Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Carnivorous Childhood

I grew up on the Mediterranean diet--the real thing, not the kinder, gentler version popularized in the U.S. by a culinary and nutritional establishment compensating for decades of over-consumption of beef products.  In my Mediterranean diet, we ate animals twice a day.  (Here, I am counting eggs--which we typically ate for dinner--as animals, since my grandmother's hens ran with roosters, which meant the eggs were fertile.  Michelle B. and her legions will applaud me for this, I'm sure.)

Most of these animals appeared on my plate with many of their attributes intact:  fresh little sardines with eyes and heads and fins and tails;  whole baby octopuses, less than two inches long, swimming in my favorite soup;  squid, cut into rings but slathered in a magnificent black sauce made from their ink, which made the serving platter look like something from Goya's black period.  And the mussels, clams, crayfish and tiny lobsters that inhabited the Sunday paella, complete with the black, gray, ecru, or translucent shells in which they had lived.

That was just the first course, for which my mother shopped in Barcelona's fabulous fish markets.  It was my grandmother, from her farm in western Catalonia, who sent us the birds and beasts we consumed next.  My grandparents kept pigs--huge, pink, sausage-shaped beasts--and slaughtered  a couple every autumn.  I was never present at this ceremony, but I loved every ounce of the results:  rich, greasy serrano hams (today one of the most expensive foods in the world);  crisp little cubes of fatback that brought to life a serving of beans;  and garlands of sausages made by my grandmother's hands:  butifarra blanca, butifarra negra (blood pudding), xorisso....

My grandmother kept rabbits--cheap to feed, prolific, and a source of high-quality protein.  In the summer, I would watch her slaughter one in the courtyard of the farm house.  It was like a speeded-up film sequence:  grab rabbit by hind legs, stun with blow to head, cut off same.  Hang body from hook.  Cut circles around hocks, and somehow (my vision was hampered by my short stature) yank off skin in a single motion, like a glove.  Cut open abdomen, scoop out entrails, call cats to feast.

An hour later, a rabbit arm lay on my plate, reddish-brown and transmuted by a sauce made with mortar-chopped almonds.  Next to the arm lay a special treat for me, the single child among twelve adults:  two small bean-shaped organs, what my grandmother called the ouets, the little eggs.  Were they kidneys, testes, ovaries?  I never thought to ask.  Were they good?  I don't remember.

There were chickens, too, and for Christmas, a couple of capons instead of a turkey.  Not a part of these was wasted.  Breasts and thighs and legs were brought to the table, but while we ate them, the next day's soup was simmering on the stove, made up of chicken backs, and heads, and legs.  For some reason, the comb---la cresta--perhaps because of its decorative merits, was brought to the table.  And yes, served to me.  Can't remember how it tasted.

What else did we eat?  Very little beef.  No milk after age two.  Gallons of olive oil, entire braids of garlic, ovenfuls of crusty bread to soak up all that oil and all those sauces.  Seasonal vegetables in moderation.  Every month or so, there was a religious holiday with its own special dessert, which you always bought ready-made:  turrons at Christmas;  tortell for the January feast of the Epiphany;  crema catalana on St. Joseph's day, in March;  la mona de Pascua at Easter....Otherwise, it was fruit and nuts.

If she knew what I eat today, my grandmother would be mystified.  For some reason, I have become reluctant to eat anything that looks like an animal.  Anything remotely anatomically accurate, I'd rather do without:  chicken knees, turkey wishbones, the blood of a cow oozing off a steak.  Is this hypocrisy?  Does it mean I'm o.k. eating meat--say, "chicken tenders"--as long as it doesn't remind me of the death of a living being?  Do I think eating meat is immoral?

I want to make it clear that I don't think eating meat is morally wrong--or I would be a hypocrite for drinking milk and eating eggs, which condemn to death 99.9% of the males of the species.  I do think that consuming the meat (or the eggs, or the milk) of animals that have been kept in inhumane circumstances is immoral for those of us who have the resources to make other choices.

I don't know what's right--do you?  It's possible that some people's physiology makes it impossible for them to thrive without daily servings of meat.  On the other hand, other people's preferences/philosophies/aesthetics make it important for them to avoid animal products.  This is a uniquely contemporary debate:  never before have such choices been available in such abundance.

