Tag Archives: cooking

Soup For Eternity

A late spring frost followed by a heat wave suppressed most of my grandparents’ garden this summer. The weather stunted their otherwise abundant fruits, their berries and apricots and grapes. Some crops made it through, though, a steady supply of carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and lots of squash.

The last few times I’ve visited, I’ve made them food with the same combination of ingredients: roasted squash and carrots in a tomato sauce, ratatouille in a cast iron, pizza with beet greens and thinly sliced yellow squash, and most recently tomato soup, which was probably the best meal I’ve made for my grandparents.

Soup becomes a daily meal for me in winter. Starting in November, I make a pot of soup every Sunday to last through the week: Lentil tomato, cream of mushroom, leek and potato. When there isn’t a readily obvious protein, I throw in beans or lentils, catered to my own vegetarian needs and wants.

M.F.K Fisher writes on the subject, “As a steady diet, plain water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavor of the hot liquid. Soup, in other words, is good” (209).

Soup is intuitive. Soup is ubiquitous. I almost never use a recipe these days, instead relying on basic soup principles (start with onions and garlic in oil, evenly cut vegetables, simmer with broth, salt along the way) and different combinations of the ingredients I have, the nutrients I need, and the flavors of the season. Soup is necessary. Soup is forever.

Goodness aside, Fisher is right that soup connotes simplicity, even meagerness. During the Irish Famine, Irish farmers mockingly referred to famine relief measures as the Soup Kitchen Act (Preet). In western cuisine, soup is a side dish, essential only as a complement to other dishes. Frances Moore Lappé writes in Diet for a Small Planet that her soup recipes are based on ingredients she usually has on hand: “carrots, potatoes, canned tomatoes, and onions” (289). She even titles her soup chapter “A Meal in a Soup Pot.”

However good it might be, to live on soup alone is considered foolhardy martyrdom. Here, I think of the “bread ale soup” in the 1987 film Babette’s Feast. In the film, two sisters named Martine and Philippa keep the modest traditions of their father’s pious Protestant congregation alive on the Danish coast, whose typical meal is a brown viscous soup possibly based on Øllebrød, a Danish porridge of rye bread, dark beer, and honey.

Babette, a friend of a former suitor of one of the sisters, seeks refuge with them after fleeing political violence in France. She, like the audience, is unsettled by the blandness of the sisters’ food. As their new cook, she adds simple ingredients, an onion, sugar. The whole congregation comes to appreciate the small additions. When Babette receives an immense fortune from France, her decision to spend it on a feast for her hosts is an act of grace (for Protestants) or sacrifice (for Catholics).

Scene from Babette’s Feast

Culinary traditions are historically and culturally informed. Babette brings to the modest piety of small-town Protestants the traditions of upper-class Catholic French society, two unique styles that come to benefit from one another as the congregants’ modesty playfully competes with the cook’s exuberance. The film is not about a snobby French chef looking down on peasant food, nor is it about salt-of-the-earth farmers turning their noses up at pretentious gluttony, but about characters whose trajectories require them, simply, to try new things.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy cooking with and for my grandparents is that our cultural contexts for food are quite similar: We both learned to cook during financial crises that coincided with national obsessions over health and nutrition.

Nutritional science is a relatively recent field. The first isolation of a vitamin was only in 1926, and post-WWI crises sparked greater interest in food efficiency to combat scarcity. The 1933 Federal Emergency Relief Act, for example, included the distribution of household nutritional guides. One such pamphlet, Food Budgets for Nutrition and Production Programs, detailed nutritional estimates for a “liberal diet,” an “adequate diet,” and an emergency “restricted diet.” However, nutritional standards were still highly experimental at the time. As Ziegelman and Coe put it, “the scientific precision of federal food relief was illusory” (174).

Food pyramids and panics over nutrition shaped my childhood in an inverse way. In middle school, we were required to watch Supersize Me multiple times, were regularly shown “got milk?” corporate ads, and the standard 2,000 calories per day we were told we needed is actually a very rough estimation. Budgeting wasn’t our concern. Instead, as public schools installed soda machines, we were told to take personal responsibility for our own healthy decision-making.

