And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn

It feels weird to have my innermost dread feel so manifest on Halloween, a day we usually enact symbolically and ritualistically from the safety of so-called normal life by wearing costumes to work or school or the grocery store, dressing up as figures of death or horror, fantasy, chaos, or satire, enjoying the shock of seeing a witch or a ghoul or a zombie or a vampire at a school desk, in the cereal aisle, in a cubicle on the phone. The mundane made terrifying is the nature of the deepest fears I have. Today, I imagine many people here on the East Coast won’t feel much like dressing up. It cuts too close to the bone.

I spent the night of the hurricane at my laptop, glued to updates from friends and news media in and around New York City, sending and reading emails, watching footage of the Atlantic City boardwalk washing away, a transformer at Con Ed exploding and terrible floods in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, I worried more than ever about the outcome of the next election, something I have no control over beyond my one New Hampshire vote. It matters who wins. I am terrified.

Brendan had to go out to L.A. this week for meetings, so it was just Dingo and me up here in my study together while the wind whipped around the house and glass broke down the street and metal clanged and things blew past. I kept reassuring Dingo, who stared at me wide-eyed every time he heard anything unusual, which was all night long. “It’s okay,” I told him. He clearly did not believe me and chose to believe his own ears instead. “It could be a lot worse.”  He stared at me, unblinking.

It was true, though. This was all the way up in Maine: how bad could it have been down in New York, I kept thinking, where the real storm was? Unlike thousands of other people up here, my power didn’t go out; no trees around me fell. I was lucky, but it’s an odd kind of guilt to realize your own damage is so minimal when other people lost so much, went through so much. It reminds me of post-tornado photos I’ve seen — an untouched house sitting on its lawn while next door is a gaping dirt pit where the neighbor’s house used to be. You never know when it’s going to be you. It could always be you. When it’s not you this time, it could be next time. No one is ever safe, and luck is really just freak chance.

When suppertime rolled around, as it always does, even during hurricanes, I went down to the kitchen, Dingo barreling down the stairs ahead of me, barking with the excitement he shows before every single meal of his life.  I doled out his kibble, his cup of homemade stew. He whimpered and mooed as I mixed them together, then set upon his dinner as ravenously as if he were still a skeletal, starving street dog instead of a well-fed elderly gentleman from a good home. He has no dignity where food is concerned. I feel much the same way.

On Saturday, before Brendan left, knowing this storm was coming, I had stocked the kitchen for the week with groceries – one small thing to be glad of. After I fed Dingo, I made myself a stiff Dark and Stormy: a slew of ice cubes, half a bottle of Maine Root ginger beer, a huge slug of Gosling’s, and the juice of half a lime. I looked out the kitchen windows at the gigantic, thick-trunked, very old ash tree, whose branches we had trimmed a month or two ago. It stood there, barely moving in the strong, hard gusts, and all its leaves were already down and raked and bagged, another small thing to be glad of.

To take my mind off everything going on in the world out there, I cooked myself a ridiculously huge dinner of mussels in coconut milk and chicken broth with onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, coriander, Thai rice noodles, red pepper, and mushrooms. I dished myself up a big bowlful of this brothy, briny, warming stew, added lime juice and Sriracha, and ate it at the counter with my laptop. Too full for seconds, I emptied the remaining mussel shells and put the pot in the fridge for tomorrow.

It was time to take Dingo out.  We stood at the door of the mudroom together, his leash on, poop bags in my jacket pocket.

“Ready?” I asked him.

He was not ready, it appeared.

“Come on,” I said. “We can do it.”

I opened the door into a powerful gust of wind and pulled him outside. The wind was so strong it plastered his ears against his skull and lifted my hair in a swirl above my head. We went to the end of the alleyway driveway and turned onto the sidewalk, which had become a wind tunnel.

Instantly, he emptied himself of everything he had.

“Good boy,” I said, and we headed back for home.

I gave him a treat, then made another Dark and Stormy and took it upstairs with my laptop. I sat there all night long, reluctant to go to bed. My laptop screen felt like a window into reality – my way of feeling connected to the people I loved, the city I will always feel part of, the ongoing online conversations that so many of us participated in all night, those of us who could, as if that could somehow help something, someone. It was yet another small thing to be glad of, but I held onto it.

Well I love potato pie and I love potato puddin’

I walked into the soup kitchen last week to find that I was the only volunteer that day for lunch, and Monica was on vacation. Her substitute, Jordan, runs the teen center. He had two chowders heating in the oven when I arrived, one corn, the other fish.

“How do you feel about making biscuits?” he asked when I came in.

“I feel fine about making biscuits,” I said, with private misgivings, which I kept to myself. The machismo of the kitchen, even a soup kitchen, does not allow for fear of wheat. I’d keep my mouth closed while I made them, try not to breathe the flour dust, scrub my hands and sponge off my clothing afterwards, and hope for the best.

