Monday, September 22, 2014

Saturday

Most people look forward to the weekend as a time for a little flexibility.  Sure, they may have to run kids to soccer games or tae kwon do tournaments, but they can probably skip part of the usual “shit,shower, shave” routine they face Monday through Friday.

For me, on the other hand, most weekdays are very fluid.  I usually have a deadline on Wednesday, which is often pushed to Thursday.  But I make my own schedule, and if my 8 am walk happens more around 9:30, well, Rosie’s the only one who will notice.

But on Fridays things start revving up.  After getting that week’s blog story up, I suddenly realize (for the 17th time) that I need to figure out next week’s story.  So Friday can be a hectic day of brainstorming, a flurry of emails with my editor, maybe some text messages with Miss Chef to figure out who my best sources will be, and a first volley of communications with chefs or farmers I want to interview.

This past Friday I was working three stories at once.  I called a farmer to ask about growing sorghum and posted a message to Facebook to see if anybody’s using it in their restaurants, emailed a group organizing a farm tour for next weekend, and texted with a couple of chefs to arrange interviews for a late-October story.  Shortly after Miss Chef got back from an afternoon meeting, she received a request from another chef to pick up some pig tails for Saturday, so off we headed to the Hispanic stretch of South Boulevard.  Naturally we stopped for dinner at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant.

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Trust me, my life sounds way more glamorous than it lives.  Not that I’m complaining.  We had a grand ol’ time wandering the aisles of a large Compare supermarket, looking at chicken feet and nance fruit, which neither of us had heard of.  Date night with a chef.

If Friday can sometimes be hectic, it’s because Saturday is by far the busiest day of my week.  The farmers markets are part of my workplace, where I have the best and easiest access to farmers, chefs and other food purveyors.  It’s also the one day I have to get up and get rolling.  While this past Saturday Miss Chef was off to school to gather equipment for a cooking demonstration at Atherton Market, I hit the road before 7:30 to head to our “regular” market in Matthews.

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I had arranged to meet Chef Adam at 8:30 for an interview, but I had several other folks to talk to.  Foremost was Chef Charles, who’s interested in paying for some writing on a new web page he needs for yet another branch of business.  Besides selling at two local markets, this Frenchman with a most American taste for entrepreneurship has a catering business which includes bbq and burgers in the guest tents at Panthers’ home games, as well as elegant meals for executive jets flying out of our busy airport.  Now he wants to start a side/retirement business traveling to his home on Ile de RĂ© with groups of eight or ten clients, and squiring them through morning markets and evening cooking sessions.

If nothing else, I could learn a thing or two from him about hustling up business.

Besides checking in with Charles, I needed to pick up eggs from Daryl of Walnut Ridge Farm, and make sure he’d gotten a print copy of a recent article I’d written about him and another farmer.  Then I stopped to see Pauline, the market manager, and follow up on an interview and blog story I’d done earlier in the week.  Oh, and I had to deliver those pig tails to Chef Bonaparte, for the catering job Miss Chef was helping him out with that evening.

In the midst of all this, Adam sent me a text at 8:30 that he was just getting dressed, so I also chatted for a while with Michele Lamb, who raises goats, and Mindy at Tega Hills, for whom we’d tried to foster a kitten few weeks ago (sadly, the entire litter succumbed, probably to distemper—at least the mother cat seems to be recovering).  When Adam finally dragged in, I bought him a coffee and and we spent a good half hour talking about filthy grease traps.  Then we were both off to our next round of errands, he to pick up supplies for the restaurant, me to Atherton Market.

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As you can tell, this is a very different market, much more urban and a bit more upscale—in the window you can see the reflection of one of the many shiny new apartment complexes going up in this Southend neighborhood to attract the newest generation of Yuppies (what are they called now?  Hipsters? Dinks? My friends and colleagues?).

Miss Chef and I sort of “joined” this market this year, after I got involved with Friendship Gardens.  This is the only place backyard gardeners like myself can drop off donations on the weekends, and somehow I found myself taking charge of the donation station.  I also made friends with a new baker at the market, after falling in love with his bread and featuring him in my very first (small) print article several months ago.  He actually had a few new customers walk up to his booth with my article in hand, so he’s a fan of mine now.

This is where Miss Chef had headed from school earlier that morning, for a 10:00 cooking demonstration.  When I got there, she’d already started serving up eggplant “pizzas” (small rounds of eggplant coated in breadcrumbs, fried, and topped with veggies) and an apple bread pudding.  Unlike the Matthews market, there is no separate area for these demos, but it seemed that plenty of shoppers found her and stopped to have a bite.

