Transitions

Ripe persimmons after a rainfall, which is actually the best time to go and gather them.

Ripe persimmons after a rainfall, which is actually the best time to go and gather them.

It’s the first day of November. Walking the five blocks with my daughter to drop her off at her elementary school, we passed by two persimmon trees. Last week they were both in the throes of dropping ripe fruit, but now they are nearly bare. Every single day I had to fight off the urge to gather as many persimmons as possible, mainly because I didn’t have time to deal with them at home. Persimmons are not something you can sit on, literally and figuratively.

Last month I was facing the same dilemma with the last of the season’s pawpaws. It was a very good year for pawpaws here. I processed and froze maybe ten quarts of pulp, and who knows how many pounds of pawpaws I drug home. It was a tiny fraction of what I could have gathered hypothetically, but there are only so many hours in the day.

A sign that pawpaw season is on the outs. If you see a pawpaw like this one, for god's sake don't eat it. That rusty-looking orange tinge is oxidized and bruised flesh. This puppy is over the hill.

A sign that pawpaw season is on the outs. If you see a pawpaw like this one, for god's sake don't eat it. That rusty-looking orange tinge is oxidized and bruised flesh. This puppy is over the hill.

There are other tantalizing casualties of autumn: gingko nuts, crabapples. I can’t ever get as many as I would like. What I really want is for time to freeze, but that would be ultimately unbearable. The only thing that’s permanent is a state of transition. The cycles of time spin onward.

Career-wise, transition is also a permanent state for me. I’ve been gigging it as long as I’ve been in the food writing game, always cobbling together different jobs to piece together an income. For nearly a year, I’ve been editing the food section of the pop culture website Paste Magazine. The bulk of my food writing in the past ten months has gone there and not to this site, which is okay because I’m not heavy into blogging.

I also got deeper into the whole foraging thing, and it’s all been within walking distance of my house. Bringing unusual things home to eat is fun, but it’s going out there to look for them in the first place that helps me keep my sanity. There’s something about dragging five types of acorns home in my pockets that gives me a sense of purpose missing from being on the computer all day long, even if the only thing we do with the acorns is make them into goofy crafts. Humans can eat acorns—they were a staple food for many Native American tribes of California—but we’ve not made it that far yet. Rendering acorns into edible foodstuffs is work, more work than pulping our seedy native persimmons, even. I think I just like knowing this stuff is out there and I can groove on it for a little while before it’s gone.

The gigs are the same way, really. I get one and know it won’t be around forever, so I enjoy it while it lasts and keep my eyes alert for the next opportunity to replace it once it’s over. The pawpaws go away and the persimmons are waiting in the wings.

A lovely Diospyros virginiana.

A lovely Diospyros virginiana.

A hope of mine was to share a persimmon fruitcake recipe—I made three versions of it, but it’s still not quite there. These are the small and wily North American persimmons, by the way, not the big and knobby Fuyus or Hachiyas, though you can generally substitute Hachiya pulp for the sweeter and grittier pulp of Diospyros virginiana.

So instead, I’m going to leave you with a wish that you’ll go outside—a park, your backyard, a trail, anywhere—and look around and think about the way everything is today. What does it smell like, is it cloudy or not, are there leaves on the trees. Are there trees at all. I’m always seeing these lists like “20 National Parks to See Before You Die”, and it breaks my heart a little, because there’s a whole world around you every day that wants to be noticed, and it’s a little different every time, offering patterns and cycles and surprises all at once.

Crabapples from the house next door to one of my favorite persimmon spots. Back in September I made these into jelly with a little habanero pepper for kick.

Crabapples from the house next door to one of my favorite persimmon spots. Back in September I made these into jelly with a little habanero pepper for kick.


The Pawpaw Paradox / Scarcity and Abundance

Pawpaws have a powerful symbolic meaning to me as a reminder to move away from scarcity (the parts of my life that deplete me) and toward abundance (the things in my life that energize me, such as pawpaws).  However, wild pawpaws also embody scarcity and abundance in the most literal fashion possible, and I have been dealing with this in practice for the past few weeks.