Megan Elias, in an article titled “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History,” describes the disconnect between nutritionists’ emphasis on budgeting the healthiest ingredients and the recipes different American communities were used to. Nutritionists “saw canned tomatoes as a good source of vitamin C” and so they encouraged Americans to buy tomatoes instead of other vitamin C-rich foods. However, most American households “had no idea what to do with tomatoes aside from making tomato soup, which was one of the few tomato recipes to consistently appear in American cookbooks at the time,” most of which called for butter or milk, both in short supply (Elias 26). Nevertheless, Italian-American families fared well with this suggestion because Italian-American cuisine frequently used tomatoes in many recipes, making them “heroes to the relief agency.”

Elias’s point is that “expectations, tastes, and cultural biases do not disappear when the food does” (26). Food is historically informed and culturally interpreted, and therefore cannot be reduced only to its chemical components in a time of food scarcity. When I make soup, I have a bad habit of overvaluing nutritional efficiency. Like the Protestants in Babette’s Feast, I’m slowly attending to taste.

My grandmother tells me that her father’s garden in Kennewick was a lifesaver. This was and is true for many, many families. In a time of crisis, a modest plot of land to grow fruits and vegetables on produced enough to keep the family afloat. My family cooked with what grew best in the landscape, with what would keep well in winter or was easily canned for the pantry.

This fall, I experimented with what was available in their garden. I tested out different combinations of familiar ingredients in a time of relative scarcity, making use of small abundance. I don’t know what ingredients will be unavailable in coming years, as climate change worsens agriculture, but I do know that culinary adaptation will succeed only through a willingness, above all else, to try new things.


Elias, Megan. “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History.” The Public Historian Vol. 34 no. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 13-29.

Fisher, MFK. The Art of Eating. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.

Lappé, Frances Moor. Diet for a Small Planet. Ballantine Books, 1982.

Preet, Edythe. “The History of Irish Soup.” Irish America Vol. 16 no. 6. January 31, 2001.

Ziegelman, Jane, Andrew Coe. A Square Meal. Harper Collins, 2016.

Scones for Friends

Orange pumpkin scones in a black cast iron skillet.

A few weekends ago, I drove from Spokane to Moscow to see some friends. On the seat next to me was a plate of peach scones, wrapped in foil, sliding from side to side as I curved through the yellow hills of the Palouse, vibrant miles and miles of wheat.

A sign on the last county before Idaho reads “Entering Whitman County, The Nation’s Leading Producer of Wheat.” Most of the wheat in the Palouse is soft white winter wheat, which produces flour with less moisture, making it useful for cakes, pastries, and crackers. On day three of baking school, cake flour was just one of fifteen flours I sifted my fingers through to identify by texture, color, and moisture content, all of us pre-chefs standings around tiny bread pans filled with cake flour, whole wheat, cracked wheat, soy flour, all powdering our fingertips. I’ve only used all-purpose flour for my scones.

This wasn’t the first or last time I baked scones for social purposes. For an English department event I thought was a potluck but was actually just some beers and chips among mostly tenured faculty outside the Humanities Building, I brought a platter of pumpkin scones. Having the excuse of a gift makes it less nerve-racking, these social interactions, and there’s something anachronistic about it, too.

It’s comforting, I think, because of how bad I usually am at building and maintaining friendships. When I leave a place, I leave it entirely, forgetting too soon how lonely my preferred state of aloneness can become. Scones give me purpose, something to absorb my anxiety like a sponge: I promise I care about you, and here’s a plate of fresh-baked evidence that I hope will speak for me so I can stay quiet.

Supposedly the first recorded reference to scones is from the Scottish bishop Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “On grene herbis and sonkis gres./The flour sconnis war sett in, by and by” (88). The word scone possibly comes from the Scottish Sgonn, which Alexander MacBain’s 1896 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines as “a block of wood, blockhead; sgonn-balaich, lump of a boy, ‘section'” (317). However, the aptly named Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology (self-published by the Reverend Thomas Richard Brown in 1843) identifies sgonn as a Gaelic word meaning “a prater; and droll, an idle person: which seems to be synonymous with sgonn-bhalach, a scoundrel” (124).

All western baking traditions are products of modernity, though. The earliest references to scones appear just before the widespread use of ingredients we think of as essential for them. Sugar was one of the primary crops of the slave trade, which the British were in the process of expanding in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century; tea imported from China did not enter conventional British social life until the early eighteenth century; and baking soda wasn’t a household product until the nineteenth century. As Great Britain expanded its reach, afternoon tea time became a form of “participating in the continued success of the British Empire” (Fromer 538), a symbolic act of consuming the fruits of violent conquest abroad.

