the kitchen, I announced to my mother that I had a new recipe I wanted to try. She looked down at me, her hands dripping over the sink, with evident surprise. I hadn’t shown much interest in the cooking department, except for helping my father make chocolate chip cookies (the tale of the quest for the Impossible Dream Tollhouse cookie is for another day). When she asked what recipe, I told her it was one of my creation, and I’d named it Pine Chips. My older sister overheard this and off-handedly let me know just how stupid it sounded. But mother, for some reason, took up my case and handed me an apron.

Exhilarated, I asked for a frying pan and some butter. From my pants pockets, I dug out the “chips”, which were thin, dried scales I’d pulled from small, fragrant pine cones that afternoon. I explained to my mother, with my sister hovering like a dark cloud behind us, that these were cooked in butter and spices. My sister hissed, “You can’t eat pine cones – they’re wood!” I considered for a moment, and then replied confidently that they weren’t for eating; they were for spicing, meat to be exact.

My sister started explaining in an arch tone that if all they did was spice, then why didn’t we just use the spice directly? What need for the stupid “chips”? Although her logic did begin to undermine my confidence, with my mother’s support, I turned back to the pan and began my ministrations. As the butter sizzled, I dropped the scales in several at a time, stirring them about. I added salt and pepper, and some oregano, garlic and chives (also from my collection). That evening, my mother made steak and my pine chips were served on the side. Bursting with pride, I took a few in my mouth and sucked on them. They tasted delicious and smelled of heaven. But they were hard and, without a great deal of mastication, inedible. My sister beamed.

That night’s pine chips were both debut and finale in my foraged food recipe creation. I kept foraging on the sly for a few more years, until age distracted me with less whimsical pursuits. Years later, when I lived in Italy, I went mushroom hunting with a friend, who also gathered almonds from where they fell along the roadside and picked cherries and apples in heirloom orchards. My early foraging passion was rekindled, but when I returned stateside, I left it in the Italian soil.  

But after following the renaissance of the foraged food movement and René Redzepi, its most famous forager and creative genius at Noma, the world’s top restaurant for three years running, I’m pretty sure I was onto something with those pine chips. After all, Redzepi’s menu includes asparagus and pine, pear tree! (his punctuation), moss, and rhubarb and milk curd! (mine) Perhaps with a mother more adroit in the kitchen (the pine chips needed to cook longer to get them soft) and a sister less rigidly logical (the instinctive brilliance of the chips was infusing the meat with the pine scent), my love of foraging might have grown into something more than child’s play – and my pine chip recipe into a culinary sensation.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. So, I’m content eating sweet baby strawberries from our garden and tending my chives planted in a bright blue pot.

But I’m thinking of sending my recipe to Redzepi…now that would be satisfaction!

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Stellenbosch Wine Country: Where Old World Pairs with New

Stellenbosch is a bit of paradise. There just isn’t much that’s more stunning than a place devoted to growing grapes – it’s something about the terrain and climate grapes prefer that makes for relentless beauty. And wine itself is of the old world, so people drawn to making it seem to have a knack for living well, for thinking about the essential pleasures of good food, a peaceful garden, a sunny aspect, and a ready wine dancing in its glass.

Stellenbosch is home to hundreds of wine farms that blanket the landscape to the horizon, making for a particularly arresting viewshed. Its singular beauty comes from a mix of natural blessings; outstanding among them is the relationship between the soft green of hills covered in vineyards and their massive, rocky cousins, the mountains of the Cape Fold range. Although not terribly high by mountain standards (3500 feet as compared to my home state of Colorado’s “fourteeners,”), these peaks are none-the-less dramatic. Rising straight up from the sea, they create a majestic backdrop to the panorama of grapevines angling neatly over the countryside.

While in Stellenbosch, I stayed at the Spier Wine Farm, a progressive mini-village with award-winning organic wines, the farm-to-table restaurant Eight, acres of contemplative gardens, a “conscious” conference center, sustainability practices including a biological effluent water system, and two conservation projects – one for raptors and one for cheetahs. Spier is a world unto itself, a kind of Disneyland for adults, whose motto is “getting the best out of every berry, with as little interference as possible.”

One of Spier’s most pleasing parts is its architecture. The hotel is made up of structures faced in brightly colored plaster, nestled along little streets and clustered around quiet courtyards inlaid with turquoise pools. In fact, the architecture of the entire Western Cape area is distinctive, starting with the white-washed walls, reed thatch roof and raised stoop and gable typical of the early Cape Dutch style. These lovely buildings dot the region, imbuing it with a sense of the bucolic. Some of the wine farms are known for these historic buildings, two of which I visited: DeMorgenzon and Steenberg Wine Estate. In a perfect blend of the old and the new, state-of-the art winemaking facilities complete with French oak barrels and Italian stainless steel are behind the simple elegance of the Dutch Cape landmarks.

