Between the Pages: Blood, Bones and Butter

Love this vibrant jacket


I have temporarily suspended my Harry Potter Fest for a bushel of cooking/eating books. Among the collection: Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food (putenescca sauce, I would like to marry you!) and Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter.

I savored Hamilton’s book as I would chocolate cake, anything from Tweets, or fresh fig. Her first chapter–in a storied house, on hallowed ground, with ecclectic father and French ballet-dancing mother–has me walking stride in stride with her: I am camping out by the coals, slathering homemade marinade over the lamb on a spit and standing barefoot in the creek, passing out booze to partygoers. I am nine too.

Hamilton, an accomplished chef, is indeed, also a writer. Some of her prose is so lyrical and laden with images, I am transported into her scamming days as a bar girl, her kitchen at Prune, her local Italian market:

“In the square, I found my ideal kind of man. Missing most of his teeth, with his zipper gaping open, he was selling zucchini blossoms under the shade of a large tree. Guys like this are getting hard to come by anymore, even here in this little Italian town. He pulled back the burlap that covered the wagon of his three-wheeled motor cart and showed me, with shaking arthritic hands, his fresh black-eyed peas in the shell, his dark purple green beans, his zucchini flowers. he had a little crate of imperfect prune plums ans a small dark green watermelons no bigger than a regulation softball. I take some of everything he’s got. I know that when he dies he’s the last, and this–this–the pants held up with a piece of twine, his work shoes dusty and curling up at the toes, and the simple way  he has tossed his wares into the bed of the wagon next to the jug of gasoline and the coil of thin rope and the cracked plastic pails, covering them with a light sheet of burlap–a grain sack split open to make a sheet–this all goes when he goes.”

Only two minor details left me disconcerted. First, and most repugnant: I am on the opposite coast as her resturant. Hamilton’s vivid descriptions left me salivating with nary a way to get to Prune. Second, the general organization and flow of the memoir feels a bit stilted; I don’t mind the huge gaps in time, but many of the chapters seem to be written as vignettes, and are joined together loosely as cheesecloth. However, describing homemade ravioli as “small and delicate and a beautiful yellow from the yolks in the pasta dough and you could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough, like a woman behind the shower curtain” bypasses all angst I might harbor about structure. Who needs structure when you have ravioli as delicately described as they must have been to devour?

I admire Hmailton’s self-proclaimed diligence, and found myself laughing out loud on many occasions (it’s not often you hear a first-hand account of picking up both human feces and a maggot-infested rat in one sitting).

Most important, Hamilton encapsulates the joy of cooking, as I feel it in my hands, head and heart: “We split the pods open with our thumbnails and slid each pea out into a colander set in between us. What I have loved about cooking my entire life, especially prep cooking, is the way that it keeps your hands occupied but your mind free to sort everything out. I have never once finished an eight-hour prep shift without something from my life–mundane or profound–sorted out.”

There is, indeed, zen in washing lettuce.

The Rugbrod Riot

This has to be a secret. Don’t tell my husband I told you about this. If you ever meet him, do not reference this blog post. It will be our little secret, okay?

I should couch this story by saying these two things: first, I adore my husband. He is beyond handy (did you see those raised beds?) and literally brings light into my life and closets. There are only two domains in which I prevail over him: on the page and in the kitchen. He’s got me by aces everywhere else. So yes, there is both the adoration I have for him in the kitchen, attempting to bake, and the small glut of satisfaction as he roams around looking for utensils/ingredients the way I look for power tools in the basement. Second disclaimer: this may only be hysterical to me. Really, if you don’t laugh once, I won’t hold it against you.

(Note: this picture is not posed. Honestly.)

This is him: my husband. He’s cute, no? He’s HYSTERICAL. On this day, he had me in such fits of laugher I was reduced to tears. See that dishtowel over his shoulder? He slings it there like some men do a gun holster. He does it when he’s serious about his kitchen work, which is, ummm, maybe twice a year. But Jesus, does he get serious. See that bag he’s reading? It’s in Danish.

