Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Plopping Breed

After flying like a bullet through the late-summer fields, Bisou comes back covered with burrs.  They are tiny and sticky and in less than a minute her silky hair forms big tight mats around every single one of them.

I put her belly-up on my lap and go to work--her long ears first, then the pale gold hair on her chest, the feathers on her legs, the weird long hairs that grow between her toes and are a mark of her breed.  No matter how careful I am, pinching the hair between the mat and the skin to keep from tugging, and making short strokes with the comb, it hurts.

Yet she stays in position, her wide eyes firmly fixed on mine, reaching up periodically to lick my face.  I have brushed a lot of dogs in my life--large and small, long- and short-haired, tough and sensitive--but never one like this.

This is what more than four-hundred years of selective breeding gets you.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels became popular in the 17th century under King Charles II of England.   The King was never without his pack of "spaniels gentle," and published an edict allowing the little dogs to appear in public anywhere in the kingdom.  (I would take Bisou everywhere with me too, if I didn't feel guilty about leaving Wolfie behind.)

After the burrs and the mats are gone, Bisou shakes herself and plops down on my lap.  She is an excellent plopper.  It seems impossible to me that a dog with her muscles and speed and passionate drive can turn it all off in an instant, and just plop.  I wish I could be like that.

Four centuries of breeding do not come without a price, however.  Cavaliers are plagued with heart problems, neurological problems, eye and ear problems, so it's crucial to pick from healthy stock.
But before you even think of getting a Cavalier, you need to be prepared for the plop issue.

Whenever she's not chasing balls or frogs or butterflies, your dog will want to be on your lap.  In the hottest hours of the year she might temporarily desert your lap to lie down next to you, but the entire length of her body will be right against your sweaty leg.  Then the minute the temperature drops, she will, with a groan of deep satisfaction, plop down on your lap again.

If you own a Cavalier, make sure before you sit down that you have at hand your phone, your book, your computer, your coffee, and your reading glasses, since once a Cavalier has plopped on your lap, you don't get up for trivial reasons.  She will be deaf to your commands to move, and if you try to shift her she will somehow make herself infinitely heavier than her eighteen pounds.  You will have to lift her bodily, and when you come back to your chair having retrieved whatever it was you thought you had to have, she will have moved into the warm spot that you left behind, and you will have to shift her again.  Fortunately, she won't hold that against you.

Over the four years that Bisou's been with me, I've gotten used to my little red shadow.  In the beginning, she would periodically disappear and I would search all over the house for her.  Now I know, if she's not either on me or within a couple of yards of me, to check the bedroom closet.  She follows me in there when I get dressed, and sometimes when I leave she's busy sniffing shoes and I shut the door before she can get out.

King Charles was a man of taste.  He wore little heels and long curly wigs and liked to have fun.  He made it legal for women in England to act on the stage, and without him we wouldn't have  Dames Vanessa, Helen, Judi or Maggie.  But worst of all, I wouldn't have Bisou.

Bisou and the King

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Winter's Worth Of Wort

In Vermont, people spend much of the summer preparing for winter.  They garden obsessively, and then they can, freeze, dry, pickle and jell the harvest.  They scour the countryside for sources of well-cured hay for their goats, horses, donkeys, llamas and sheep (people who have cows usually grow their own hay).  And they chop, split and stack wood into piles that are viewed with as much admiration as the rows of canned beans, tomatoes and apple sauce in the pantry.

I do a little of all the above, though now that my goats are gone my hay hunt is limited to what I use for mulch and chicken bedding.  But these activities only address the body's needs, for warmth and nourishment.  This year, I wanted to address the needs of the mind and heart as well.

Even when the vegetables are canned and the freezer is full and the wood is stacked, Vermonters shudder slightly at the thought of  winter:  the long dark evenings and the sporadic isolation that the weather imposes on even the hardiest souls.  At one time or another, between November and March, most of us complain of winter blues, cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder and generalized Weltschmerz.