I don’t know what premodern scones were like, but their etymology (from lump, not scoundrel) could accurately describe many different kinds of bread. In 1999, a team of Oxford archaeologists working in Yarnton discovered what the BBC called the oldest bread in Britain: small burned blobs of 5,500-year-old crushed barley. Plenty of evidence suggests that in Neolithic Britain, “cereals were primarily cultivated on a fairly small scale,” such as “garden plots that would have shifted around with people” (Cummings & Harris 831), so unlike the static winter wheat fields of the Palouse.

I’m drawn to these ancient bits of toast because of their context. The Neolithic period was one of intense climatic change, of chaos and uncertainty. One important note: the barley chunks were also found with apple cores and hazelnut shells. Barley was probably difficult to grow in large quantities, so the first bread in Britain may have been ritualistic, a treat for a special occasion rather than a staple.

With limited resources, one type of probably rougher flour, no baking soda, and only honey as a sweetener, the barley lumps/scoundrels may have looked more the “oily cakes” that the protagonists make in Kelly Reichardt’s 2019 First Cow. Set in 1820 in the Oregon Territory, the characters Cookie and King-Lu begin making a kind of fried dough using milk stolen from the only cow in the region, owned by a British governor known by his title as the Chief Factor. When Factor finally tastes the cakes, he remarks without an ounce of self-awareness for what the cake implies that it “tastes of England.”

The film is ostensibly about friendship, but I think it’s also about the difficulty of an authentic friendship under capitalism. When the working class must sell their labor—their mind, body, time, and spirit—to the ruling class, it becomes easier to treat one another as mere resources, just as our bosses do. In First Cow, it’s unclear until the final scene how much King-Lu and Cookie’s friendship is transactional, a mere business deal.

A journalist obtained from A24 Reichardt’s recipe for the oily cakes, from co-writer Jonathan Raymond, which was developed “from historical recipes of the time.” Requiring “just an astonishing amount of lard” to cook the yeast, fat, egg, and all-purpose flour, the formula is more like rustic pancakes.

Like a conventional short story, the film coalesces around one character’s final decision to act or to not act: King-Lu could take the profits from the cake sales and abandon Cookie, or remain with him, as Factor hunts them down after discovering their thievery. The friendship portrayed is both sincere and realistically fraught, even doomed, by the social circumstances that originally shape it.

Every time I make scones, I either use a different recipe or a different flavor. This is the opposite of industrial baking for profit, which requires uniformity. I’m glad for the uneven, lumpy, rustic shape my scones often take. I like that no two batches are the same. The pumpkin scones were the best batch I’ve made in a while (an earlier attempt at pear scones were less successful). I shared half of the batch with some fellow humanities adjuncts over dinner after the department event, along with soup made from the produce of a theology professor’s garden.

I don’t know what I’ll bake for the next occasion to share a meal. Maybe I’ll experiment with barley flour. Lumpy scoundrel already sounds like a type of doughnut. Maybe I’ll bake them with hazelnut, local apples, and fresh milk.


Brown, Thomas Richard. A Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology. 1843.

Cummings, Vicki, Oliver T.J. Harris. “The Continuity of Hunting and Gathering in the Neolithic and Beyond.” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers. Ed. Vicki Cummings, Peter Jordan, & Marek Zvelebil. Oxford University Press, 2014, 825-837.

Douglas, Gavin. The poetical works of Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld; with memoir, notes, and glossary. Edinburgh, 1874.

Fromer, E. Julia. “‘Deeply Indebted to the Plant’: Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea.” Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 36 (2008) pg. 531-547.

Ratatouille for One

My new apartment is small. People tell me it’s too small and I shrug them off, but when I cook here, I realize how important kitchen space is to me. I stack three plastic bins of books (lacking the shelf space for all my fiction) as a makeshift island. I leave dishes next to my modem to dry on a mat.

Pile of uncooked tomatoes, yellow squash, carrot, garlic, and onion.

I moved to Spokane for several reasons: A fresh start, to teach part-time, to live in a state with (relatively) better healthcare, and to get professional training as a baker. I can write, read, and sleep well enough just about anywhere, but I didn’t realize how precious kitchen space can be.