Jordan handed me a handwritten recipe he’d copied off the Internet for a large enough quantity of biscuits for today’s lunch: 8 cups flour, ¼ cup baking powder, 2 cups oil, 4 cups milk, but only 1 teaspoon salt. He went back into the office, where he was working on the teen center’s weekly menu.

The oven was already hot, so I got out a big bowl and measured the flour from the huge sack on the pantry and carried the bowl quickly back out to the kitchen, leaving behind the inevitable puffs of flour dust in the air, trying not to breathe any of it.  I rolled up my sleeves and averted my face as I stirred in the baking powder and a good shaking of salt, a lot more than the recipe called for, because 1 teaspoon of salt was not nearly enough for all that flour.

I considered the “2 cups oil.” If I used oil, I could stir the batter with a spoon and drop the biscuits onto the cookie sheet with a smaller spoon. I wouldn’t have to touch the dough. I could get it done and into the oven quickly. I’d be safe from flour contamination.

But they wouldn’t be biscuits. They might taste all right, but biscuits involve creating an alchemy of starch and fat that you can only get by rubbing them together by hand until they’re blended.

The soup kitchen has no butter, only margarine. I took out a 2-cup block, unwrapped it, and cut it into the flour mixture. Then, using my bare, clean hands, I rubbed and rubbed it into the flour. It took a while. Toxic, dangerous flour covered my arms up to my elbows, hung in puffs in the air in front of my face. I didn’t stop until the magical alchemy happened and I had grainy, fatty, yellowed flour, ready for the milk.

I made an indentation in the flour, splashed in some milk, worked it into a paste, added more milk. I didn’t measure the liquid: another secret of real biscuits. The flour will tell you how much it wants. When I had a ball of clean, firm dough, not too sticky, not too dry, I got out a big board and set it by the bowl. I filled the measuring cup with more flour, not even bothering to be prissy about it anymore: I was too intent on my project to care by now.

I floured the board and turned the dough ball out onto it.

“Jordan,” I called, “is there a rolling pin in this kitchen?”

He emerged from the office. “You can just drop it onto the sheet with a spoon,” he said. “They come out fine.”

“I have to make them my grandmother’s way,” I said with a laugh. Did my grandmother even make biscuits? I have no idea. I was referring to some mythical grandmother, an old-fashioned Midwestern farm wife who got up at dawn to feed her hard-working family breakfast with real American biscuits.

I patted the dough until I had an inch-thick layer, which worked fine in the absence of a rolling pin. Then I took a drinking glass and cut out the biscuits one by one. I took the leftover scraps, patted them into another layer, and cut them out. I did a third round, and then they were done.

I arranged them on the sheet and baked them. They came out puffy, golden, moist, and light.

Later, during lunch service, a tall, elegant black woman with a strong Southern accent approached the window.

“I’ll take another biscuit,” she said. “Girl, you made these biscuits?”

We smiled at each other.  “Yeah,” I said.

“These are real biscuits!” she said. “Like my grandmother used to make. I haven’t tasted these since she was alive!”

I gave her two more.

Chicken Dinner

The other night, I roasted a chicken. I stuck a cut-up lemon and a handful of pitted olives into its cavity, squeezed lemon juice over its peppered skin, and put two big pats of butter on top of it. I surrounded it with whole peeled shallots and halved peeled carrots and parsnips set into a coating of olive oil, covered the pan with foil, roasted it at 500 degrees for 20 minutes, then uncovered it and turned the oven down to 350.

I made a broth with the pile of parsnip and carrot peelings and tops, the shallot peels and ends, the gizzards from inside the chicken, pepper, and salt, simmering it until it was sweet and earthy. I strained it and whisked polenta into it and let it cook until it thickened, then stirred in a lot of minced fresh basil and parmesan cheese.

When the chicken was moist inside and crackling outside, and the root vegetables were soft and had begun to caramelize in the chicken fat, and the polenta was cheesy and savory and redolent of basil, we ate.

Afterwards, I poured the chicken fat that was left in the pan into a coffee cup and put it in the fridge. Tonight, I’ll fry wedges of red cabbage in it until they’re soft and browned and velvety, just like my mythical grandmother would have done.

Just my imagination once again runnin’ away with me

This morning, just as I was waking up, I dreamed I was cooking a dish that was meant to be a compendium of intense flavors: extremely sour and salty dried Chinese plums, Coca-Cola syrup concentrate from a little keg I had to tap, tiny silver birthday-cake decoration balls, and thinly sliced jalapeno peppers. The resulting amalgamation, which I pictured myself stirring in a sort of vat with a big wooden paddle, was sweet, spicy, bitter, salty, and crunchy; in my dream, it was very beautiful, and I thought just before I woke up: I have to make this.