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It just so happens that the donation table is directly across from the cooking station, so we kind of got to hang out together for awhile.  I also managed to buy us both a hearty breakfast from the food truck outside (you can only eat so much bread pudding), buy some chicken and fresh pasta, and finalize another interview for that afternoon with another chef.

Around noon, Miss Chef wrapped up and headed off to her catering gig, while I continued to text, and chat with the market manager’s husband and dog.  I also discovered this interesting product being sold by a farmer I hadn’t met yet.

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It’s called jelly melon, or African horned cucumber.  I snapped this picture because I might be able to use it for another of my weekly blog stories…it kind of depends on how long the sorghum harvest season is, and whether I can fit it all in before they all go out of season.

Which reminds me of another phone call I need to make…

I had to man the station until 2:00, when the market ends, because that’s when we get most of our farmer donations as they close up shop.  Sadly, I only got 1/4 pound of arugula for my troubles, but there’s always next week!  I left a few minutes early to grab a cup of coffee for Chef Nick, in exchange for an interview.  He mans the kitchen at a restaurant uptown, so I had to circle the block to find on-street parking, since I’d spent almost all my cash at the market.  I was lucky to find a spot not far away, and arrived with cappuccino in hand in time for our little chat.

It was after 3:00 when I finally turned the car toward home, and I have to confess that the rest of my day was spent mostly on the couch.  I’m in a mode of letting the garden fend mostly for itself, but it seems I need to do a little pest control patrol.

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I picked a couple of worms off the five broccolis planted in the main bed, and checked that the two remaining brussels sprouts were still doing ok.  The third one just poof! disappeared a week or two ago.  Not a leaf or stem left.  Very odd.

The sixth broccoli plant is doing quite well in the raised bed, filling in the planter nicely.

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The temperatures are starting to cool off, especially in the evenings, so it seems the garden isn’t suffering too much from my benign neglect.  Maybe it’s happy I’m finally leaving it alone, though I did bring this little basketful of goodness to Friendship Trays last week.

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Yep, still bringing in tomatoes, but I’m looking forward to fall already.  As one of the market managers I recently interviewed said, there are two seasons colliding right now, and it’s a great time to eat.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Apple-tacular



Miss Chef and I had an...interesting weekend last week. It involved local travel, wine-tasting, antiquing and apple picking. I've written all about it, but you'll have to hop on over to my food blog, Amuse Bouche, to read it.

Enjoy!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Do you *really* remember?

I re-post this every year out of gratitude for my own blessings, and in sympathy for the thousands still living every day with absence.

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I remember clearly that it was a Tuesday. I was living in Mobile, Alabama at the time. Since I had overnight duty at the school where I was working, I had the morning off. I was headed to the gym in my car when I heard the news story. I thought it was a spoof; like an April Fool's joke. Ha ha. It sounded way too "out there" to be real.

Planes, crashing into a building in New York City? Please; the likelihood of that level of mechanical and human failure happening in the middle of one of the largest metropolises in the world? Not hardly.

I didn't think about the failure of human minds and hearts.

At the gym, I was on the elliptical machine watching the news on tv when I saw that it was real. That something was gravely, horribly wrong. I don't remember when the word "terrorist" first scrolled across the screen (do you remember when we still thought it was just an accident?). My first concern was for my uncle Paul, who had worked for NY Bell and had been part of the repair crew on the Towers eight years earlier.

But he was long retired; surely he wouldn't be down there.

And then a moment of sheer terror: I had completely forgotten that my brother worked there, somewhere in lower Manhattan, not in the Towers, but I didn't know where. As the story spread, the towers collapsed; ash and dust coated the entire area and I finally panicked. I grabbed my water bottle and towel and ran to the car.

I had spoken to him two days before, to wish him a happy birthday.  Where was he now?

How odd; nobody around me seemed moved or concerned. They had no connection to this news story unfolding up there in "the corner." But my dad's family is from New York; we had all visited the Towers one summer when I was ten or twelve. I had been there; I knew what it was like, the sheer enormity of the place.

And my brother was in there, near there, somewhere.

As I drove home, I called his house in New Jersey. Busy.

I called his cell phone. All circuits busy.

(Do you remember how the phone lines on the entire east coast were tied up that day?)

Tried his home again. Still busy.

Tried my parents' down in Georgia. Busy.

Finally, I noticed the voice message icon on my cell phone. It was from my father; they had heard from my sister-in-law that my brother was ok. He was trapped in Manhattan (remember how they shut down all car traffic to and from the island?), but he was safe.

I called my father back and finally got through. My brother had watched the whole thing from his office in the Traveler's building, two blocks from the World Trade Center. He had been on the phone with my dad, watching the first tower burn, and assuring him that they had been told to stay where they were; everything was fine.