How do you feel about eating animals?

Friday, December 16, 2011

E-mailing The Spouse

His study, where he sits in front of the desk-top computer, is at one end of the second floor.  My study, where I sit on the desk chair or on the single bed with the laptop on my thighs, is at the other end.  Between us a hallway leads past guest rooms and bathroom to our bedroom and his study.  Just before you reach the bedroom, you have to step over Wolfie, who parks himself in the one spot from which he can keep track of human and canine activity on both floors of the house.

It's not like crossing the Alps, I know.  So why is it that my spouse and I, alone together in the daytime for the first time since 1967, e-mail each other from room to room?  He sends me stuff he thinks might make me laugh.  I send him pictures of furniture that would improve the looks and comfort of our house, messages from family and friends that he may have missed, and medical alerts designed to keep us alive forever.

I could of course unplug my laptop, step over Wolfie, walk into his study, sweep aside the catalogs and promotions on the guest chair, sit down and say, "look at this!"  Or--and this would be the sustainable, low-tech approach--I could memorize and deliver the messages, describe the furniture, and summarize the medical advice while standing in front of him and looking him in the eye.

Instead, I copy the links, cut-and-paste the messages, hit "send."  Is this the new conjugal telepathy?  It used to be that long-married spouses not only grew to look alike, but could read each other's thoughts, finish each other's sentences.  And we still do that sometimes, when we're not staring at our respective computer screens, or at the TV screen, or listening to endless news of far-off disasters on our kitchen or car radio.

A mere generation ago, what was web-less retirement like for long-married couples?  Did they chatter all day at each other, or did they observe a monastic silence?  My father died young, so I have no model for being married into one's sixties.  But even if my parents had both lived, their experience would have held few lessons for us, in this super-connected age.

But that's all right.  My husband and I are inventing ourselves now as we did as a two-career, child-rearing couple in the 1970s.  I'm o.k. with room-to-room e-mails.  If we ever find ourselves eating dinner in front of our respective computers, however, I'll start worrying.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

DIY Christmas

I got into the habit of making Christmas gifts by hand during my penurious graduate school days, when dollars were few and relatives were many.  My father in law, who liked to encourage my domestic side, which he saw threatened by my academic leanings, had given me a sewing machine, and it became my weapon in the annual battle to produce tangible objects without spending money.

The Christmas after I got the sewing machine I made him a shirt.  Intended to be worn outside the pants, the shirt was rust-colored and Nehru-collared, with a generously wide trim around the collar and cuffs.  Granted, this was in the early seventies, but what was I thinking, giving such a garment to a strait-laced engineer in his late forties?  Needless to say, I never saw him wear it.

A more successful DIY gift was a  reclining Snoopy-type dog that I made for my older daughter's first Christmas.  The pattern was complicated, and the fur-like material wreaked havoc on the sewing machine, but somehow I pieced it together, and my husband stuffed it with cotton until it was as firm as a rock.  This dog, which was as large as the baby herself, was much loved, and grew gray and dull with age, but  the seams held to the end.

The days when I could sit up half the night making gifts are long gone.  But every summer, when the lavender and the roses and the many mints are in full glory, I pick masses of them, tie them in bunches and hang them by the windows to dry, thinking what fabulous potpourri they will make for Christmas.

In the fall, when I should be stripping the dried leaves and flowers from the stems and mixing them with essential oils so they will have a good two months to ripen before the holidays, I am too busy dealing with the garden produce to even think about potpourri.  I usually forget about it until a couple of weeks before Christmas, and then in a panic I strip and blend and oil, and hope for the best.

This year, I'm making sachets.  Yesterday I got my sewing machine out of the deep recesses of the closet where it lives and made a bunch of little bags out of bits of leftover fabric.  At the last possible moment, I will fill these bags with the half-ripened potpourri, tie a ribbon around the opening, and present them with a flourish. 

The recipient will thank me, sniff the little bag, close her eyes in appreciation.  Then, probably, she will sneeze. And I will bow my head and smile self-deprecatingly, as I inwardly congratulate myself on my thrift and industry.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


This being the season for it, I've been doing a lot of clicking lately:  clicking to enlarge object, to enter selection in shopping cart, to proceed to checkout.  The riches of the planet, including gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are at my reach as I recline on my studio bed.  All I have to do is click.