Although considered a “new world” wine region, Stellenbosch proudly traces its winemaking lineage back 350 years to Jan Van Riebeeck, an employee of the Dutch East India Company who wrote of pressing the first wine grapes in 1659. Some of the oldest estates are Steenberg (1682), Boschendal (1685), Spier (1692), and DeMorgenzon (early 1700s), each of which cater to an au courant tourist trade attracted, I suspect, as much by the area’s rich and diverse heritage as by the wine.

It’s characteristic of these established Stellenbosch wine farms that they combine winemaking with other complementary lines of business, and not just the usual eateries and tasting rooms. While Spier advances its conservation ethic, neighboring Steenberg pairs its wine business with a championship golf course and club, a high-end spa, and even Steenberg Property through which you can purchase a parcel. Other innovative ventures include art galleries, gift shops featuring crafts and art in addition to wine, concert venues, movie nights and more.

I was fortunate enough to spend an easy afternoon at DeMorgenzon with its gracious owners, Wendy and Hylton Appelbaum. Although transplants to the area, the Appelbaums fit perfectly the “old world meets new” milieu. Hylton is an avid gardener, so the vineyards are interspersed with constant blooms of every variety. He cultivates his sets in makeshift lean-tos at the back of the property, something like I imagine Darwin might’ve had. And the results are breath-taking, causing a deep quietude just from a simple gaze across the farm.

Wendy runs DeMorgenzon’s operation, overseeing marketing, wine-making, vine-keeping and the many other aspects of a major player in Stellenbosch wine country. As we sat chatting in her living room after the tour, Wendy spoke about their uncommon practice of playing music 24/7 over the vines. “There’s much evidence that plants respond to music,” she explained. “But in any case, I know it has a wonderful effect on all who work here. The vine keepers in particular work with less fatigue and strife than elsewhere.”

Can you guess what music serenades DeMorgenzon’s grapevines? Bach. Another new world innovation perfectly in tune with a place that capitalizes on modern business practices while maintaining the old world values that make the wine and us flourish.

This post was first published on www.africa.com.

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Quiet Passion

A bruised sky awaits the coming sun.

An egg hides in baby blades of grass.

A child dreams, hand reaching for treasure.

A meadowlark calls for notice through sweetened air.

The Earth takes its deep, slow, silent breath and holds it for a time.

A man lifts on an ocean of memory.

People swaying, like so many blossoms, stretch beyond sight.

A feather floats easily on the current, ascending into morning’s just light.

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The Old Divide and Conquer, Revisited

Post-Script: I wrote the initial post one year ago…

In this, Women’s History Month, I am sorry to say that it cannot only be a time for celebrating our forbearers. In light of recent events – hearings where only men are called to testify about women’s health, beyond-nasty name-calling used to shame women to silence, and unneeded, invasive medical procedures used to dissuade women from obtaining legal medical services, to name a few – all of which painfully remind us of the long road still ahead for women seeking the Promised Land, it must also be a time for remembering our recent past, lest the warnings of an unwanted fate escape our notice.

We will do well to remember Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Bella Abzug, Dolores Huerta, and so many, many more from this country and all across the world. But we will also be wise to recall Betty Dukes (of Wal-Mart v. Dukes), Sandra Fluke and Nina Turner.

Women, remember our history – no matter how distant, no matter how recent, offer thanks to the crusaders (even if you don’t always agree with them), teach your children their names, and join with your sisters in solidarity for a future of one human family.

And to all those who would stand in the way, Abigail’s words to her husband will suffice:

“If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Here’s the post from March 2011:

I’ve been meaning to write here about something insidious creeping stealthily into our lives. I am referring to the rash of recent stories about the marginalization of women, and what is more troubling, the marginalization of these stories in the media.

For instance, did you hear the one about a Georgia lawmaker proposing that rape victims no longer be termed “victims.” Instead, these women would be referred to as “accusers,” until the perpetrator was proven guilty. Subtle, eh? I heard that one on my evening commute on NPR and nearly had to pull over from the outrage searing through my body. Now, if this was proposed for all victims of crime that would be one thing (a murder accuser? sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?), but the fact that it was focused only on rape victims…well, that made me see RED.