Then the second plane hit.

My brother told my father, "I've got to go," and hung up the phone. It would be days before they spoke again.

After hearing the story, I stopped trying to reach him or his wife that day. I knew there were vastly more important calls that needed to get through.

Down in Manhattan, my brother was the recipient of some of the amazing generosity that bloomed that horrific Tuesday. He walked tens of blocks north, and was given shelter by a coworker’s sister's friend, or something like that. It was the only way he was able to call his wife that day. I don't remember how he got home, or when. That day, it was enough to know that he was alive. (Do you remember the confusion; the "Missing" fliers plastered on every vertical surface, pleading for a thousand miracles?)

My brother worked for Citigroup at the time, in their International Treasury division. The next several weeks he reported to an emergency backup site in New Jersey, putting in 12 and 14 hour days to ensure that his small part of our financial system remained functional. (It didn't sound all that impressive back then, but after the 2008 financial meltdown, I'm a bit more respectful.)

When I finally got to speak to him at length, weeks later, my brother wouldn't talk about it. He wanted to put it behind him and move forward. He had lost colleagues and neighbors. He had watched people leap to their deaths rather than face hell on Earth. That detail was the only one he would go into, and he said it angrily: "You don't understand what it's like."

No, he's right. I don't.

Less than six months later, in February 2002, I flew up to visit. (Do you remember how air travel was shut down for days, and the bravery it took afterwards, just to board a plane?) My brother drove me into Manhattan, where we visited his office, high above the streets in another glass-fronted tower. From a floor-to-ceiling window we looked two blocks down the street, at the raw wound, a huge square of nothingness. "If they had missed the Towers, our building would have been the next one they hit," he told me matter-of-factly.

On September 11th I fly the flag for many reasons, but mostly to commemorate the innocents who lost their lives that day. The ones who were in the wrong building. Who weren't lucky enough to flee, covered in ash, panicked and cut off from their loved ones, but alive. For those who ran in the other direction, into danger.

I fly it in the hope that it will keep the memory alive another year. To remind myself of the inconceivable tragedy that still should haunt us. To remind myself to be grateful that I still have a brother, no matter how little we may agree sometimes.

My nephew Ethan was born in 2002.

My niece Keira was born in 2006.

My sister-in-law is not a widow.

I know that by the time Ethan's and Keira's children are in school, this will be just another date in history. A bunch of people died. My grand-nieces and nephews will learn the definitions of "isolationism," "nationalism" and the names Bush, Hussein, Al-Qaida, Desert Storm. And it will mean as much to them as Pearl Harbor meant to me growing up.

That's the nature of history; as it retreats further into our collective past, it gathers dust, a soft coating that obscures our view. It's inevitable. Over the years, plenty of other, more immediate crises will push our country this way and that. Yet, for the time being, I'm doing my part to keep the memory alive and distinct.

I don't know anyone who actually died that day. But my flag, this post, and my tears are for their memory, and for the ones they left behind.

Ethan and his dad, July 2008

Monday, September 8, 2014

Search for Inspiration

It’s been another draggy week for me.  Wait, what?  It’s only Monday!  Ah, but you must understand that my week starts on Friday.  That’s when Miss Chef is off work, and we start thinking about Saturday—which is kind of like my Monday, since we spend at least half the day at different farmers markets, and I milk that important professional network of growers, chefs and other local food stars.

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Anyway, as I look back on the past four or five days, I remember mostly a lack of inspiration.  I did enjoy the excitement of my first major print article published in a local paper’s glossy annual dining guide, but I soon lost steam.  I  got halfway through writing another 1,000 word article, and couldn’t force myself to sit down and finish the job.  I couldn’t even make myself listen to the second interview I’d recorded for the story.

Even worse, as the weekend approached, I was wracking my brain for a topic for the next week’s paid blog post, and coming up empty. For some reason I haven’t been sleeping well at all, and every of the dozen times I’d wake at night, I’d immediately start worrying about that missing story topic.  This interrupted sleep leaves me tired, which kills my creative talents, forming a vicious cycle of “duh.”

I still blame my summer doldrums.  The symptoms are clearer than ever.  Finally, I’ve lost interest in my garden.  For weeks, with highs consistently in the 90s and not a rain cloud in sight, I was going out every morning to fill up my watering can at the rain barrel and keep my plants alive.  In anticipation of the switchover to fall planting, I had pulled out the last trellis, replanted onion seeds, and weeded out the large flower bed in front of the house.  But I never got around to seeding carrots in the newly opened space, and only about three onions germinated this time around—still too hot.  The broccoli has been holding its own, but I swear the three little brussels sprout seedlings have actually shrunk in size, in spite of my aqueous diligence.