I rewarded myself from a day of clicking by watching Almodovar's film, "Broken Embraces," on TV.  At the end, as the titles were scrolling in their usual unreadable fashion, a flamenco song came on, slow and beautiful and sad.  The singer was not afraid to take his time, to pause in the middle of a phrase, to let you anticipate the end.  I love performers--speakers, singers, actors, musicians--who are sure enough of themselves to take advantage of pauses, and their effect on the listener.

But what was the name of this song, and who was the singer?  I squinted at the screen, hit rewind and squinted some more, but couldn't make out a single word.  That beautiful song, that soulful singer were gone.

It was late, and I got ready for bed, and while my husband was brushing his teeth, I idly googled Almodovar, then clicked the name of the film, clicked "music," and in a couple more clicks there was the singer, singing his song.

Now, of course, he sings whenever I want him to.  And the song, "A ciegas," ("Blindly") still gives me goosebumps, brings tears to my eyes.  But I know that if I play it too often, the goosebumps will go away, the tears will stop.  That's why I'm not going to send for the CD, although it would be so easy, with just a click.

When Bach was a young man, he walked twenty miles to hear the organist Buxtehude play.  And then I imagine he walked those twenty miles back, trying to fix in his mind what he had heard, and knowing that it would fade, but that the memory of the feelings it had aroused in him would remain until his death.

I wonder if the memory, not of the song, but of the emotion it evoked, would have been stronger if I had heard it just that once, at the end of the movie, knowing that when it was over I would have lost it forever.   

"On ne possede qu'en s'abstenant," ("We only possess by abstaining") Colette said.  In this season of buying, when the notion of abstinence is forced from our minds by the media, we might do worse than to let a few things go, to possess them all the better.

Here, in case you want to hear it, is "A ciegas," sung by the cantaor (flamenco singer) Miguel Poveda.  Just click:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bad Hair Day

In this odd semi-tropical winter, today is the third time I've had to shake heavy, wet snow off the young apple trees so their branches wouldn't break under the weight.  But that is nothing comparing to what I had to do after my husband brought the dogs back from their walk.  Wolfie and Lexi, the German Shepherds, came in bright-eyed and exhilarated by the cold.  But Bisou, low to the ground and with five-inch, orange-gold "feathers" on her forelegs, collected so much  snow that she came into the house hung with snow balls like a Chrismas tree.

When she's indoors, Bisou honors her five-century Cavalier King Charles heritage, lolling about on sheep skins and diving, the moment I stand up, into the warm spot on the sofa.  But let her out the door, and she is all Spaniel, sniffing the breeze, running through brambles, collecting ticks or, if the temperature is right, five-inch snow balls.  I quizzed my husband closely upon their return today, and he said that she had kept running the entire time, showing no discomfort despite the snow balls pulling her skin, weighing her down.

The snow balls were so dense and so big that I had to gently break them up with an ice pick.  The next tool, and one that Bisou has always been wary of, was the hair dryer.  But this time she seemed to understand her situation, and submitted.  I let her finish drying off and relax the rest of the afternoon, and waited until evening to tackle the mats.

Bisou is not a show dog, and I am anything but a show-dog person.  Still, of an evening, it is a joy to me to watch all that orange and gold rippling over the grass.  But alas, no more.  As the first snow balls glommed on to the end of Bisou's hair strands, her running made the hairs twirl around each other, which in turn collected more snow, whose weight caused the hairs to twist more tightly.  In a word, her leg feathers were such a mess of mats that in the end I had to play Alexander the Great, and just cut through those evil knots.

Who cares?  Not Bisou, who is snoozing happily under my elbow and making it difficult for me to type.  Not Wolfie, who just gave her face a thorough washing.  I do, with my human prejudices, the same prejudices, I suppose, that led the bewigged minions of Charles the Second to breed mini-sized hunting dogs with long-silky hair, the "spaniels gentle," who liked to sit on laps.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Opened an old book the other day, and my prom picture fell out:  two couples, the boys in dinner jackets, the girls in non-strapless dresses.  Ours being a Catholic school, strapless dresses were forbidden, because they constituted an occasion of sin.