Saint John's Wort  has long been revered in Europe as a remedy against moderate depression, PMS, insomnia, SAD, OCD, and a number of other ills .  I've always liked it that this plant, with its supposedly cheering effects, looks so cheerful, from its bright yellow flowers to its blood-red sap.

I like it so much that this year I went slightly overboard.  I filled a couple of big trash bags with flowers and leaves and macerated them for a month in two half-gallon jars filled with the cheapest vodka I could find.  Yesterday I gave them a final shake, strained the contents through cheese cloth, and decanted the wild-looking red tincture--the mere sight of which made me feel instantly energized--into bottles:

I threw the extremely alcoholic vegetable detritus into the chicken house and waited around to see what the hens would do.  They sniffed it and turned away in disgust, but the stuff will make terrific compost anyway.

With more than I could possibly use of the potent tincture at hand, I feel well armed against winter--practically looking forward to it, in fact.  I can see myself now, dispensing largesse from the top of our hill, squirting dropperfuls of the red panacea onto the tongues of melancholy friends...

(To those of you who are knowledgeable about herbs:  do not be disturbed by those bottles in the sunny window.  I  put them there just for picture-taking purposes.  I have since stowed them safely in a darker place.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Good Bread And How To Make It

After my recent post lamenting the decline of bread as a wholesome food, Jaimie sent me a link to a website that offers an older, healthier variety of wheat. 

I then searched for local sources of this flour and didn't find any.  But I did find a Vermont farmer who produces organic stone-ground flour from hard red winter wheat.  Bread purists say that the only way to make good bread is to grind your own flour, but since I neither own a grinder nor can deal with the minimum purchase of 50 lbs of wheat berries at the farm, I compromised by driving 40 minutes (which is as nothing around here) to a co-op that sells this flour in bulk.

I scooped what looked to me like fifteen pounds--after all, winter's on the way--into a plastic bag and came home and put it in the fridge.  The next day I looked up some recipes and stumbled upon one in Countryside Magazine (unfortunately I cannot find it again on their website without signing up for something or other) that looked reasonably easy.  Here is my version:

Put 3 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour into a bowl and add 2 tablespoons brown sugar (next time I'll try honey instead), 2 teaspoons salt and 2 teaspoons yeast.  Mix well.

Add 2 tablespoons coconut oil or butter (I used coconut oil, but will try olive oil with the next batch) to 1 1/2 cups of water that's been heated to 100F-120F.  When the fat has melted, pour liquid into the flour and mix. Add one egg.  Mix well and gradually add another cup or so of flour until the dough reaches the right consistency for kneading. 

Knead, in the bowl or on a floured board, for ten minutes (the recipe says to knead it in a mixer, but where's the fun of that?).

Put the dough in a greased bowl, turn it to grease all sides, cover it with a cloth and let it rise in a warm spot for about an hour.  Then punch it down, divide it into two loaves and place them into greased loaf pans.  Cover and let rise for one to two hours.

Bake the loaves at 350F for about half an hour.  Then let them cool in the pans for about ten minutes.  Remove the loaves and finish cooling them on wire racks.

Although this is nothing like the crusty bread of my childhood, it is sweet and nutty, easy to slice and surprisingly light, considering that it's made with 100% whole wheat. I froze one loaf and made some inroads into the other.

The bad news?  I gained a pound.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Change Of Tempo

As I write, in the kitchen tomato sauce is bubbling, eggplants are roasting, and bread dough, I hope, is rising.

This is only a fraction of what I should be doing:  making pesto out of kale, and freezing industrial quantities of broccoli, chard, arugula and rhubarb.  It's the time of year when I almost dread going out to the garden to see what is screaming to be picked right now.

And then, of course, I want to write here about it, all of which sometimes leads to mental as well as physical exhaustion.  If I am to survive this season--and I do realize that choosing this moment to start baking bread again is insane, but I found a source of terrific flour that I'll tell you about soon--I am going to have to slow down the pace of my posting.