In only ten minutes, I can walk to spots in the neighboring woods that are currently crawling with pawpaws. On a good day--like yesterday--if I'm really hoofing it, I can bring home about five pounds of pawpaws after ten short minutes of active searching. When I'm in the right mindset, it's almost as if the pawpaws just jump right off the trees and into my hands. They are unavoidable. Making use of them all is impossible. I could canvass the region for pawpaws, buy multiple giant freezers, devote myself full-time to capturing and processing them all, and still not make a dent in the county's pawpaw population.  

That wild seasonal abundance is what I consider a temporary infinite supply: the pawpaw paradox. Meanwhile,  the mass of pawpaw pulp that time realistically allows me to collect is finite. If I'm lucky, I'll come out of this season with about six quarts of frozen pulp, collected and extracted by my own loving hands. It's work I'm happy to do, and work that I don't consider work, but it does menace me, this pawpaw paradox. I hoard my pawpaw pulp and am reluctant to thaw and use it because once it's gone, it's gone. What if it's February and I need some for recipe testing? What if next year turns out to be a bad pawpaw year? When your culinary spirit animal is a fruit that's not grown on a commercial scale to speak of, the going gets tough.  Moderation is key.

Meanwhile, beautiful ripe pawpaws blacken and rot on the carpet of dry leaves out on the woods. This will happen for another two weeks, tops. We're spoiled by having everything we want at the snap of our fingers, be it produce, clothing, water, or visual and audio entertainment. The modern lives of the first-world bourgeoisie don't present us with much scarcity of anything, except for quiet time alone in nature. Luckily, the pawpaws don't need to be in season for us to access that.

It may not look like much on this screen, but this pawpaw is the centerfold of wild pawpaws.

It may not look like much on this screen, but this pawpaw is the centerfold of wild pawpaws.

On a side, note, I encountered yesterday the most wonderful feral pawpaw I've yet laid eyes on. One tree on my route was laden with about six giant pawpaws, ones that lit up the eyes of my inner food stylist. They are centerfold pawpaws. I tried to capture their beauty with my iPhone, but my skills could not do them justice. I processed the not-as-pretty pawpaws into pulp and drank a pawpaw lassi for breakfast this morning. It made me feel empowered and grateful. 

Pawpaw lassi, the breakfast of champions. Recipe is in my book!

Pawpaw lassi, the breakfast of champions. Recipe is in my book!


I Wrote a Cookbook

It's 38 pages long and there will be fewer than 500 copies, because we only ordered 500 sheets of cover stock, and I messed up on printing some of the covers and we had to pitch them. This edition is so limited that I'm not even sure yet how many copies make up the edition. Somewhere between 475 and 499, I guess.

In five days I'll pick up the finished books from the printer. This has been a strange journey, but a satisfying one.

Over the past ten years, I've attended seminars about how to promote cookbooks, listened to webinars about how to land an agent, participated in workshops on how to write a cookbook proposal, exchanged probably hundreds of emails with food writer friends about the ins and outs of agents and books and book contracts and manuscripts. I've tested recipes for seven cookbooks by other authors. I've started three different book proposals and fizzled out on each, for reasons I can't explain. They were all good ideas, and I knew exactly what needed to go into each proposal and in what format, but I just couldn't get over the hump of bringing all of the required pieces in order.  

My most recent of these ideas was the pawpaw cookbook. Initially I envisioned it as a regular cookbook, with some lovely color photography and at least 50 recipes. I wanted to go through a traditional publisher because that's what made sense to me, but a cookbook about a regional fruit that's barely available on any commercial scale  is a hard sell. 

I realized if the pawpaw cookbook I imagined was ever going to happen, it had to happen in a totally different way, and on a very small scale. 50 recipes became 12. Full-color photography became a few really cool spot illustrations. The cookbook became a zine: handmade in form and spirit.

My first encounter with pawpaws set me on an unexpected path, one that's meaningful because it's indirect.  I feel like it's a reckoning of sorts, this small pawpaw zine. Initially I hoped to do it because I love pawpaws and wanted to share trustworthy recipes for them, but eventually I accepted that I needed to do it for me, just so I could say I did.