The other girl in the photo is wearing a corsage--a washed-out-looking orchid enhanced with stiff bits of tulle and ribbon, the kind that your date brought you in a plastic box, still cold from the fridge . Me, I am not wearing a corsage.  Instead, I am holding a nosegay in my white-gloved hand.

I am not wearing a corsage because my date, who is standing behind me with his fingertips barely touching my waist, believed that corsages spoiled the look of a dress.  Hence the nosegay, which he had designed after extensive consultations with the florist.  It consisted of tiny dark violets and a larger flower of some kind, all carefully chosen to match the ice-blue of my dress.  He had been talking about this nosegay for weeks before the dance, and was as excited about it as I.

Not only was I the only girl at the prom with a nosegay--I was probably the only one whose date liked to spend entire afternoons chatting with her mother.  This boy adored my mother.  He loved to examine her collection of Indian pottery and her 18th century polichromed sculptures.  He could never get enough of her stories about our years in Ecuador, and she would happily oblige him while I sat in the background wishing he'd pay me some attention.

I loved his company.  He made fun of everything and everybody, was crazy about French Impressionism, read books that were not actually required for class.  Unlike many of my male classmates, he found my foreignness interesting rather than unfortunate.  He was thrilled about taking me to the prom, and the opportunity to dress up, and to design the perfect nosegay.  Amazingly, my conservative parents didn't mind my spending time with him.

Are you getting the gist of this?

At the time, I didn't.  But then, I was a painfully naive specimen even by the standards of those pre-Woodstock years.  It wasn't until we were having our picture taken at the dance and the photographer had to tell my date twice to put his hand around my waist that I began to feel that things seemed a little odd.

For a couple of days every year, our Religion class would be separated by gender, and we would be instructed in something called "Catholic Love And Marriage."  I don't remember much about these classes, except that marriage was intended for the procreation of children and the allaying of concupiscence;  that kissing was o.k. as long as it did not lead to arousal.  And I remember this electrifying statement made by the Irish priest who instructed us:  "Girls  are like irons, which heat up slowly.  But boys are like light bulbs."  Issues of gender identity and sexual preference were never mentioned by teacher or students.

I  can't imagine what it was like for that boy, in a Catholic school, in an ultra-conservative Southern city, to figure out who he was.  I lost touch with him after graduation.  But later, in the corsage-crushing embrace of some college date, I would sometimes think about the boy who gave me the only nosegay at the prom.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wood Woes

The wood piles in people's yards around here are to die for.  When I drive down the road, it's not the Christmas decorations that draw my eye, but the wood piles stretching majestically across the frosted lawns with a minimalist beauty all their own.  No matter how long the pile, it is the same height all across, and the end pieces are arranged in a cross-wise pattern that ensures that the vertical edge of the pile is perpendicular to the ground.  From the front, the best piles are as regular and textured as honeycomb.

This fall my husband and I had an especially abundant supply of wood to lug from the side of the garage where it had been drying to the front porch.  While he did the lugging, I took charge of the stacking.  How hard can it be to stack wood, you say?  Not very, I thought, at least at first.  I figured that to keep the pile from collapsing, I needed to stack the end pieces of each layer at right angles to the rest, and I tried my best to do that.  But it wasn't until the last log was in place that I stepped back and was horrified:  while the pile looked more or less o.k. from the front, its profile was a disaster--logs stacked at perilous angles to each other, precarious diagonals giving an unfortunate dynamic feel to a structure that I had wanted to be restful and symmetrical. 

Dejectedly, I pointed out the pile to my husband.  "What's wrong with it?" he said, wiping his brow.

"It's the first thing people see when they drive up to the house, and it screams flatlander," I wailed.

The wood pile failure was an esthetic one, but it was followed by a second, functional one.  Most of the wood that I stacked came from a big tree that fell across our driveway in a storm a couple of years ago.  We had it cut and split, and gave the logs a long time to dry.  That dry wood burns better is one of the two things I know about firewood.  The other one is that you shouldn't burn pine because it gunks up the chimney.