And evidently, this effort was being pushed because increasingly restrictive state abortion laws (are you following Ohio?) are not getting the support hoped for. The latest here is the proposed federal legislation to mandate women whose insurance covers abortion report this on their income tax filing to the IRS. What? Whether one is pro choice or not, this is a completely inappropriate and sexist use of the IRS.

And today, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the sex discrimination class-action suit. For the past nine years, Wal-Mart has been arguing that Betty Dukes’ case should not be expanded to a class action on behalf of more than one million present and past female employees. And no wonder: it could be worth billions if Wal-Mart loses – and with their disturbing labor practices, they have every reason to be concerned. But will the Supreme Court actually deny the class action suit for women? This case is being heard TODAY: potentially, the single largest class action suit in the history of this country. Seems important we take notice.

No matter how we feel individually about these events – that they are caused by fringe elements, that they aren’t our business, that we don’t have the time – it is important for American women not to take our freedoms and our rights as individuals for granted. Look out into the world and see plainly that these rights are indeed precious, precious because so many women around the world do not enjoy them. Let us pay attention to what’s going on, let us join together and support efforts to maintain and expand the rights of women, let us demand coverage of these issues.

And let us not forget our own history or those who aspire to the freedoms we take for granted.

Additional Post Script: For the record, from June 2001 to June 2011, Dukes’ lawyers sought class action status for the women employees of Wal-Mart, arguing that Wal-Mart’s company culture is gender biased in favor of men. The District Court and the Ninth Circuit both ruled in favor of class action status, no less than four times. Wal-Mart appealed each decision, finally taking it to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in 2010. Although the Court unanimously agreed on a procedural matter that overturned the class action ruling, the legal heart of the matter was decided 5-4, with Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan in dissent. Here is an excerpt from the dissenting opinion:

The plaintiffs’ evidence, including class members’ tales of their own experiences, suggests that gender bias suffused Wal-Mart’s company culture. Among illustrations, senior management often refer to female associates as “little Janie Qs.” One manager told an employee that “men are here to make a career and women aren’t.” 564 U. S. ____ (2011) Opinion of Ginsburg, J.

Here’s a story on what will happen in the Dukes case in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.

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Psalm of Spring

I turn my eyes to the blooms out my window, recalling the words of a poet I caught on NPR: “The earth forgives the previous year every year.”

Spring does indeed feel like forgiveness – nature returning, first sweetly, oh-so quiet, with the first push of crocus through hardened soil. And then exuberantly as the Crabtree in my window, dressed in a transcendent finery of color.

Spring – the earth’s forgiveness of our winter’s sleep, metaphor of forgetfulness, or over-indulgence, perhaps. Forgiveness of our constant use, the worn tracks of living all over her. Forgiveness even of plunder, our relentless dependence for our every need.

And still, nature comes back each year as spring.

This life returning sparks the feeling of renewal inside me, renewal and possibility that bear the fruit of forgiveness, of myself and others. Seeing the spring, breathing its perfumes deep into my lungs, being lulled to rest by the rhythm of its rains upon my roof, feeling its warming sun upon my cheek, all stir a profound and quiet gratitude.

Gratitude for a bounty and munificence so infinite it overwhelms my mind, and yet, somehow comprehensible in the quiet depths of my heart.

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Safari too Close to Home

The grey light of early morning barely illuminated the features of our yard: the sitting rock masquerading as a snowy mound, the standing juniper branches drooping like so many petals from their snowy burden, the gentle slope of lawn stretching into prairie grass obliterated by a snowy blanket. All this I took in as my husband stepped out the door to take our dog Wiley for a walk.

As I returned to my office, I heard a shout. I hurried to the back door to see what it was. My dog, in all his tawny cream glory, was shooting across the snow and down toward the creek, taking acres in seconds. Out in front of him, I glimpsed what I already knew was there: a coyote. Wiley was closing the gap between them fast, and all I could think was why the damned coyote wasn’t running faster. He seemed to want Wiley to catch him.

Just then, I caught sight of a second coyote running up the creek bed behind Wiley. Its dark grey against the snow was easy to spot, so this one tucked in close to the dried cattails and cottonwoods that share its color. I watched it moving in, as if the two wild dogs had set a trap for my domesticated one.

The three of them met down by the creek on the low part of the old ditch road that we walk each day. Wiley marks repeatedly all along our way, and I hadn’t thought much of it till that very moment. In those seconds, my mind flashed to the leopards I’d followed on game drives just days before in South Africa. They slink about sniffing and marking, reclaiming their territory from intruders and upstarts. All the while, they drool. The Ranger said they drool in anger; it’s their righteousness at being infiltrated, at being challenged.