I could, of course, choose to not harvest, not bake, not walk the dogs, but then what would I write about?

So I hope that you will be more patient than the tomatoes and the eggplants and the peppers and the greens and not dry up on me or turn away in disgust.  My aim is to post regularly, two or three times a week, with illustrations, and in between give the well time to replenish itself.  Writing and drawing here gives shape to my life and joy to my days.  I wouldn't dream of quitting.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Department Of True Confessions: My Fur Coat

It's hanging in the entrance closet, under a tailor-made cover with my name embroidered on it.  I've had it since the year I turned forty, a gift from my spouse.

It was supposed to signify that I had finally attained maturity, intellectual ripeness and maybe even common sense, and that he and I, together, had by sheer dint of sweat and some tears excavated the basement and were now adding floors to the house of our marriage:  children on the verge of adolescence, careers on the upswing, future looking o.k.  It was the 80s, and people wore fur then.

The coat wasn't a surprise, since it had to be fitted and adjusted to my measurements.  We shopped for it together, over a period of months, going from fur store to fur store in Baltimore.  We'd walk into those silent, carpeted rooms and were instantly attended by a salesman (never, for some reason, a saleswoman) while I tried to exude a self-confident urban chic that my academic weeds belied.

The salesman would look me over, then disappear and return holding what looked like a large animal limp in his arms.  Holding the coat by the shoulders he would sweep it insouciantly over the carpet and then  ruffle the fur the wrong way with his hand, in the exact gesture that cats despise.

I felt terribly nervous.  What were we doing, proposing to spend x amount of dollars on a winter coat?  Didn't I already own a perfectly serviceable parka?  But, hey, I was turning forty, and it was the 1980s.

One thing I was sure of:  I did not want mink.  Mink was of my mother's generation, and I wanted a fur that was more hip.  Coyote and fox were too dog-like.  Sable was out of our price range, as were marten and ermine.  That left--and I am beating my breast as I write--seal.

Not the pure white coat of the baby seal, but the deep, even, chocolate brown fur of the adult, short and velvety and delicious to the touch.  Its raised collar caressed my cheeks like a butterfly.  Its cuffs tickled my wrists.  And from shoulders to mid-calf I felt enveloped in a softness that was at once cool and amazingly warm.  We bought the seal coat.

What makes us do these things?  I have no idea.  All I can say is that, while I would not have bought something made from an animal that I knew to be endangered, such as an ocelot, I wore that seal coat as unthinkingly as I ate hamburgers at McDonald's or put newspapers in the garbage.  Those were the days.

But they didn't last, thank goodness.  By the time the decade was over, the horrors of the fur trade had been made public, and urban fur-wearers were routinely spattered with paint the color of blood.  On cold days I found myself reaching for a wool jacket, or my trusty old parka.

It's been a quarter century since I last wore that coat.  Although it makes me uneasy to see it hanging in my closet--I should do something with it, but what?--I'm glad that things have changed.  I'm glad that nobody--nobody I know, anyway--wears fur anymore.  I'm glad that many people think twice now before eating industrially-produced beef.  I'm glad that almost everybody recycles.

And on days when I feel that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, when the climate is warming and Egypt is exploding, I think of the fur coat languishing in my closet and say to myself that, at least in some things, we have made progress.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When Did Bread Become Bad?

It used to be the staff of life.  Now, you'd think it was the staff of death.

If the latter is true, it's a miracle that I survived my Barcelona childhood, for my days were punctuated by slices of bread.  Bread and butter for breakfast and, after school, bread and chocolate, or pa sucat amb oli--bread drizzled with olive oil.  And bread with lunch and dinner.

I can still hear my mother's serrated knife cutting into the brittle crust as crumbs exploded everywhere.  The pale yellow and gray tiles of the dining room floor had to be swept after every meal.  But before that, as my parents and my aunts lingered over a dessert of almonds, oranges, or dried figs I would lick my index finger and press it into the little shards of crust on the tablecloth and eat crumbs until only flour dust remained.