Other than that, I thought, all non-pine wood was pretty much the same.  How wrong I was became apparent the first time I built a fire with the home-grown logs, in the expectation of a warm evening cozily reading Iris Murdoch.  Although they were light as balsa wood, they took a long time and prodigious quantities of paper to start burning, and had to be continually coddled and encouraged to keep from dying out.  Imagine my dismay when I realized that, even after an hour of my nursing the fire--while Iris sprawled, unread, face-down on the sofa--the stove was producing very little heat.

That's when the memory came winging to me of some apple tree trimmings I burned in the fireplace once back in Maryland, and how blindingly white-hot  those flames had been.  (They had smelled good, too.)   I have no idea what kind of non-pine it was that fell across our driveway, but it obviously wasn't much good for keeping one warm.

Clearly it's time for me to stop winging it in this matter of fire wood.  Next year I'm getting a firewood mentor, a Vermonter or near-Vermonter who will tutor me in the fine points of choosing wood, and  stacking it.  And when I have a North-country-worthy wood pile of my own, I'll take a picture of it, and post it on this blog.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In His Prime

Wolfie turned five last week.  In human years, he seems to me to be about forty.  Fully mature in mind and body, poised on the brink of the long, slow, inevitable descent.

Physically, the descent has already begun.  I can't document this, but I'm sure he can't run as fast or as fast as he did when he was two.  And there have been other changes:  in the last year his neck has thickened, which makes his head seem even bigger than before.  And a sprinkling of white hairs has appeared on his black chin.

With regard to his personality, a new gravitas has come over him.  He is definitely in charge of Lexi and Bisou.  If it's dark outside and Lexi ignores my calls to come in, Wolfie sits looking out the back door until she returns. When, because she can no longer hear the warning beeps, she wanders beyond the perimeter of the invisible fence, I tell Wolfie "find Lexi!" and he always does.  He's not at ease unless there are three dogs inside the house. 

Wolfie's desire to have everyone present and accounted for applies to humans as well as dogs.  Out walking with his herding teacher and her dog the other day, she asked me to go ahead with the dogs while she made sure that some deer hadn't gotten stuck inside her fenced-in pasture.  Her dog, who is young and playful, came with me happily.  Wolfie, however, couldn't stand it that now there were three of us on the path, instead of four.  He kept trotting back to retrieve his teacher, despite my calls to stay with me.  At one point he ran off altogether and returned triumphant, teacher in tow.

With a younger dog, he holds his head high with dignity, and tends to boss the juvenile around, which only makes the juvenile adore him more.  His relationship with Bisou is more nuanced.  He lets her take bones away from him, but at ball-throwing time, even though she runs as far and as fast as he does, she knows not to touch the ball.  He still hasn't given up hope of having children with Bisou, and he periodically gives it a try, despite the discomfort to his hind legs that crouching low must cause.  She is good natured about this, but eventually slithers out of his embrace.

Of late his demonstrations of affection for human visitors have become less exuberant, and he obeys, albeit reluctantly, the "enough!" command.  (None of this applies to his special beloveds--you know who you are--who encourage him with high-pitched voices and fond caresses.)  The one thing time hasn't improved is his tail, and the devastation it wreaks.  It is long and he wags it strongly (it has been known to knock small children to the ground), and is capable of clearing the coffee table of wine glasses in a single swoop.

Sometimes I take a look at Wolfie's baby pictures:  the ones where he was fat and blue-eyed and stuck his little tail straight up, like a kitten;  the ones where he's toddling in the snow after Lexi, the idol of his youth.  And I wonder how it happened that I, who have long attained the age of reason, never once thought about the consequences of getting a puppy that would grow into a big, strong, take-charge dog.  A dog whom I would not be able physically to control, since dogs are proportionately much stronger than people, and even a fifty-pound mutt can be a challenge for a well-muscled human.

But I believed in the effects of training on a sound temperament, and in Wolfie's case I was lucky. Still, when he was an adolescent, a single lunge on the lead inflicted damage on my shoulder that took months to stop hurting.  In reality, Wolfie doesn't have to do anything I tell him.  But he does, even when it involves hard stuff like waiting at the door before charging out to meet a playmate.  It is a miracle to me that an animal will control an urgent desire for my sake, not out of fear of punishment, but maybe  because he regards me as his alpha, or perhaps, even, because he loves me.

Or maybe because he has figured out that this serious loyalty, this kindly acquiescence, is the surest way to keep me bonded to him.