I started praying aloud for Wiley. Two against one wasn’t good – especially when Wiley isn’t accustomed to hunting or defense. I tried not to imagine the worst as the dogs closed in, but then I heard a yelp. With the carnage I’d seen on safari still fresh, visions of my boy being slashed to ribbons and gnawed on by the wild pair invaded my mind.

We couldn’t see the thing taking place, so obscured by trees and terrain. Seconds dragged on, and we heard nothing more. But the next sight we had was Wiley trotting gingerly up the hill. He looked uninjured, only a bit cowed. I called to him to bring him home quicker.

As my husband met Wiley mid-yard and then started back to the porch, I spotted the two coyotes. One was just moving out of sight over the rise of the ditch; the other was sauntering after it in a lackadaisical sort of way. I still couldn’t figure why they moved so slowly, as though they had not a care. Wild animals are supposed to fear humans and the unexpected, aren’t they?

But then I realized that there’d been a conversation going on between these three dogs for quite some time. Through scent and markings, and even piles of scat left boldly in the middle of the path, much information is exchanged. Our Ranger on game drive had explained about middens, piles of dung used by animal groups to tell each other who’s been there, which females are in heat, and who’s in charge. Their communication is thorough and precise. It occurred to me then that Wiley knew these two dogs and they knew him. And perhaps, I thought, the coyotes had been waiting for just the occasion that presented itself today.

When Wiley reached the porch, I greeted him, running my hands over his cold fur, checking for injury. As it turned out, he got a gash in his right haunch, about an inch long and not too deep. It was the best possible place for him to get it. In his solid muscle build, this is the spot with the most flesh and little that’s vulnerable. I mused about that as well – certainly the coyotes knew which part of an animal to wound to debilitate and which to kill. Had they given Wiley this minor wound as a message – a warning to stay out of their way?

Later that morning, alone with Wiley, I noticed that he wasn’t lying in his usual spot behind me in my office. I got up to look for him and found him, sitting by the back door, gazing intently toward the creek…drool glistening from his chin.

Photos, except for the coyote, by Rebecca Reynolds.

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Tales from the Bush

We’re story-tellers by nature. The truth of this came back to me while on safari in South Africa. Everyone I met as I traveled on the fringes of Kruger National Park – drivers, hosts, rangers, game drive passengers, waiters and masseuse – all had tales to tell. The ones that intrigued me most were those involving encounters between humans and the wild animals of the veld; the tales rife with near death, valiance, luck, foolhardiness, and even wry humor – often all in one story.

These tales brought to mind Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Like Kipling’s, they are more than entertainments. Lessons and morals, warnings and epithets are wrapped up like Christmas treats for the listener who cares to discover them. And like all good stories, they toy with the outline of truth.

These are a few of the tales I heard – you’ll be the judge of which ones are true.

Three boys went down to the banks of Olifants River. An uncle had warned them to be watchful. They dismissed him, saying to themselves he was old, crotchety, and certainly jealous of them. The boys scampered about for awhile, but in the heat, soon decided to rest and fish. They did notice the crocodile some ways out and set their poles back from the river’s edge.

One boy was telling a story, while another took off his shirt, hanging it on a nearby bush. The shirt’s bright red was a definite interloper in the muted palette of the bush. The boys chatted away, only barely aware of their poles’ gentle swaying with the water’s tug. Suddenly, one of them heard a swooshing sound. He turned his head to catch a glimpse of a mud-green flash just behind them. The crocodile had slipped out of the water, circled around them and now rocketed toward the shirtless boy. The one watching instinctively shut his eyes, awaiting the shriek. When he opened them again, he saw the crocodile submerging in the water, the red shirt sinking fast with him. Later, the three boys agreed their uncle need never know.

An experienced Ranger with a full load of passengers was following a leopard. She was busy sniffing and scent-marking, moving stealthily along her chosen course. Desiring a superior photo opportunity for his guests, the Ranger, contrary to better judgment, pulled the truck directly into the leopard’s path. The leopard approached the vehicle, but instead of easing past its flank, in a blink, was crouched in the passenger seat. The Ranger instantly looked away, covering his face with his arm, preparing for her to strike. After a moment, she jumped down and continued on her way. His passengers did indeed get the best view that day, but not one of them captured it.