Picture our cozy kitchen, last Sunday. I’m doing my usual thing, organizing the groceries and prepping the week’s food. Making whole-wheat pizza dough in the bread maker. Reading a recipe from my computer. Dreaming of carbohydrates. How N even entered this scene of serenity, I can’t recall. All I remember is that suddenly, he grabbed that bread mix out of my hands. It was on its way into the trashcan. Literally—halfway in the can. Remember this detail. This, I promise, will be situational irony at its finest.

“Why haven’t you made it?” N queries, and I already begin to laugh.

“It’s in Danish, silly. Remember, we brought it home from Denmark two summers ago? You’re the only one who reads Danish around here. Besides, it’s expired.”

This is where he grabs the bread mix out of my hands. I guess I should pause to insert a minor detail here. This is not bread mix; this is Rugbrod mix (pronounced rug-broy. No, that’s nothing like it sounds. You have to pretend you have a raccoon trapped in your throat to make that gnarled “r” sound, which I’m not sure how to indicate via symbol in Microsoft Word). This shit that bakes up so hard you could build mini-malls from it. Cage wild animals in it. Use it in wars to hurl at people and decapitate them. This is serious shit, which you must slice Kate Middleton thin so that you can chew, swallow and digest it. But it’s damn good.

N translates the date in red—I think it’s written in international date, which means it’s SUPER DUPER expired—yet he concludes, “No, that’s just the sell-by date. It should still be fine.”

And what can I do but concede—he’s the one who speaks Danish.

He flings the dish towel over his shoulder (I’m going to have to watch more carefully next time to see if he actually uses this prop, or if it’s merely a gimmick to make him look more professional, like the way my favorite collegiate debater wore fake glasses, only to pull down his nose when he had a contentious point to undermine) and begins to read the package out loud.

Have you heard the Danish language? I’m sure some consider it beautiful, but it is not a Romance language for a reason. Some of the words, spoken out loud, sound so guttural that it’s difficult to take N or his mother seriously when they speak. The language has tones that I can’t even hear, so I’m bound to make fun of it, because the pronunciation is literally beyond what I’m capable of.

Carefully calculating

So he’s reading out loud, realizing that he has to convert deciliters into cups and that he has to make sure the water is at a perfect 95 degrees for the yeast. (He’s the kind of baker that follows directions to a T, so I dutifully get out the kitchen thermometer, the likes of which I have NEVER used, and he, cursing, takes the temperature of the water.)

As the yeast fizzes, N realizes, upon further guttural Danish gibberish, that “Shit, there are two recipes. One for wet yeast and one for dry.” He of course, was using dry yeast, but had calculated for the wet. It was Sunday, the week of Spring Break, and I must have been prone to fits of laughter, but hearing a man with a towel draped over his shoulder discuss wet and dry yeast as though his life depended on it killed me.

He is twenty minutes into his baking project, and has to begin again. I procure the new bottle of (dry) yeast from the freezer and round two commences. N reads more Danish out loud. Enter the issue of grams; he needs nine grams. We have no instrument, device, small child or machine with which to measure grams. So we backtrack from the original yeast package, which was who-the-hell knows how many grams, but was almost one tablespoon. We banter a bit about this vague measurement, shake a dead chicken over it, click our heels three times and N scoops out an arbitrary amount of yeast from the jar and chucks it in.

Somewhere around the thirty-five minute mark (I’m halfway through my puttanesca sauce by now) N gets out the hand mixer. I think the thing is a waste of time and would rather use a wooden spoon, but N loves power tools, and this one qualifies. He turns on the beaters, and splat! Splat! Splat! Hunks of what look like brown concrete fly onto the backsplash. One makes its way to the towel on his shoulder.

“F***!” he cries.

Wooden spoon, I think, but dare not say.

In his translation, then calculation, he decides that the Rugbrod must bake at exactly 392 degrees. “Does our oven go that high?” he asks, and tears of laughter rollick down my cheeks. I cannot begin to distinguish which is funnier: the fact that he is thrilled our electric, LCD-paneled oven can be dialed in precisely to 392 degrees or the fact that despite his moderate use of the oven, he is, at this lynchpin of a moment, uncertain as to whether it will be able to accommodate the high standards demanded of a Danish Rugbrod.

I explain to him how our oven runs hot and how he should probably check on his Rugbrod at least 15 minutes before the time called for on the package, lest it burn after all this baking investment.