When we moved to the land of Dixie in the late 50s, the supermarket shelves only stocked variations on Wonder Bread, and my father used to say, wrinkling his nose at the floppy white square in his hand, "this bread--it's like eating a piece of towel!"  There were no crumbs to sweep up after those meals.

Me, I even kind of liked Wonder Bread, but then, in the 1970s, when my children were young and I was trying with all my might to do the right thing, I found a recipe for whole-wheat bread that was supposed to be healthy and nutritious.  For years I spent Sunday afternoons baking six-loaf batches, which I would then slice with an electric meat slicer and freeze.  That bread was nothing like the crusty Catalan bread of my childhood, and my kids were embarrassed to take it to school in their lunch boxes, but it was sweet, nutty and robust and oh, how the kitchen smelled on Sunday afternoons.

The downfall of bread began shortly after that.  First, we were told that it was fattening;  then there was concern that its carbohydrate load would cause hypoglycemia;  and finally, millions of people developed wheat allergies that ranged from annoying to life-threatening.

I was one of the many who developed a sensitivity to wheat, and for a year I abstained from it altogether, a sacrifice compared to which giving up cigarettes in my twenties was a snap.  Now I can eat wheat, as long as I don't eat too much, or too often.

I come from generations of bread eaters.  True, they didn't grow nearly as tall as milk-and-meat-fed Americans, but they were healthy enough, and not a single one was obese.  So what has changed?   Did the old varieties of wheat have something that the new ones don't, or vice versa?   Have our bodies evolved away from this most basic of foods?

These days I hardly ever eat bread, for where is the pleasure in eating only a little and not too often?  If I have to monitor every bite, I'd just as soon do with no bites at all.  But still, I mourn the absence of bread from my life.

I may some day look into the matter of wheat varieties, and see if there are any that are less noxious than others.  And if there are, I know how I'll be spending my Sunday afternoons.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Dream (Pantyhose) Quilt

If the internet had corporeal substance, I would kiss its feet.

Here's why.  Back in the 1970s, when I was deep inside the jaws of my earth mother fantasy, I used to borrow The Mother Earth News from the library.  Some of the articles led me down perilous paths, such as the one that advocated feeding poison ivy to goats and then drinking the milk in order to become immune to the plant's itch-producing substance, or the one that inspired me to carve wooden spoons.

But the most fascinating to me was entitled "Use Old Pantyhose As Quilt Stuffing."  The author showed you how to make little square bags from leftover fabric, stuff them with old pantyhose--first cutting off the waistband and saving it for staking tomatoes--and sew them together into a cozy comforter.

In those days I used to order pantyhose by the gross, in black, taupe, navy and ecru.   And what with running out to milk the goats on my way to the college where I taught, and doing a spot of weeding when I got back from class without bothering to change, I was always getting runs and snags.

Although I had loads of old hose, I didn't have much time.  I never made the quilt, but the fantasy of it stayed with me, as compelling as when I had first read about it.  That quilt seemed like the perfect combination of art and frugality--you put to use an item that would otherwise sit in a landfill for eons, and ended up with an object that was both useful and full of rustic charm.

The years passed, and every once in a while I would think about the pantyhose quilt.  Did every square require an entire pantyhose?  How exactly did you assemble the squares?

Then recently in an idle moment I googled "stuffed quilts."  There were many sites with instructions, but none used discarded pantyhose, and the little bags had tucks in them to make room for extra  stuffing, so that the quilts ended up looking like bubble wrap.

I decided to try my luck on The Mother Earth News site.  I typed in "Pantyhose Quilt,"  pressed "search," and the article came winging out of my past, as fresh and exciting as when I first read it in 1979:

Isn't the internet a wonder?