When I get home with a bag of squash, tomatoes, and onions from my grandparents’ garden after visiting them in Montana, I squeeze myself between my door as it barges against a lamp and my fridge. Here, I feel like I’m in a scene from the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille, in which Linguini brings Remy to his own similarly tiny Parisian apartment, where Remy takes in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the studio window. My new place doesn’t have an equivalent view, though, no apparent silver lining. I can only make do with what I bring to this place.

As I assemble my ingredients and begin heating oil in a small cast iron skillet for a lone vegetarian dinner, I think about the bright, colorful ratatouille that Remy makes in the film. The premise is much like an old fable: Remy the rat emerges from the sewers, befriends a garbage boy, and reinvigorates a restaurant and the soul of a pretentious critic, Anton Ego, with his cooking.

In the film, the character Colette calls ratatouille “a peasant dish” and Ego balks at it when presented with a plate of it before taking a bite. It’s telling that his first bite transports him to memories of his childhood eating a heaping bowl of stewed vegetables in the countryside, reminding him of what we can assume are the working-class roots he pushes away now as an arbiter of expense and prestige.

The twist is predicated on the dish’s obscurity. Mollie Katzen describes ratatouille as a “Mediterranean vegetable stew” in the original Moosewood Cookbook, to be served “on a bed of rice, or in a bowl” (Katzen 119). Rebecca Seal notes that in the nineteenth century, ratatouille was “a staple for the armed forces and prisoners.” Like other peasant dishes of nineteenth century Europe, it was probably similar to the gruel that Ebeneezer Scrooge sulkily eats in his miserable apartment, alone with his ghosts. Laure Murat makes much of the dish’s obscurity, observing that the Tresor de la langue francaise, a voluminous French dictionary, locates the origins of ratatouille in “a crossing between ‘tatouiller’ which means ‘to stir, to handle a lot; to spill in the mud’ and ‘ratouiller,’ ‘to make murky, to shake, to stir; to make dirty'” (Murat 144).

The dish is broad, flexible, open to interpretation. In fact, what Remy makes in the film is actually based on a culinary variation of ratatouille called confit biyaldi, which the pioneering health-conscious chef Michel Guérard invented in the 1970s during the Nouvelle cuisine movement, which revolutionized what is now an accepted standard in Western cuisine (and partly stolen from Japanese traditions) for culinary presentation, with an emphasis on a smaller quantity of food neatly organized at the center of the plate. What Ego eats—a small stack of carefully prepared vegetables and sauce—is the culmination of cultural changes in Europe that some scholars trace to the May 1968 protests that swept across France. After May ’68, Nouvelle cuisine began as “a bid to enhance the professional control of restaurants by chefs” by transforming cooks into “inventors rather than mere technicians” (Rao et al. 805).

Murat’s interpretation is that the murkiness of the dish is one of several ways that Remy is marked as an outsider generally, as queer specifically. For Murat, the movie “suggests that the culinary work of art implies the transformation of what the norm treats as discarded material. . . it is no coincidence that it is cooked by the ‘rejects’ of society” (Murat 144). The title of the movie could refer to the cast of characters themselves, who come together to form a better community through collaboration, to be inventors rather than rehashing the restaurant’s same old recipes.

This has its limits. The film is not kind to its one female protagonist, Colette, whose hard work in the industry Remy supplants at the last minute. Likewise, Linguini and Remy lose whatever intimate friendship they have when Linguini chooses to be with Colette, who is then expected to let her new lover’s former mentor (or friend or top or something) take the role of innovator, subjugating her again to the role of a technician. The film really only suggests radical shifts against hierarchy without fully arriving at them. It is Disney, after all.

Chefs like Guérard and Thomas Keller (of the French Laundry) popularized ratatouille for their generation, but for my generation, the 2007 film drew attention to the dish in the playful way it deserves. Ratatouille can be made from the detritus of castaway ingredients. Like other stews, it’s useful for getting rid of ingredients before they go bad. It’s a way of making the best of what’s available, easily adapted to new and changing circumstances. It’s a good dish to master in my tiny, viewless apartment. It’s a dish that, literally, anyone can cook, and ultimately, it’s a good dish for the Anthropocene, adaptable to whatever manages to grow in the garden after abnormal weather patterns, drought, smoke, and other effects of climate change. This is true of my grandparents’ garden, which has taken hit after climatic hit this year, and yet they still have plenty of squash.