Of course I won’t make that. Can you even get those little silver balls anymore? I am sure you can, but I haven’t made or decorated a birthday cake in many years. My mother used to keep them in our cupboards when I was little, along with a bunch of other things I haven’t thought about in years. After I woke up from that dream, I lay in bed, thinking about all the stuff we always had around the house when I was growing up in Arizona in the 70s — stuff that I never buy, or think about, or eat anymore.

It wasn’t only kid food – there was a whole array of things that, when we ran out of them, we would put on the shopping list, which was a common contraption, a wood back with a round paper roll on a dowel, the paper threaded through a steel corrugated ripper-offer at the bottom. A pencil dangled on a string next to it. When it was dull, you sharpened it. Our lists were written in everyone’s handwriting, from my mother’s illegible flat-lined cursive to my baby sister’s big spidery letters. We were all zealous about it; it was fun to add items. When we embarked on a trip to the supermarket, the list, often nearly a foot long, came with us.

There were certain things that we had around the house all the time: cottage cheese, for one thing, and Karo corn syrup and Graham crackers. We always kept a set of food coloring squeeze bottles in different colors, soft fat plastic containers with colored hats; they looked like a row of little gnomes. We replaced as a matter of course powdered sugar, popcorn, frozen mixed vegetables, and canned creamed corn.

Then there were those wholesome staples our mother bought that we didn’t care about, boring things like whole wheat flour and yeast for making homemade bread, fresh vegetables, wheat germ and Cream of Wheat cereal, prunes and raisins, and peanut butter, which had to be crunchy in our house. On most nights, she gave us cut-up raw vegetables or frozen mixed vegetables to snack on while she made dinner, which was more often than not some sort of fish or chicken or meat, one or two cooked veggies, and a starch. Dessert was also generally fairly wholesome: fluffy tapioca, or Jello with canned fruit cocktail, or warm butterscotch pudding from a box, or vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup poured from the little can we always kept in the fridge.

We yearned for the treats we only got once in a while: Vienna sausages in little cans with a pop-top lid, hot dogs and fish sticks and frozen chicken pot pies and TV dinners – when we were allowed to have them, we lingered over the freezer case, choosing carefully between Salisbury steak or fried chicken, dizzy with excitement. My little sisters loved Kraft mac and cheese; I was the only kid in the land who hated it, for reasons I have never understood.  Once, we got to have Spam, fried in slabs, which we loved, but our mother thought it was disgusting and nixed the stuff forevermore. We never got pop, as we called it in Arizona, or sugar cereal, or chips of any kind, or processed sweets like Pop Tarts or Hostess anything, so these salty, fatty, special main courses were our indulgences.

Yesterday, we needed groceries; Brendan gallantly offered to go and get them. We hit on the menu for the next few nights, then I said, “And that usual other stuff we always get, and the stuff for Dingo’s stew,” to which Brendan replied, “Of course,” and off he went. He came home with two full bags and didn’t forget anything. We almost never make a list. We don’t need one: our shopping habits are so efficiently codified and our cupboards so ridiculously organized and pared-down, we always know what we need. Just like my mother’s kitchen in the 70s, we generally always buy the same things, but our staples seem lackluster compared to the glittering array of glamorous, thrilling stuff she stocked her pantry with – so lackluster I don’t even want to write them down for fear of falling asleep. (Here’s an example: gluten-free flax crackers. Canned kippers. Nettle tea. Goat cheese. Zzzzz.)

I’d rather think about baloney sandwiches on honey-wheatberry bread with thick globs of mayonnaise, with Campbell’s tomato soup, so salty I had to drink three glasses of milk with each bowl. And deviled ham… what the hell was deviled ham? Was it a ham paste you spread on bread? All I remember is that I loved it. I’m sure I would hate it now – along with all the other stuff I prized so dearly as a kid. It’s all too salty for me now, it all contains gluten, and it’s all probably disgusting. But in my memory, those foods remain just as delicious as they were back then.

Now, my favorite indulgences seem to have become those things my mother didn’t let us have, like potato chips. Last night, because we’re grownups and we can have whatever we want, we made ourselves pre-dinner cocktails and tore open a bag of Vinegar and Salt Kettle chips, sitting at the kitchen counter on stools, shoving handfuls into our mouths, crunching away, washing them down with lovely booze.

1970s afterschool snack

Take a handful of Triscuits and put them on a plate. Cut part of a brick of Cracker Barrel cheddar into slices. Put them on the plate. Take the plate into your room and get into bed with a book and lie there till dinnertime, snacking and reading like a pasha amid his silken pillows. Replenish as needed when your mother isn’t looking.