And then he searches for **the perfect** Rugbrod pan. Which clearly, we don’t have, as we don’t make Rugbrod. Ever. He translates and then calculates and contemplates. “Do you have a 2.3 liter puss that I can put this in?” he asks. Remember how I said there were sounds that I don’t even hear in Danish? Well, when your now-baker husband begins asking about your puss selection, and if it’s large enough, and you are prone to the mental proclivities of teen-age boys, and you’ve already been laughing, well, ladies and gentleman, all hell breaks loose.

So we discuss my puss selection for at least seven minutes. It takes this long because I can barely breathe through the laughter. Plus, we have to do some Mad Max calculations using a four-cup measuring cup, as if that’s some magical conversion into liters. I pour water into one puss, and realize it’s not large enough for the job, so we opt for the largest of the three pusses, based on some voodoo calculus equation involving pi.

I remind N to butter or oil my puss. Rugbrod caked on my puss really angers me. Bless his heart, he slathers more butter around the dish than Julia Child used in her entire career, and holds the pan up with a smile. It was one well-lubricated puss.

(He tells me now, days later, as I read this aloud to him, that puss means “bag,” and that we needed a plastic puss, aka. a plastic bag, for what reason, neither of us is sure.)

This happens to me all the time. It's just never this funny.

Now, the moment of truth: transferring the dough into the puss. (See, I hear you still laughing too. How can you not??) He holds the bowl up and pushes the mound out with a spatula. It lands with the thud of a dead body in the pan. This is serious bread. He uses the spatula to smooth out the heap, but the spatula breaks. I can think of nothing funnier.

It’s been over an hour into the Rugbrod adventure, and the oven chimes that it’s preheated to the specified 392, precisely. N lowers a rack and places it in the oven.

At which point, I must call his Danish mother. I’ve only witnessed two Christmases in the Danish tradition, but there is a lot of translating and calculating and cursing and general mayhem and fuck-ups. There is a lot of laughter, too, and I had to share this time with her.

We giggle about the calamities of cooking in foreign tongues. Then N gets on the phone with her. Reads the back of the package to her: “Add water and yeast. That’s all I had to do,” he says.

NF phone home

ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS ADD WATER AND YEAST?? That’s it? Water and yeast? I look over at him incredulously. I could not believe that adding water and yeast was all he had accomplished over there, towel over his shoulder and all. It was like the Betty Crocker mix of Rugbrod. Here I thought he was, slicing and roasting rye kernels and cutting in butter and preparing a bowl of the dry to churn into the wet. I thought he was measuring out spoonfuls of sourdough leaving agent and seeds and baking soda and powder. Nope. Water and yeast. In just under an hour-and-half. I could not stop laughing even if I wanted to.

N, because he is diligent and follows directions well, pulls the Rugbrod from the oven at the precise time, which is to say earlier than the package instructed (if you are translating and calculating and cursing). I watch as he tries to get the loaf (brick-like) out of the pan. Even with all that butter, it was still wedged in. He looked to me as I must look to him when I use a drill or saw: beyond frustrated, totally out of my element and absolutely hysterical. I tell him about running a knife along the edges. The bread fell from the pan, all ten pounds of it.

N's first (and probably last) Rugbrod

The instructions say to wait a day—seriously, a day?—before you cut into the loaf. But we’ve the patience of Americans, so we generously wait ten minutes.

We glob on enough butter to leave tooth marks, as the Danes are prone to do, and take bites of the steaming bread. “Does it taste weird to you?” he asks as he searches for the jam in the fridge.

“Kinda.” But warm bread is warm bread, rancid flour or not. “Like the flour is rancid.”


“Well, we have had it for over two years,” I remind him.

He watches me as I take another bite. Knifefuls of melty butter convert even the sourest of spoiled ryes.

“I think we should toss it.” He picks up the loaf, now nine pounds, eleven ounces, and chucks it in the garbage. This time, it fell all the way to the bottom without anyone snagging it. “I should have let you chuck it the first time,” he says.

An “I-told-you-so” is in my brain but it comes out as hysterical laughter.

In a serendipitous twist of fate, I remember that earlier that morning, I had taken out Trader Joe’s loaf of Rugbrod from the freezer. “Want a piece?” I dangle the bag and take out a slice for both of us.