My version of this dish uses ingredients available at most farmers markets in the Northwest, or from a variety of backyards if you have friends who are homeowners.

Dish of ratatouille with yellow squash and zucchini over tomato sauce.
  1. Assemble vegetables. Eggplant is traditional but I had yellow squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and zucchini.
  2. Add olive oil to a cast iron skillet (the size depends on who you’re cooking for). Chop the onion and mince garlic and add to the oil on medium heat with a pinch of salt and pepper, to brown.
  3. Add sliced red tomatoes and halved cherry tomatoes. Add basil, oregano, and a dash of red wine vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon.
  4. Stir occasionally for fifteen minutes. Slice veggies thinly, using a mandoline if available.
  5. Remove the skillet from the heat when the sauce is stewed down a bit. Arrange veggies in a stack on top of the tomato sauce, fitting in as many as possible. You can be fancy and make it a confit byaldi by packing in the slices vertically, or go for a rustic look with something more pile-shaped. You can make it vegan or top with grated cheese, before or after baking. You can garnish with parsley, or basil, or more cherry tomatoes. This recipe is open-minded. It’s up for whatever.
  6. Cover the pan with foil. Bake in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes (use more time for a bigger pan).
  7. Serve with bread, or with wine, or on a bed of rice, or whatever you have available.
  8. If dining alone, watch a movie or listen to the radio while eating. If ghosts or rats arrive, listen carefully to what they have to say.

Katzen, Mollie. Moosewood Cookbook. Ten Speed Press, 1977.

Murat, Laure. “What’s Queer About Remy, Ratatouille, and French Cuisine?” What’s Queer About Europe? Productive Encounters and Re-Enchanting Paradigms, edited by Mireille Rosello & Sudeep Dasgupta, Fordham University Press, 2014, 136-147.

Rao, Hayagreeva, Philippe Monin & Rodolphe Durand. “Institutional Change in Toque Ville: Nouvelle Cuisine as an Identity Movement in French Gastronomy.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 108 No. 4 (2003), 795-843.

Seal, Rebecca. “Deconstructing Ratatouille. National Geographic, May 10, 2019.

Recipes for Grad Students: The Office Hour Banana Smoothie in a Used Salsa Jar

smoothieLet’s say you’re a grad student who teaches in the morning and takes classes at night. What do you do for lunch between those times? You have grading to do and office hours to keep and assignments to write. Going home for lunch is an option, for those who have time or enjoy skipping homework assignments. A useful alternative is a smoothie: easy to make, easy to eat, and usually easy to digest, all in the relative comfort of a small graduate office while you work on job applications during your office hours.

The recipe is simple:

1 banana

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup yogurt

2-3 Tablespoons peanut butter

1/4 cup granola

1 Tablespoon honey

A dash of cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a blender or mash them in a bowl with a potato masher if your blender is broken again or as stress relief. Make sure to blend thoroughly, as the peanut butter will make the smoothie more pudding-like in texture.

Presentation matters; just watch any show on the Food Network for five minutes. If you find yourself in need of a stylish smoothie container, just remember that, as a grad student, chances are you have an empty salsa jar somewhere in the back of you fridge (just admit it, you know you do). It’s trendy to put cocktails in Mason jars, but a smoothie in a salsa jar is ahead of its time. The plus is that nobody will think to steal your lunch from the grad lounge refrigerator, especially not when they open a salsa jar to the smell of bananas.

If your students catch you drinking from a salsa jar, they might think twice about asking for an extension, so really, this recipe is a win-win, assuming that phrase means two wins for you and you alone. Enjoy your smoothie, and enjoy your office hours.

-jk

John Steinbeck’s Peach Upside-Down Cake

the-lone-survivorIn 1902 on February 27, John Steinbeck was born, kicking off a wonderful century of war and economic strife. To celebrate his birthday, you can either have a disgusting beer milkshake or delicious mush or even a glass of extremely fresh milk. Or you can be sensible about the whole thing and make peach upside-down cake.

First, lose your land to a bank and drive to California, where the good peaches are. You should lose one or two family members on the trip, which means more cake for you. Lucky you. Find work at a peach orchard and collect four to five un-bruised peaches that you can take back to the rusted-out boiler you live in with your seven remaining children back in Monterey. Sell one of those children to buy 1/2 cup of butter, 2/3 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and use whatever is left to buy as much bourbon as possible. Slice the peaches, melt the butter, add the brown sugar and cinnamon and a little bourbon if there’s any left after you’ve coped with the Great Depression that is living in California.