So, you ask, have I started on my quilt yet?  Alas, no.  For one thing, it's been over a decade since I threw away my last pair of pantyhose.  And, for another, I am not a quilter, although I would love to be one, to sit for hours peacefully cutting and stitching and stuffing, fully immersed in my task, without a pressing thought in my head.  But that last bit always gets me into trouble, and seven minutes into an ostensibly calming, mindless task I'm running through the house looking for my Kindle.

No, I'll never make my pantyhose quilt.  I will read the article once more, figuring out measurements and wondering if old towels would work in lieu of hose.  Then I will hit "Delete" and consign the pantyhose quilt to my attic of unfulfilled fantasies, where it will pop up every couple of years and tempt me with its vision of both hominess and sustainability.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Garden Fairies

It's the easiest vegetable to grow, the one that makes it necessary to lock your car in summer so neighbors won't dump their surplus into it. And yet, for the past three summers I've barely been able to grow any zucchini.  This year's plants yielded a single small one--it was tender and delicious--before expiring.

On the other hand, I can grow eggplants like nobody's business.  Right now my six plants are so overloaded they're leaning into each other like drunks coming out of a pub.  I grow the cucumber-shaped Japanese variety, and they're hanging off the branches in grape-like bunches, starting with tiny two-inch ones at the top down to banana-sized ones at the bottom.

Yesterday I picked nine.  I must do something with them right away.  But they are so perfectly purple, shiny and decorative that it seems a pity to slice them and roast them and put them in the freezer.  While I dither about yesterday's harvest, who knows how many more have matured overnight?

Pleased though I am with the eggplants, I still can't understand my bad luck with zucchini.  I have grown it successfully in the past, so why not now? After two years of failures, this summer I planted the zucchini in front of the house, as far as I could get it from the garden.  Different soil, different ambiance, same result:  dead plants.

It must be fate.

Or fairies (same thing--the word "fairy" comes from the Greek for "fate")

It's entertaining and relaxing, since it absolves me of responsibility, to stand back and view the garden as the playground of little folk.  It might explain all sorts of mysteries, such as the amazing resurrection of the arugula, the holes in the bean leaves, and the sunflower that towers like a satellite dish over the tomato bed.

I'm thinking that the powerful and ambitious eggplant fairies, in their quest for supremacy in the garden, have driven out the zucchini folk.  I can't wait to see what happens when they take on the kale.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Word Follies

Redundancy, tautology, pleonasm--they all mean using more words than are necessary to convey a certain meaning.

I especially like bilingual pleonasms--expressions that feature two words with the same meaning, for  example, "the fireplace is the focus of the room"--as if it could be anything else, focus meaning "fire" in Latin. 

The French phrase, repondez s'il vous plait, already has a "please" in it, so one of the most common pleonasms, "please RSVP,"  is really pleading  "please, please respond."

Please RSVP
Restaurant menus abounds in pleonasms, such "steak with au jus,"   "a la carte menu," "prix fixe price," and "shrimp scampi."  These could be eliminated by requiring all chefs and restaurant owners to major in the language of the cuisine they specialize in.

Other pleonasms are unavoidable if you want to be understood.  Go into an American kitchen store and ask for a paella or a casserole (both words for "pan" in Catalan and French respectively) and they'll think you want the edible contents rather than the container itself.

But the worst--or maybe the best--pleonasm of all is the one I accidentally committed when I named  this blog.  Vermont gets its name from the French les verts monts--the green mountains.  So My Green Vermont is really saying "my green green mountains," which right now, with all the rain we've had, is certainly accurate.

I thought this was hilarious until my ever-witty spouse suggested that, since we live on a hill, I  rename the blog My Green Vermont Mountain.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Bad Day, Good Dogs

I had a bad day yesterday, the result of being overenthusiastic about life in general a couple of days ago.  This is how it is with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome--you're going along thinking you're fine and then forty-eight hours later it hits you--the delayed negative reinforcement known in CFS circles as "payback."