Every day an old man visited the place where he’d buried his dogs many years before. One day, when younger, the man had gone fishing, his three dogs following along. He picked a spot within eyesight of some other folk who’d had the same idea. His dogs ran off, as dogs will do, sniffing and exploring as they raced about, leaving him with his thoughts. Sometime later, a python surprised the man, wrapping itself quickly about him. He felt himself being crushed, slowly and methodically, and screamed for help. Those on the bank nearby came running, but when they saw the python enveloping the stranger, they backed away. With little breath left, the man called once more. Just then, one of his dogs appeared, let out a high pitched bark and raced for the man. The other dogs, close behind, joined the attack on the python, biting, snarling and pulling at its tail. The man never forgot that he owed his life to those dogs.

A group of rangers went out to target shoot. They brought a cooler of refreshments to slake their thirst after their effort. They picked a spot near a large Sausage tree, which would afford them plenty of shade to enjoy their drinks. The rangers set up their targets and, one by one, took their aim. Hot and satisfied after the last one’s turn, they leaned their guns against the truck and made for shady respite. Bantering and bragging about who’d done the best, they didn’t notice the trespasser. A gunshot was what startled them. They looked up to find a baboon, bracing a rifle against the truck, taking careful aim for their target.

Thanks to Godfrey, Andrew and Ronny for these and so many other marvelous tales. Photographs by Rebecca Reynolds.

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Saying Yes to South Africa

This time last year, I began my ruminations about turning 50 and what I’d do to mark it.

If I’d been thinking of celebration, I might’ve wished for a surprise party, or a fancy dinner somewhere, or a compendium of memories collected and bound in stamped leather. But my thoughts bent more toward commemoration…this birthday would be between me and Me.

Fifty for me marked a moment, not for trumpets and streamers, but for deep quietude, looking into the face of who I am and who I have yet to become. I have little idea how 50 feels – what it looks like or means. I only know that this time calls to me from far away and from deep inside. And the call is as primal as fire, as mysterious as the hermit, as inexorable as time.

When the question first entered my mind – how do I want to mark this milestone? – the answer came quietly: A trip. From this thought seed, from this slip of an idea, the whole thing was begun.

What kind of trip? A big trip. A journey.

What does that mean? To a place I’ve never been before.

Why? To challenge me. To open me to completely new experience.

Where?

A place to breathe fresh and deep the aroma of unknown earth, cradling roots of strange plants, ground into dusty spice and stirred into pots of surprising flavors to my virgin tongue.

A place to open my eyes for the first time to color hues seen only in dreams, to dance to rhythms unfamiliar to my feet but recognized deep down in the ear of my heart.

A place to discover and remember, out of which to begin the next phase of this life.

Of the places I imagined in that first musing, Africa didn’t cross my mind. In truth, I thought more about where I wouldn’t go than where I would. I thought of the places I’ve been before and off the list they went. I thought of places similar to them and they scuttled along too. That left a blank page – a vast whiteness out of which I hoped the place would soon enough draw itself.

I went about my business.

Then one day a month or so later, on a phone call, the outline first appeared. I was invited to go to South Africa. The tip of a continent, the corner early European explorers persevered in rounding, a place of ancient beauty and painful history.

As I considered South Africa, I struggled to recognize it as my choice. You see, I hadn’t thought much about it. I’d read a novel here and there. In college, I learned of apartheid and the knowledge lodged deep in my gut. Movies and nature shows on life on the savanna stirred the vague hope of safari one day. And most of all, Mandela’s 30-year incarceration ending in his presidency taught me that nothing in this world is permanent, and clinging to “the way things are” – in either complacency or dread – is simply folly. But other than these few markers, South Africa wasn’t much more to me than an outline on a map.

After the call and for the next few months, I went through the motions of considering the decision, which meant coming up with a lot of questions. Why would I go? What would I do? With whom would I go? When would I leave? I talked with people; I gathered data; I read books and looked at maps. But it really boiled down to if I would go or if I wouldn’t. And at one point, I just said yes.

If I’m really frank though, saying yes was simply the moment when “me” caught up to what “Me” had known all along. Of course I was going to South Africa.  – when, to do what, with whom and for how long were just details.

Back at home now, I reflect on what a superb lesson this is. It’s the one about saying YES. Choosing yes – without all the conditions, parameters, and details nailed to the wall. The kind of yes that is an act of faith in the goodness, the bounty, the sheer joyousness of life. The yes that sets magic in motion.