Work a few shifts at an apple orchard as a scab while a strike occurs and make enough to buy 2 cups of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, two sticks of butter, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 teaspoons vanilla, and several more cases of bourbon because one of your children broke into your stash and is no longer with us, which means one more child who doesn’t have to live in California. Beat the butter and sugar together, the way the system has beaten you, until smooth and creamy, unlike you. Mix in eggs, vanilla,and cinnamon. Add flour and baking powder and mix together. Meanwhile, you have probably lost a few more kids in the police raid on the striking apple pickers.

Take the hubcap of a Model T Ford and place the peach slices at the bottom with the butter-sugar mix. Pour the cake batter over it and cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit or over an open fire on the side of the road for 35 minutes or until the bosses catch you and have you sent to jail with your one remaining child.

Enjoy the cake barefoot at the side of a river while you contemplate modernism and the horrors of living in America and probably a turtle or some worthless birds or some other obvious metaphor. Also, you’re probably a metaphor for Jesus by now, so change your initial to JC.

Also, happy birthday, John Steinbeck.

-jk

Coffee: A Steamy Love Affair

Coffee Poet.jpg

Those who know me know that I love coffee. Those who don’t know me can easily guess, thus far, that I have a moderate fondness for coffee. To be clear, I’m not picky; I like tea, cocoa, water, smoothies, milkshakes, juice. But coffee has a special place in my life.

I had my first cup in my high school cooking class. During one of the baking sessions, our teacher turned on the coffee pot near my station while our muffins were still in the oven. That’s when I had my first cup of caffeinated hot brown acidic water, filled with cream and sugar like most first-timers. After a while, I started drinking coffee whenever I cooked, then every morning, then every morning and afternoon, then several times a day. For a while, I got headaches when I didn’t consume any caffeine by 10:00 AM.

I’ve since become less addicted. I once considered giving it up for Lent but decided that not even Jesus would have gone that far. Nevertheless, I have cut back, and not just because I’ll probably have an ulcer by the age of twenty-six if I don’t.

There are coffee addicts and there are coffee lovers, and I want to be the latter. The difference between a violinist and someone with a violin is making every note a masterpiece. The difference between a chef and somebody who cooks every meal is mastering the kitchen’s tools and ingredients, and cooking with gusto rather than mere hunger. Anything can be an art, and the only way to become an artist is to inhabit a practice so fully that we infuse ourselves with it.

Everything about coffee is perfect to me, and if not I try to make it perfect. Espresso, lattes, dark roasts, light roasts, the smell of the beans, the feel of them in my fingers, the careful measurement of fresh grounds into the coffee pot, pouring the first cup, breathing in the scented steam before the first sip, and feeling it run down my throat hot and fresh, until it bounces around my stomach looking for a place to sit. I write with it; I read with it; I get to know people with it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me, which is likely why I haven’t slept since 2015.

What practice or hobby or food do you love? Let me know in the comments!

-jk

P.S. If you thought the title was cheap, consider all the other possibilities I had to work with. Drip coffee was only a starting place.

After Two Years of Blogging, Your Guess is Still as Good as Mine

toastWordPress reminded me that today is my two-year blogiversary. I missed last year’s for the obvious reasons (grad school applications, Macbeth, mud wrestling, etc.). Today, though, I slide two years into the past when I was surrounded by the mess of my education: Beloved, essays on the Holocaust, a textbook on linguistics, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and drafts of my own poetry. The liberal arts defined my life, but lacked definition; in a confused fervor I wrote my first blog post asking simply, why get a liberal education in the first place?

Two years have gone by. I created this blog to explore the liberal arts generally, the life of a wannabe writer specifically. At varying times, it has served as an open journal, editorial, bully pulpit, and archive of my writing. I started out posting short vignettes satirizing myself as a freshman, but moved on to better creative writing, philosophy, travelogues, history, and humor. If my blog feels eclectic, it’s only because my brain is eclectic. I move rapidly from Steinbeck to colonial Egypt to writing a short story. This blog is one part journal, one part art, and one part scholarship, with three extra parts marked “miscellaneous.” I strive to make sure no two posts are alike, which may be a bad idea when blogging is supposed to be about consistency and ritual, two qualities I lack.