It was toasted, buttered, jammed and consumed in under 3.92 minutes, deciliters be damned.

Face the Sun

The last two weeks have created “The Rage,” as my teaching friend and I like to deem it. The last two weeks spurred this almost-blog entry (okay, well now it is a blog entry):

Skimming blogs and Facebook, one might be led to believe that every one’s life is hunky dory, 24/7. That every recipe tested comes out Saveur Magazine worthy, every event, Martha Stewart-esque. Slate Magazine published a great article on “the human habit of overestimating other peoples’ happiness.”

Libby Copeland gets it right in that article when she argues: “Any parent who has posted photos and videos of her child on Facebook is keenly aware of the resulting disconnect from reality, the way chronicling parenthood this way creates a story line of delightfully misspoken words, adorably worn hats, dancing, blown kisses. Tearful falls and tantrums are rarely recorded, nor are the stretches of pure, mind-blowing tedium. We protect ourselves, and our kids, this way; happiness is impersonal in a way that pain is not. But in the process, we wind up contributing to the illusion that kids are all joy, no effort.” 

Lest you think that all my Pacific Northwest days are sunny, that they all end with perfectly funky raised beds, happy marital grins and savory soups and scones, let me let you in on a secret:

Sometimes my life sucks too.

Sometimes my hair thins.
Frequently I despise my job.
I have to work hard at my baby marriage.
I found a free bed frame and sanded it and painted it and it came out looking like ballet-pink vomit and it’s sitting, purposefully ignored, in my basement.
I can’t always zen out while picking and cleaning spinach or washing dishes again.
Some weeks I come home from school and sit on my ass, eat Ben and Jerry’s. All week long.
I freeze the recipes that come out tasting like cardboard or dirt, in hopes that N will unknowingly take them to work and take them away.

And…drum roll, please…

It’s okay. While looking for an old recipe from Ashley Rodriguez’s beautiful Not Without Salt blog, I saw this post, which almost brought me to tears. Her honesty, her hardship felt so human. I adored her even more for her struggles. For seeing them through. I watch my neighbors, both thirty-something-year-old public school teachers with a ten-month old and a three year old, and I see them melt into pools on their porch Friday afternoons. I know that one of my wonderful former teaching buddies suffers from a chronic disease and yet still wins teaching awards, and should win Mother of the Year and Friend of the Century. I look around and I see that our lives are challenging. Not in a bad way, mind you, but in a oh-my-gosh-I-know-that-this-professor-is-going-to-turn-into-a-werewolf-right-now-and-I-can-save-my-friend-if-I-can-just-force-my-friend-to-let-me-break-the-code-of-using-the-time-travel-watch kind of challenge. (1,339,276,299 points for a Prisoner of Azkaban reference, right? And yes, thank you for asking, I am on book four.)

I think society makes us–me–feel like it’s complaining if we share our struggle. In this idealized world of perfect Hawaiian sunset photos, perfectly coiffed brides, perfectly raised souffles, I think it’s important to remember that we are human. That we make mistakes. We have to work hard for the good things in life and encounter struggle frequently. And that each day, we have to pick ourselves up, make a decision to keep fighting on, and pull off another day. They won’t all be pretty. Up here, the trumpeter swans will not always create alphabet letters across a tangerine-dyed sky. Not all my seeds will sprout. It’s good to remind ourselves that we don’t live in the adorable Storybrook Lane, where our lives fold up neatly and can be tucked away for the night.

Messy is good. Imperfection is necessary.

My hesitation in posting this was not that I second-guessed myself, it was that I couldn’t get my ass in gear to find all the necessary links it HAD TO HAVE to go live. (No, I don’t have an ounce of anal-retentiveness!)
But yesterday, in the middle of one of those days where you work and laugh and love so hard it makes your belly ache, I made a giant discovery while staring, boozed-up, into the eyes of my fava bean and daffodil flowers:

Face the sun.

It’s that easy. These flowers and plants could have all chosen to pirouette, attempted to set flowers on the north-facing side of their stem. And they would have wilted. Mother Nature is one savvy chick: she doesn’t even give them a choice; the plants just set their flowers on the side that provides the most light. Every. Last. One of ’em. Without fail.
So, I’ve made a conscious decision: I’m going to face the sun. It’s where beauty blooms.