When I got to South Africa, a man explained to me that the word “safari” is Swahili for “journey.” It’s used in particular reference to the annual migration of millions of animals from one side of the Serengeti to the other. They make this arduous journey across the vast savanna in search of food, of sustenance, of life. It’s clear to me that my travels from the American continent to the African one was in the same way a safari, a journey from one side of the world to the other, in search of sustenance.

The taste of the new, from its pot mingling with things essential and some familiar, still lingers on my lips.

This is the first in a multi-part series on South Africa. Stay tuned.

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Pizza Pan Outed

I pulled the old pan out of its spot and marveled, as I had before, at the amazing good fortune of having a perfect, round pan for heating frozen pizza. It’s my mother’s pan, of course.

She of the charmed life, the one who’s had very nearly the best of everything, from handsome, loving husband and four devoted children, to satisfying career of her choosing, to comfortable retirement and incredible good looks that don’t seem to fade.

As I slid the frozen slab onto the round metal, no longer flat from years of heating and re-heating, but still just right for the job, I noted the details of what makes it work. Although of the same material and thinness as a cookie sheet, its rim is flared and sits slightly above its middle, making just the right size bowl for the pizza. In this way, the pizza stays put, rather than flying off onto counter or floor like it would on a flat, edgeless sheet. And being round, no part of the pizza is compromised or in need of trimming to fit the domain of an edged, rectangular cookie sheet.

The pizza pan is also uncommonly attractive for something so pedestrian. Its rim is adorned with fine dots that go all the way round, and its formerly flat center is etched with a simple floral pattern. So much glory under all that rust and brown residue from years of baking pizza, I thought with some longing.

Needless to say, I’ve been making do without a perfect pizza pan since I moved from my parents’ home. This is partly due to the fact that I’m really not that big a fan of frozen pizza and so haven’t endeavored to find one of my mother’s equal. But mostly I don’t have one because I’ve never come across one in all my wanderings through kitchen shops and catalogues. Had I ever encountered one, pizza aficionado or not, I would’ve purchased it without a second thought.

I know this because of the day I happened upon one of those rolling pizza cutters. I grabbed it up quick. This was half the pizza-baking equation at my mother’s house, and now I, too, would be able to slice up pizza easy and neat. No matter that this is a notably infrequent need in my hardly-ever-eat-frozen-or-any-other-kind-of-pizza house. It was enough that my kitchen drawer would now be home to another of the tools I took for granted as a child. Somehow, it would make me more complete.

My mother’s kitchen is full of mysterious implements with completely specialized functions. These I discovered over the years of learning to cook under her watchful eye. “No Becky, that’s dicing; in salads the tomatoes are sliced.” The difficulty in distinguishing between words so similar confounded me as a child, but when I met my husband, one of the first corrections I made of his cooking was “No honey, tomatoes are sliced in a salad, not diced.” Upbringing, I find, no matter how ludicrous, gets imbedded deep.

My family kitchen drawers contained a menagerie of devices:

  • the melon-baller to make gorgeous summer salads of soft wet spheres (I manage with a teaspoon from a measuring set)
  • the apple-slicer that slices and cores all in one deft push (the knife I wield takes five times as long)
  • the garlic press – ah, the prized kitchen tool in our home when few white Americans even knew what fresh garlic was, let alone that you could press it instead of chopping (I do have several of these since we’ve hunted them high and low, always searching for just the right one, as if for the grail)
  • the combo ice pick and hammer made of ornately decorated bronze, obviously a show piece for cocktail hour (I smash mine up with a hammer from the garage or slam it hard on the counter)
  • corn picks for the delicate handling of fresh summer ears (hands and lots of paper towels)
  • a metal jar opener with two different sizes that I’ve never seen anywhere but my mother’s kitchen drawer (whacking it around the rim with the butt of a knife works fine – haven’t cut myself yet)
  • the hardboiled egg slicer with wire strung like a tennis racquet, but only in one direction (my same old knife cannot hope to produce such thin slices with anything like its precision or speed)
  • ice tongs (used my fingers for ages until cocktail time made a comeback and Crate and Barrel sold them again)
  • fondue forks (irrelevant in my home since I don’t own the thick enamel pot)
  • olive picks (what?)
  • tiny two-pronged cornichon forks (what’s a cornichon?)
  • sterling silver candle snuffer (just blow it out)

Not to mention the strange gadgets – stainless steel espresso pot long before Starbucks appeared; china – round-bottomed demitasse cups with silver holders kind of like egg coddlers, which, for the uninitiated are the mini cups used for espresso or “European” coffee; containers – ramekins of all sizes and pre-Tupperware made of glass with matching lids; cookware – the amazing double-sided pot that enabled my mother to make two kinds of soup simultaneously so her children wouldn’t fight; and other miscellaneous mysteries – tiny carved glass bowls and miniature silver spoons for serving salt; a gargantuan punchbowl with 20 matching cups; and even a parfait set of 12 – just in case. All these are hidden in my mother’s cupboards, side boards and pantry, which, if not regularly, eventually find their way to service.