I’ve explored numerous moments in my life on this blog: I mourned Pete Seeger, challenged myself to write a poem every day each April, founded a photography business, announced publications, had breakfast in Ireland, lunch in Jerome, dinner in Wisconsin, went to my first big fancy writing conference, broke up with my hometown of twenty years for graduate school in Nebraska.

For the most part, though, I’ve read, and written about what I read, and read what others wrote about what I wrote about what I read. An endless reading list is the bedrock of any good liberal education.

Liberal Education

On this blog, I’ve also reached many half-baked conclusions, but one thing has remained clear post after post: a good liberal education is worthless if it stays inside the classroom. Sitting around reading and writing is no way to be a writer, if it’s all I do. I have to experiment with baking or acting, work for a charity, travel, read for a literary journal. I should traverse the gridlock of cities, the innards of bars, the vast organs of campsites. My blog may be ineffectively unconventional; the only binding theme is the continual mess of my lifelong education and my desire to be a writer. But I know blogging has made me a better writer, a more considerate reader, a more confident thinker. It’s been an eclectic two years. I hope the next two will be even more eclectic.

jk

Why a liberal education? Your guess is as good as mine, and I mean that. If you’re engaged in the liberal arts, especially outside of academia, let me know in the comments what you study or write or create, and why.

-jk

I Bought a Pumpkin. Now What?

Orange

Leaves are changing colors, candy is getting cheaper and oranger, and the farmer’s market is filled with freshly harvested pumpkins. Resisting temptation is hard; now I have a pumpkin. What does one even do with a pumpkin?

Orange Triptych

The first thing to do is get to know the pumpkin. Give it a cute name, something like Fred. Spend a few nights drinking with Fred. Really get to know him. From there, it’ll be easier to figure out what you want to do with Fred. In my case, I wanted to make Fred into a pie.

Fred 1

Give Fred a good bath, remove Fred’s stem, and slice Fred laterally with a large cutting knife. This might upset Fred, but he’ll just have to learn to live with it. Using a large spoon or ice cream scoop, remove all of Fred’s insides, scraping against the flesh to get all the strands and seeds out. It goes without saying you can save Fred’s inside for later consumption. Dash a little salt onto Fred’s flesh, place his two halves flesh-side down on a covered cookie sheet, and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about thirty minutes, or until Fred is nice and mushy, like he always gets after a few beers.

Fred 2

Again, using an ice cream scoop or large spoon, scrape out Fred’s flesh, which should come out easily after baking Fred. He may be confused at this point, but just remind him it’s for a good cause. Mash (or blend in a food processor) Fred’s flesh, until it’s nice and smooth. You can store some of Fred’s flesh in the freezer for future endeavors. For example, you can make muffins out of Fred, too.

Toss 1 cup of Fred’s pureed flesh into a sauce pan and cook until it simmers. Add 1 cup milk, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon ginger, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves. Feel free to adjust the spices to make Fred as spicy as you like. Fred, of course, prefers to be very spicy, if his sass didn’t tell you anything. Mix well and let simmer.

Fred 5

In a separate bowl, combine two eggs and 1 cup of brown sugar. Add this to Fred’s simmering remains and stir to combine.

Fred 4

Once the eggs, sugar, cream, and Fred are thoroughly combined, pour into a pie dish with a prepared crust. You can make your own crust (like I did, in a completely unpretentious way), or buy a premade crust. Place the pie dish on a cleaned cookie sheet and bake Fred at 350 degrees for forty to fifty minutes. Fred will be very disappointed, but delicious. You can make it up to Fred by covering him in whipped cream and serving him with hot beverages. Like all gingers, Fred loves whipped cream and hot beverages.

Fred 6

-jk

Leftist Vegetarian Chili

Let’s say you want to make chili for the autumn season, something you can bring to a pot luck at a moment’s notice. If you’re anything like me (an English Major), any pot luck you get invited to will be filled with vegetarians who bring gallons of humus and pita chips by the crate. Here’s an easy recipe for a healthy chili to satisfy any English Major’s left-leaning, postmodernist palate.