Freed from the constraints of a book proposal, I was able to focus on what I love doing, which was writing and formatting recipes.  Though I'm naturally a very analytical person, I threw those over-planning instincts to the wind and did only rudimentary calculations about timelines, budgets, page counts, and design. I wanted to do it by feel and see where it took me. Since I was footing the bill, the only person I was accountable to was me.

The food writing world has turned itself inside-out in the 15 years I've been in it. A lot of those changes are ones I feel ambivalent about. In order to be true to my own instincts and convictions, I've needed to back away from a lot of its more frivolous aspects, because I'm not the kind of person who's able to convincingly do anything I'm not behind emotionally. This trait has not always made my life easy.

The only way the pawpaw zine could have happened was  by  following my heart. Even if I have 475 copies of it in my basement for the next 25 years, it'll still be worth it. 

Roasted Strawberries, circa 2012

(A transmission from a past life in Portland, Oregon)

The strawberries in our garden are in full swing now. We’re picking about a pint of ripe ones a day. All year long I wait for these little gems, the pleasure of plucking them right from our own backyard.

“They taste kind of weird,” says Joe, and he’s right. They’re a tad too acidic, or a tad too ripe, or just wan and watery. I blame the late-season rain, because it’s handy to blame things on the rain here. They’re not terrible berries, just not as mind-blowing as I’d like. I can go to the farmer’s market and get a flat of Oregon-grown Hood strawberries that will blow some minds. Our backyard strawberries are convenient and passable.

But they’re ours, and we’re kind of a weird family, so it’s fitting they taste weird. I still think they are miraculous in their way. I planted them three years ago after my brother and I walked past a house in our neighborhood with a bunch of strawberry starts laid out in the front yard next to a FREE sign. I get to ignore them all year long, and then for about a month they give me fruit.

A friend growing strawberries in her Portland yard shared that she feels so blessed in numbers that she spits out any offending berries that aren’t up to flavor spec. A luxury, yes, and one we could adopt here as well, but I love our underwhelming strawberry children, and I can’t bring myself to write them off.

So I’ve been blasting them in the oven a bit to intensify their flavors. Roasting fruit is de rigueur, so I’m not blazing any culinary trails here. I think some people roast strawberres on a parchment-lined sheet pan, but I want some syrup to go with it, so I put them in a small gratin dish that collects their gooey liquid. It’s almost like making jam in the oven, and it’s a jillion times easier, and I don’t have enough ripe backyard strawberries at a time to make jam, anyway. The vanilla bean is really what makes this amazing. It fills in that gap of exquisiteness my berries suffer from.

Roasted Strawberries, a.k.a. Oven-Baked Strawberry Compote

Makes about one cup

  • One pound (about a pint) strawberries, washed and hulled
  • 2-3 tablespoons turbinado sugar (though you could use any kind of sugar you had on hand; I like the fruitiness of turbinado)
  • ¼ vanilla bean
  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. If the strawberries are those big honking ones, you may want to cut them in half, but you don’t have to. Put them in a medium-sized shallow baking dish, preferably non-reactive (ceramic, enameled, or Pyrex vessels are good choices). Add the sugar. Split the vanilla bean vertically and scrape out the seeds; add the seeds and the scraped-out vanilla bean hull to the berries. Toss it all together a bit, but don’t worry about it too much. It’ll all even out in the oven.
  3. Place the dish, uncovered, in the oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring a little bit midway though if you remember. You want to see the berries collapse and lots of juice rapidly bubbling all around them. The whole mess will thicken and become jammy as it cools. 
  4. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to five days. Leave the vanilla bean hull in there so that the flavors both deepen and mellow as it all sits.

Here’s what you should do with this stuff:

  • Spoon it over nice, thick plain Greek yogurt (full fat!) 
  • After scraping the warm mixture into a container, there will be a bunch of syrup clinging to the spoon. Lick this off because you don’t want to waste it. It’s so sweet and a little wine-y and it might make you feel a bit sick, but it’s worth it. Wipe off your face when you are done; you will have ruby streaks all around your mouth. You can also share this spoon-licking part with your kid.