The point is, people invented these things to handle particular jobs in a gracious and efficient manner. Many of these devices have been lost as vestiges of a kinder, more gentile way of living. The round pizza pan, I assumed, was one such ephemera. As I placed the cherished pan atop the oven rack, I realized that this was yet another example of how my life would simply never measure up to my mother’s.

I cannot say why, but in that moment, rather than silently entertain these musings like I always do when preparing pizza at my mother’s, I decided to face the sad truth of my deficiency and find out more about the object in question. Where did she get it? I asked.

What she told me shocked me to my core.

She started by stating enigmatically that it had, at one time, been silver-plate. Silver? I turned on my heel to look at her – was she pulling my leg? A silver pizza pan – whoever would have thought? These kinder, gentler folks may have taken things a bit far, I thought. She had a wry smile on her face as she began to explain.

“Actually it belonged to one of your father’s colleagues from the history department at Park College. (The year would have been 1960.) After one of his faculty parties, I was doing the dishes and there it was. Somebody had brought it covered with hors d’oeuvres of some sort and then left it.”

Wait a minute…what did she say? She must be confused. Did she mean that its owner had not brought a pizza on it?? That this pan was in a former life a silver tray used for party hors d’oeuvres?? The realization was making me woozy.

My mother continued, “I called around to everyone I could think of and no one claimed it, so there it was. Given that it was so ugly…I mean, with all the beautiful sterling silver I had I certainly would never use it to serve anything on, so I decided it would make a good pizza pan!”

In the few moments it took her to relay this story that took place before I was born and thus set the world in motion as I would know it, the meaning of this pan – this prized object of grace and utility, this staple of my childhood kitchen and the great void of my own – was forever and completely changed. In the era of beautiful entertaining, when women did all the work and kitchens were stocked with the proper equipment, my mother transformed a forsaken hors d’oeuvre tray into the best damn pizza pan this world has ever seen.

She continues to amaze.

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All Hail, Ms. Kael

Am I mistaken, or did people used to know how to write a film review? A film review isn’t a recap of the film’s plot line, but judging from what gets labeled a film review these days, you’d think “review” and “recap” were synonyms. What’s up?

My favorite film critic of all time – and I’m far from alone here – is Pauline Kael. I discovered Ms. Kael in the pages of the New Yorker magazine in high school. My father had taken the NYer as long as I could remember, and when we moved to Boulder, CO in the late ’70s, our first floor powder room had real NYer covers as its wall paper – we took it as a sign. Kael’s film reviews were the first part of the NYer that I cottoned to.

As a junior, I struggled with writing, and my father suggested I start reading the NYer to learn from the greats. I can’t remember not taking my father’s advice, so I gave it a look. The movie reviews were fairly short (in comparison with other NYer articles of that vintage) and covered a subject I had interest in (my lifelong movie addiction was already in full bud). Thus began my race to the mail for the weekly issue. As I laid stretched out on our green faux velvet couch, nose buried in the back of the NYer where the film reviews are, I read each Kael-written word as if it were a finely made chocolate. Savoring one as it made way to the next, I prolonged my enjoyment of sentences that fascinated, entertained, illuminated and inspired.

The thing was, Kael rarely discussed plot. Instead she discussed character and actors’ choices in portraying them; she explored directors methods and compared them to other directors (as a young movie-goer I was barely aware of directors so this was hugely educational for me); she discussed film theme and message, making her points with literary, historical, and political allusions from her enormous range of knowledge. Her bold reviews made me want to see the films she wrote about and made me appreciate at a much deeper level those I already had.

Here is Kael on “Raiders of the Lost Arc” – the prescience of her “obsessive pace” insight is noteworthy:

“The effect of the obsessive pace is that the picture seems locked in. Our eyes never have a second just to linger on a face or on an image of planes coming out of the clouds. The frames fit into each other, dovetailing so tight that sometimes it seems as if the sheer technology had taken over. It’s all smart zap—a moviemaker’s self-reflexive feat.”