The first step is to go to the local farmer’s market to obtain the best locally grown organic non-GMO socialist ingredients. Obtain the following items:

4 or 5 tomatoes1
1 red onion
1 sweet onion
2-3 carrots
2 bell peppers
2 jalapeno peppers
1 green chili pepper
1 habanero pepper
1 yellow summer squash
1 potato
1 copy of Das Kapital
2 cans of black beans

Optional: two bowls of marijuana, but only if you’re serving at a gathering of poets. If the chili is for a faculty meeting, two to three liters of rum (as a side dish) should be provided.

Various seasonings (salt, pepper, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, grassroots activism) should be added to your own taste (which should be excellent because you’re an English Major).

First, lay out the ingredients and tell them that cuisine is a social construct. Then chop up the onions and dump them into a cooking pot with an inch of oil. Stir them enough to keep them from burning, and add salt and pepper. The onions should be strong enough to make you cry, if you aren’t already crying about the TPP.

2

Next, chop up the tomatoes. Add a can of tomato sauce if you really want to give money to the 1 percent, you terrible monster.

Add the cans of beans, ignoring the fact that Big Canning got your hard-earned money. In a vegetarian chili, you need protein, and the beans will provide enough protein to help you resist the man.

Chop up the vegetables; carve them the way you’d carve up Wall Street, and redistribute their wealth in the pot. Season liberally with spices.

4

Next, chop up the peppers. Be careful to protect your hands, otherwise your fingers will burn the way the Christian right wants you to burn in hell. Be especially careful chopping the habanero, which will provide the amount of spiciness needed to smash the patriarchy. You can also add smashed patriarchy to the chili, but don’t add too much; patriarchy has very little nutritional value, because it’s mostly fatty acids and blood.

5

Stir all ingredients and continue to season as you see fit, because you are a creative and unique individual and however you season it will be an expression of your individuality in the rising tide of fascism. However, don’t add too much cinnamon or ginger; if you wanted a pumpkin spice latte, you’d go to a coffee shop with your Mac and write a screenplay in the corner.

6Let the chili simmer the way the working class simmers before the coming revolution, for two or three hours. Feel free to freeze it for the future or emergency pot lucks. Because your vegetarian Marxist postcolonial chili will be as spicy as your attitude (on tumblr), serve with lots of bread, or over rice. This chili is not for the faint of tongue.

Feel free, even, to serve it to your conservative friends. It may be meatless, but that’s no reason to be afraid of it. Take it to a tailgate party, or an NRA meeting. Use it to bring people together. What we eat may be politically driven, but sharing a meal is universal. At least that’s what the shoeless hippies who sold me the onions said.

-jk

In Search of the Perfect Beer Milkshake

Beer Shake

“If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milk shake in a town where he wasn’t known–they might call the police.” -John Steinbeck in Cannery Row.

My favorite author, John Steinbeck, is known for his epic novels about the lives of the working poor like The Grapes of Wrath. While I love his longer works, the Steinbeck novel that has had the most influence on me is Cannery Row, more a collection of interconnected stories than a novel. I first discovered it four years ago, and I have reread it every fall to rediscover the magic of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Montery, California, which he calls “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

In one story, the main character Doc remembers somebody commenting that he loves beer so much, “someday [he’ll] go in and order a beer milk shake.” Because he is safely out of town, he takes the bet and orders one, providing the following recipe: “Put in some milk, and add half a bottle of beer. Give me the other half in a glass–no sugar in the milk shake.” Because Doc is one of my favorite literary characters, I attempted to make a beer milkshake following Doc’s specifications.

It turned out dreadfully, so I worked on changing the recipe. Because several restaurants have already experimented with beer milkshakes, one can probably find several recipes online, but here, I offer my own.

1 bottle of beer (preferably a flavorful ale or stout)

3 scoops vanilla ice cream

1/4 cup milk

1 tablespoon sugar

2-3 icecubes

Beer Shake

Combine all ingredients in a blender and serve fresh and cold.

Beer Shake I tested numerous variations of the beer milkshake. With dark beers, I tried adding chocolate sauce. With ales, I tried using only ice cream and beer, nothing else. I don’t know what Steinbeck was thinking when he wrote about Doc’s excursions into the world of beer milkshakes; he wrote that “it wasn’t so bad–it just tasted like stale beer and milk.” I may have taken Steinbeck fandom to an extreme, but his work is dear to my heart. For now, I’m content to read my favorite writer, take his jokes too seriously, and remember his reflections on the world:

Cannery Row’s “inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”