On days like that, when I manage to brush my teeth but not to get out of my pajamas, the dogs are a comfort.  They stay close without making demands, almost as if my inertia were contagious.  This is the time when Wolfie's anaplasmosis turns into an advantage for me, since it keeps him from jumping up and dashing about and wanting to be doing stuff outside.  And the three-hundred years of lapdog breeding which Bisou carries in her DNA cause her, on such days, to want nothing more than to lie next to me or, better still, on top of me.

Nevertheless, I know that despite my dogs' good nature they do need some exercise, so in the afternoon when my mind cleared a bit and I felt a whiff of energy I put on some clothes and called the dogs and took them for a walk up and down the long driveway. 

After two weeks of tropical weather that almost led the people of Vermont to commit mass suicide, the temperatures have turned autumnal, and the land has put on its late-summer look.  On the trees, the chartreuse shades of early spring have been replaced by the deep greens of August. This is also the time of yellow flowers, which begins soon after the solstice with the yellow blooms of St.
John's wort, followed by the yellow stars of black-eyed susans and now the first plumes of goldenrod, which will eventually transform the fields and hedgerows into a sea of yellow.

The cooler temps always give Wolfie a new lease on life and send his anaplasmosis into temporary remission.  He chases Bisou;  he dashes through the grass;  and he carries sticks.  He looks for the biggest stick he can find in the woods and bears it forth triumphantly, head and tail held high, strutting like a drum major.

He holds these sticks in the middle, so that the ends swing around haphazardly and strike whatever is in the way.  We have all learned to jump clear of Wolfie when he's in stick mode.  Yesterday he found an especially good one, as thick as my wrist and almost as long as the width of the driveway.  I was watching him and chortling to myself when he suddenly changed directions and wham! hit me a hard blow on the hip.

Time to limp back home.  I let him carry the stick all the way up the hill, then asked him to give it to me, which he did.  I looked him in the eye, said "leave it!"  and heaved the stick into the field.  He didn't go after it, because he's a good dog who's had a ton of training by a sensible owner, if I say so myself. 

I put Wolfie in the house and squatted down to the job of drying off Bisou.  Unless we are in the middle of a drought, in which case she comes back from walks covered in burrs, every time she goes outside she ends up drenched from head to foot. That's what comes of thinking that the only fun is to be had by tunneling through the five-foot-tall grass. But she too is a good dog, though she's had far less training than Wolfie, and lets me dry her off without complaint.

With two good dogs like mine, there's no such thing as a really bad day.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Papal Bossa Nova

I wasn't particularly moved by the big crowds that cheered you in Rio, Francis, or by the babies you kissed--after all, John Paul II was as popular as a rock star and kissed plenty of third-world babies while telling their mothers that using condoms was a sin.

The dancing bishops did make me smile--they reminded me of those end-of-the-school-year shows put on by first-graders:

But then came the extraordinary press conference on the plane back to Rome, when you said about gay priests, "If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?"

That statement is being deconstructed all over the planet.  Fundamentalists of all denominations will see it as an open door to the kind of relativism that leads souls straight to hell.  Liberals, on the other hand, claim that you didn't go far enough.  You didn't declare yourself in favor of gay marriage.  You didn't contradict your predecessor's decrees about the inherent sinfulness of homosexuality.

You didn't go far enough for me either.  But the humble tone of that "who am I to judge?" was so unexpected, so revolutionary, that it makes me think you might just manage to keep the Church from going down the tubes.

Then you went and said that John Paul II had once and for all closed the doors of the priesthood to women.

You softened that by saying that we do not yet have a deep theology of woman in the Church.  I'm not sure what that means, but it implies that the theology of woman would be different from the theology of man, and I am suspicious of that.  I know that men and women are different, but the emphasis on those differences, as opposed to the emphasis on their common humanity, has seldom worked to women's advantage.  And in the long history of the Church the almost exclusive focus on difference has been disastrous.
You also said that you seek a greater role for women in the Church.  But no matter what else you allow them, as long as women are barred from ordination they will continue to be second-class citizens.

One step forward, two steps back--but this is no time for dancing, Francisco.   It's time to march directly towards what is right.