And here on Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” her clarity is razor-sharp, as is her indictment:

“Stanley Kubrick’s Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is not so much an expression of how this society has lost its soul as he is a force pitted against the society, and by making the victims of the thugs more repulsive and contemptible than the thugs, Kubrick has learned to love the punk sadist….The trick of making the attacked less human than their attackers, so you feel no sympathy for them, is, I think, symptomatic of a new attitude in movies. This attitude says there’s no moral difference. Stanley Kubrick has assumed the deformed, self-righteous perspective of a vicious young punk who says, ‘Everything’s rotten. Why shouldn’t I do what I want? They’re worse than I am.’ In the new mood (perhaps movies in their cumulative effect are partly responsible for it), people want to believe the hyperbolic worst, want to believe in the degradation of the victims — that they are dupes and phonies and weaklings. I can’t accept that Kubrick is merely reflecting this post-assassinations, post-Manson mood; I think he’s catering to it.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Kael spoiled me for most every other film review I’ve ever read. And the reason is simple. Film reviewers these days seem hell-bent on telling you what the movie is about – and often, incredibly, how it ends. And if this was a tendency ten years ago, today it’s an epidemic. There’s even a standard phrase employed to give you the heads up that you’re about to have the movie ruined for you by narrative revelations: Spoiler Alert. This galls me. Isn’t one of the signs of a good review the ability of the writer to talk compellingly about the film without actually telling you it’s plot? I mean, if this isn’t true, then why don’t we all become film reviewers? I can relate the storyline of a film with the best of them.

The “spoiler alert” is, for me, like a film critic wearing a big sign round his neck that reads: “I’m not a film critic – I’m just a guy who likes to go to movies before anyone else and then ruin them by telling the plot.” I DON’T READ FILM REVIEWS FOR THIS. I read reviews to have my thinking about a film, its director, actors, screenwriters, its place in film canon and culture expanded by someone whose job it is to watch hundreds of films a year and think about them. Unfortunately, most reviews these days seem to be written on the back of a napkin while the reviewer is watching the film, shoving popcorn down his gullet, and jotting quick one-liners about his titillating feelings – all instead of pondering what the film might mean.

And what really gets me is that the more acclaimed the critic (who certainly know that reviews shouldn’t plot recount), the less they tend to use the spoiler alert phrase – even though they should. I guess they think they can sneak the plot summary in on you – like maybe you won’t notice since it’s THEM writing – Mr. Hot-Shot-Film-Critic. Are they kidding? Do they think we can’t tell when we’re being told the whole movie like a bad trailer? After several times of reading along and getting sucker punched by TMI, I’ve given up reading film reviews in advance of seeing a film. This is nothing short of a bloody shame since film reviews, after all, are supposed to help you decide if a film is worth seeing. Right?

So, what’s all this film synopsis masquerading as review about? I think it’s laziness. I’m not sure where the laziness began, but it definitely is laziness. It’s lazy of the reviewer: how hard is it to tell the story, make a snide comment or two about the actor’s hair, and then call it a review? Not very. It’s much more taxing to actually think about a film, to contemplate its meaning, resonances, influences, what it might say about our culture and how that is the same or different from before. And I don’t mean this can only be done with fancy art films. As the above excerpts prove, Kael was as adept at illuminating “Raiders” or “An Officer and a Gentleman” as she was “A Clockwork Orange” or “Nashville.”

And of course, movies themselves (or movie-makers, I should say) are lazy. Has there ever been a time more plagued my remakes and sequels? And how often are any of these actually better than their predecessors? (Ok, I grant you that MI3  was far better than 1 or 2, but that was strictly due to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s villain.) And how many movies (should I say, in the U.S.) are made to make us think, with any remnant of that intention? These are fewer and farther between, many of which can only be seen at crowded film festivals.

And ultimately, it must be that movie-goers are lazy. If movie-makers pound out sequels and reviewers write plot summaries, this must be what movie-goers want. Is this then to be the nature of our movie-going experience? We simply go to escape, to relive the same narrow plot that we could’ve written ourselves, and no more? No thinking about it afterward? No desire to make meaning of it? No interest in revealing ourselves to ourselves through our experience?

And the reviewer who does attempt this kind of writing is considered boring and elitist, so why bother? Okay, but if that’s the case, then let’s call these pieces of writing what they are: Movie Cliff Notes. And let’s call these writers what they are: Plot Summarizers. And I will steer clear and not bother to read them, but instead, content myself with re-reading a true film reviewer and critic, Ms. Kael. Fortunately, her prolific legacy is in print.

In Memoriam: Pauline Kael left us bereft of brilliant film reviews 10 long years ago.

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