But there’s booze in the blender and soon it will render that frozen concoction that helps me hang on

When one candidate seems not to want the Presidency and to be unwilling to pretend that he does, and the other wants it so badly, he’ll say anything to get it, it makes for a lopsided, terrible, weird debate. There was the weary, abstracted, exhausted incumbent at one podium, hunching and scribbling and grimacing. And then there was the eager-beaver challenger at his, hopped up as a frat boy trying to get into a girl’s pants, hiding the roofie in his pocket as a last resort.

“Of course I love you, baby,” he lied. “Of course I care about you as a person. Of course I’ll still respect you afterwards.”

“If you believe that,” said the incumbent, “then vote for this guy.”

“Vote for this guy” echoed a little too convincingly.

We had made a good debate supper, cheeseburgers and oven fries and a cucumber-tomato-arugula salad, in the spirit of trying to hold on to the last shreds of summer. We had about half a bottle of decent red wine open; we poured it and settled in to watch.

“Is Romney the only person in America who’s not bored right now?” I asked at one point.

By the time it was over, we’d worked our way through most of another bottle of wine. Our burgers seemed to have given us dyspepsia.

“Asher Platts for President!” said Brendan.

Asher Platts is a local Maine State Senate hopeful running on the Green Independent Party ticket. We see his homemade, punk-rock-looking signs all over town. One day, he came to our door. He’s very tall and skinny, and there’s something of the serious 19th century statesman about him, young and inexperienced though he is. I was sorry to tell him that we’re registered to vote in New Hampshire, so we couldn’t support him.

I slept badly that night and woke up yesterday morning feeling even more jaundiced as well as muzzy-headed from all the wine I’d had to drink to get through the debate. At the soup kitchen later on, my fellow volunteer, Teresa, and I agreed that “none of the above” seemed like the most viable choice.

“I didn’t watch, said Monica, the kitchen supervisor. “I cooked instead.”

We agreed that Monica had made the right decision.

Brendan and Dingo and I drove out to the farmhouse in New Hampshire yesterday afternoon to spend the weekend. When we got here, the green meadows were alight with dying, golden milkweed. The trees were ablaze in the drizzly fog; the mist hung over the woods, and the lake glinted slate-grey off through the trees. The world felt vivid, intimate, and fragile.

We wrote all afternoon. When my work was finished, I read about the Maine Tar Sands project: a 67-year-old pipeline now carries crude oil from tankers in Casco Bay in South Portland up through the pristine, lake-filled Maine and New Hampshire wilderness to Montreal. This seems bad enough, dangerous enough. But evidently there’s a terrible, potentially catastrophic plan afoot to reverse the direction of the flow and send hot, sandpaper-like Tar Sands oil from Montreal to Casco Bay across the White Mountains into Maine, directly crossing the water supply for most of the region’s people. This is scheduled to be determined in less than two years.

My jaundice shaded into despair. I thought of Monica, avoiding the debates, cooking instead. I rooted around in the cabinet above the counter and found most of a bag of Jacob’s Cattle beans and poured them into a colander, rinsed and picked through them, then put them in a big pot with a lot of water, brought them to a boil, and left them to sit overnight. Just that simple thing cheered me up: I was going to make Boston baked beans.

This morning, I rinsed the soaked beans well and covered them with fresh water and let them simmer for a couple of hours while I worked. We took our daily walk with Dingo to the end of the road and back, then Brendan went to town for salt pork and booze and a few other supplies. When he got back, I got to work.

I drained the soaked beans over a bowl and reserved the liquid, then put the beans in a glass baking dish with one finely minced onion and half a pound of chopped salt pork. In a small pot, I put molasses, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, salt, pepper, and brown sugar and brought it to a boil with some of the cooking liquid. I poured it over the beans and covered the dish with aluminum foil and put it into a moderately hot oven and left it there.

After another hour and a half of work, I checked the beans, added more liquid, left the cover off and put them back into the oven. We made cocktails: a Dark and Stormy for Brendan, a “sippin’ tequila” for me: silver tequila on the rocks with half a squeezed lime.

Thanks to the tequila, I felt my spirits moving in a sideways direction: not lifting, but no longer stagnant; like a detour when you’re caught in traffic, you get to the same place faster, at least. I cut two small delicata squashes in halves, scooped out the innards, and put them on a cookie sheet. In each half, I put ground cinnamon, fresh sage sprigs, black pepper, and olive oil. I chopped half a red cabbage into ¾ inch thick rounds and splashed olive oil and black pepper on them and arranged them next to the squash and stuck them into the oven.

Soon, I’ll chop the beautiful, springy, extremely fresh jacinto kale into bite-sized pieces and put them onto another cookie sheet and roast them. Meanwhile, the baked beans smell amazing. Outside, the world is dying and heartbreakingly beautiful.

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