It's Raining Turkeys

Today I rubbed the cure on our Thanksgiving bird, an 11-pound turkey I ordered from the local Cheyenne Valley Farm. Dustin, who I bought it from at the farmers market, didn't recall what breed it was. A white something-or-other? 

So I have no idea if it's a heritage bird or not. The term refers to the many old-school turkey breeds that fell out of fashion beginning in the 1950s. I'm glad we have a locally raised bird, period, something that's not pumped full of hormones or water and vegetable oil (which a self-basting bird is.)

The modern history or turkeys in America is rich with stories and facts. I had the pleasure of writing about the development of the Broad Breasted White for Modern Farmer. It's an edifying read--one that's laced with the tale of my husband's grandfather, Vic Ryckebosch, whose breeding and farming innovations led to a robust and successful empire of poultry in the high dessert of Southern California's Antelope Valley.

And for more nugget-like turkey facts, check out this list of 10 Turkey Myths that I did for Mental Floss. It's useful stuff, like: don't rise off your bird before you roast it. Why? Read the article, dummy! And happy Thanksgiving. 

Book Giveaway!

Last month was a good one for anthologies. At least for me—I have the privilege of both Best Food Writing 2014 and Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume I including my work. I'm so excited, I'm giving away a copy of Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume I. To enter, just LIKE the Facebook page for The Sausagetarian, and then comment on this post by answering this question: What's the most  memorable thing you've read lately? 

Both of the essays in this recent anthology-rama are from the knock-down amazing website Full Grown People, which you should check out already if you haven’t yet, okay? Full Grown People isn’t a website about food; it’s about those moments in your grown-up life when you think, “Wait, I don’t have any of this figured out, do I?” Those job-losing, relationship-breaking, loved one-dying, oomph-fizzling times both subtle and dramatic. The experiences are diverse; the writing is always fantastic. Full Grown People founder and editor Jennifer Niesslein has a pulled together a family of sorts, one of both readers and writers, and given them the space to be bold and thoughtful together.

The two anthologized essays I wrote hinge on food and identity (alert Freud!) “Smelted,” which appears in Best Food Writing 2014, has to do with finding a place for my formal training as a chef in my home and marriage. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Yes, smelt makes a cameo. (Best Food Writing deserves its own post, so we'll do that next week.) 

The other essay, “Return of the Dropout,” is about chemistry, cured pork products, and an abandoned mid-life career change. That one is in Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume I. 

The honor of  regularly contributing to Full Grown People isn’t just about having a home for first-person essays that look deep into those messy gray areas that defy blurbs and sound bites. New essays go up twice a week, and every time I read one, I come away a little changed. I realize how differently we all approach the joys and travails of our days, how we deal with pain, loss, and happiness.  I realize that we’re all constantly seeking out that sweet spot of sustained contentment, and how slippery and shifting contentment can be. It moves into unexpected shapes and forms.

Listing my favorite essays from the site is tough…which is why you should just order Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume I today. Jody Mace’s “Animal House” not only cracked me up, it vastly improved my marriage; through reading it I learned about doggie diapers, and now my husband and I can have civilized discussions instead of dealing with dog pee disasters all over our carpet. Carol Paik’s “Something from Nothing” examines the beautiful absurdity of paper-making. Meredith Fein Lichtenberg’s lyrical “The Pull of the Moon” braids together motherhood, nature, and summer holidays. “The Pageant,” by Shaun Stallings Anzaldua, hilariously recounts a bizarre but deeply meaningful family Christmas tradition. Randy Osborne tenderly reveals his unlikely love for his pet squirrel in “All Sort of Things and Weather, Taken in Together.” In “Someone Stole Home,” Antonia Malchik will stir the heart of anyone who misses the place they came from. Catherine Newman’s “In Praise of Synthetic Vaginas” fearlessly sums up the elephant in the room about long-term sexual relationships.

See? I have to stop now. This is ridiculous. Get the book and read them all, kiddos! For a taste of what Full Grown People is all about, here’s one of the most distinctive, thoughtful, and complex essays I’ve read about food in years, Nicole Walker’s “Persuasion.” It’s about god and faith and eating a pig head, and it’s not in an anthology. Yet.