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The 40-gallon rain barrel in back finally ran dry, and I had to switch to the one in front of the house (well-concealed by a convenient holly bush, one of the best landscaping decisions I’ve made here).  We had one small rain shower that about half-filled the empty barrel, but still nothing approaching the inches we need.

Oh, sure, there’s been rain in the area.  Uptown Charlotte got 3 inches the other day, and there have been flash flood warnings all over the tv.  When it did rain here, we got less than half an inch.  All of the rainstorms coming from the west seem to split, and we can watch the lightning and thunder blow by north of us, precipitating all over our neighbors.  Hmph.

I finally learned why that is, from a local farmer.  It was during a special lunch Miss Chef hosted at the school’s restaurant she’s running this quarter.  She invited the farmers and other purveyors who supply the food to sit down and dine with the students who prepare and serve that food.  I attended in the guise of journalist, so I could write a story for the food blog (which you can see here, along with another of my artsy little photographs.)  

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Of course, the pre-meal chat started out with the weather, and Mindy, whose farm is about five miles south of us, explained that it’s Lake Wylie to the west of us that splits the weather.  She too is within that dry area, but since she grows hydroponically, it’s less of a concern than it would be for a traditional dirt farmer.

Contrary to form, Miss Chef has actually been more interested in gardening lately than I have been.  She took it upon herself to make a compost screen from scrap wood and hardware cloth, and got a good bit of really nice compost out of our tumbler.  I had her put it on two of our raised beds, and then I covered it with the last of my leaf mulch from last year.  Already I can tell the difference—the compost has made the most of what little rain we’ve had, staying moist for several days under the mulch, even in full, hot sun.

Today we’ve finally had a brief respite from the weather, with a thick ceiling of gray clouds, and temperatures around 70 degrees.  I’ve had the windows open all through the house, and Rosie has spent most of the day dozing on the cool brick patio.

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It’s been a very quiet day, with both the pets sleeping hard and me alternating between staring at the computer and looking hopefully out the window for rain that has yet to materialize.  But I did finally get that 1,000-word story wrapped up, and came up with an idea to pitch for this week’s blog.  And when I finally dragged myself outside to water the still-drooping peppers, I found that over the past couple of days, we’d finally gotten enough drizzle to completely refill the back water barrel. 

While I usually spend cloudy days in a half-stupor, it looks like this hiatus from the heat has been, literally, a breath of fresh air.  I’m not counting my doldrums as over, but I’ll take whatever I can get.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Because I Want To

How do people keep up with blogging?  Not only writing, but responding to comments.  Some of my favorite bloggers post every day, and are always interesting, often pithy and generally likeable.

Anyway, I miss blogging more regularly.  I promise you, as I type this sentence, I have no idea what this post is about, but I feel like doing this, so I’m doing it.

I just glanced out the back window and heard a neighbor’s lawn mower and realized I’m supposed to be mowing this evening.  It seems like I can’t keep all my balls in the air, regardless of how many fewer I have than most people.  For once, I’m feeling good about having my writing deadlines under control.  My first big print article came out today, and I submitted my second one on deadline.  Last week I got a surprise payment for earlier writing; not enough to pay the mortgage, but enough to keep me afloat for the last couple weeks of the month, even with my car registration due.

I’m keeping busy at writing, but I’ve been in denial about the fact that I have yet to pitch anything to a larger publication than what I know here in Charlotte.  I need to do that.  I also need to mow the lawn, water the garden, fold the laundry and brush the dog.  Guess which one of those tasks will get done last?

I donated this to Friendship Trays yesterday.

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I believe that will be the last cucumber of the season, but it’s now the peppers’ turn to shine.  I also finally picked that first big Mortgage Lifter tomato I’ve been watching for at least six weeks.

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The earbuds are for scale.  I used them to listen to the interviews I recorded for the story I submitted today.  Do I look like a real writer?  Notice the Slow Foods coaster I regularly set my Coke bottles on.  I read a quote somewhere today that said something like “Soandso is an actor in the sense that he has appeared in films.”  I wondered humorously if I should define myself as a writer that way.  Just for now.  Until I send pitches to those other magazines…

I should also move my photos from Dropbox to my computer, and then back that up.  Yeah, add that to the list.

This also happened today:

It’s the little things.

Update: I did go out and mow, until I ran out of gas.  Then I started trimming…until I ran out of filament.  I was also running out of light, so the backyard is 7/8ths mowed and the front yard is 7/8ths trimmed.  At least they’re balanced.