Extra Innings: Not about Baseball

InningsI recently read Extra Innings by Doris Grumbach. This is the second of five memoirs that she’s published (though I found an article in The American Scholar that included an essay, “The View from 90” by Grumbach, which noted that the essay is part of a larger memoir, Downhill Almost All the Way, so hopefully the future holds at least one more memoir from this lovely, occasionally irascible woman).

For some reason I did not bother to read these in order, which is often a liability with memoirs. If I remember correctly, it is because I first stumbled upon her book Fifty Days of Solitude which I absolutely loved. I then read Life in a Day, which I also loved, and I’m not sure where in there I read Coming into the End Zone, which was her first memoir.

Extra Innings follows up two years later, and a bit of the book is about the reviews and responses to her first memoir. The overwhelming response that she noted was reviewers calling her grumpy or cranky, suggesting that perhaps she was not growing old as gracefully (or thankfully) as she should. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember having that feeling at all after reading any of her books. Certainly she’s not all chipper and spice; she’s direct and to the point, and calls shit shit (though not in such a vulgar manner). And she has a fine, sardonic sense of humor. I loved where relatively early in Extra Innings, a friend writes to say that she went to a bookstore to get her (previous) memoir, Coming into the End Zone, which they had in stock but couldn’t find on the nonfiction shelf. Her friend finally found it in the Sports section. A friend from New York sent her a postcard: “Loved your football book.” Grumbach muses:

There is a lesson in all this. Mary McCarthy once told me she was very good at naming books, as indeed she was: she provided me with the name for the biography I wrote of her, The Company She Kept, to echo the title of her own book, The Company She Keeps. On the contrary, I have a genius for misnaming books. Chamber Music [a novel] found itself on the Music shelves of bookstores, The Missing Person, a novel about Hollywood in the silent days, ended up among the Mysteries, and now there is my new football book. . . .”

This made me laugh out loud.

Another thing I love about Doris Grumbach: She loves words. Reading the recommendations in a book, Plain Words, first published in 1954, she notes that one is advised to use ‘get’ or ‘buy’ or ‘win’ rather than ‘acquire’; ‘rich’ rather than ‘affluent’; and ‘near’ rather than ‘adjacent.’ I couldn’t disagree more! For one thing, there is more at stake here than plainness, there is detail and accuracy, the conveyance of information. I have two neighbors adjacent to my house, but I would call at least 10 additional houses ‘near.’ The two words convey different information. Plainness is not a virtue if you lose detail and depth. Grumbach is not convinced that plain words are the answer, as you can tell in her writing—rich and diverse, with many words that call for a dictionary at hand.

Also in the world of words, later in the book she makes note of mistaken definitions—words that you thought you knew the meaning of, and then find out they mean something completely different. (I find this experience both embarrassing and exhilarating.) Two examples she gives: ‘pericope’ (which she thought was a variation of a word for a sea instrument, but instead it is an extract or section from a book); and ‘alewife,’ which she knew was a woman who ran a pub, but it is also a type of fish.

I have similar word experiences as I expect we all do. I always think ‘laconic’ means slow and/or lazy; lackadaisical. A laconic speech would be a slow,
meandering one. Wrong! Laconic means brief, concise, terse, or short. The satyrsexact opposite! And I always think ‘limpid’ means limp and having no depth, but in fact it means perfectly clear or transparent. I recently found out that ‘sartorial’ has nothing to do with goats or celebrations involving wine, but refers to tailors and clothing.

And this is why I loved Extra Innings. Grumbach always sends me down some garden path or another.

Any other examples of mistaken definitions out there?

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Cooking with Beans

beansI have been obsessed by beans of late. Black beans, pinto beans, lentils (not technically beans, but beanish); canned and dried (trying to move from more canned to more dried). The bean, at least for me these last few weeks, seems to be the thing.

It started with the heat of summer, when I thought a lentil-orange salad would be just the thing. I cooked the lentils with the orange zest (and a bit of the juice) but they never made it to the salad stage because the lentils on their own were too good to resist. (Lentils are easy to cook—1 cup lentils, 2 cups water, and a bit of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 15-35 minutes, depending on the kind of lentil. Red are fast, in the 15-minute range, but I find my older green lentils take a bit more than 30 minutes.)

Then I was on to refried beans (these from canned pinto beans). I’m trying to find the best mix of spices. Lately I’ve been experimenting with cumin and coriander. I have discovered I have a huge fondness for cumin. The refried beans were very good on their own, but also leftover on tortillas with melted cheese. Also heated (again with cheese) for a good dip with tortilla chips.

crockpotBut I really want to get the dried bean thing down. I tried awhile ago and was daunted (read total failure). But a friend in Denver convinced me to try beans in a crockpot (pretty much the only way she makes them, she says). And so I did. And they are excellent! (I’m especially pleased to have finally used the crockpot, which I bought several years ago but have never used because I had not yet found it essential.)

Here is the thing, according to my friend Jami: You put the (rinsed and picked over) beans in the crockpot. Then you cover them well in boiling water. Boiling water, yes. This somehow precludes the need for soaking. I used 6+ cups of boiling water to 2 cups of black beans. Jami’s recipe (for any kind of dried bean pretty much) also includes a medium chopped onion, a few minced garlic cloves, a shredded carrot or two, and a stalk of celery rather finely diced (I used two because I really like celery). For black beans add cumin and coriander. Cook on high for about 6 hours (do check for tenderness, though—the age of the bean also makes a difference). Once they are getting tender but are not quite done, add salt and the juice of half a lemon. The lemon is optional but adds a nice sense of completeness to the beans. The salt is not optional. Beans do need a bit of salt, but at the end.

These beans were good on their own, and I used some of the leftovers on tortilla chips with shredded cheese on top, which was excellent and has given me ideas about further adventures with lettuce and sour cream.

kbeansI have finally conquered the dry bean. Thank you Jami! I want to try the black beans again, because I need to add much more cumin and coriander than I did. And I might want to add a bit of ginger root. But then I also want to try pinto beans. And kidney beans. Small red beans. So many beans….and I am lucky enough to have the time.

July Reprise

July was a lot of sitting on the front porch reading. I read 18 books in July, mostly nonfiction (10). I read 5 fiction books (two of them were graphic novels) and 3 books of poetry. I’ve already written about my favorite books (July 8 and July 10) which were all nonfiction.

House HopeI also had this bookish experience in July: One of my fun light summer fiction reads was The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Pragg, a book incorporating a goodly pinch each of magic, literature, and feminism. After finishing this book, I decided to read A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster which was referenced several times (and quite fondly) in The House at the End of Hope Street. I loved the movie version of A Room With a View (which I’ve seen several times) and have wanted to read the book for a long time, and this was clearly the moment. I went to my shelf and—it wasn’t there! I was so sure I had it. I remember looking for a good trade copy of it for several years, and then I wasn’t looking, and I was sure I had bought it. Apparently not. I found Maurice and A Passage to India, but A Room With a View was not on the shelf where it should be.

They didn’t have it in stock at Moon Palace Books, but they offered to get me a used copy. I didn’t hear from them, so when I went to the library, I checked the shelf and they had a copy so I checked it out. But that weekend we went to Moon Palace and they did have a copy for me, a not-bad trade paperback, so I got it for $5.

Room ViewA couple of days later, I was culling my tall bookshelf of already-read fiction. And there sat A Room With a View. Not only did I have it (at least I was right about that) but I have read it and couldn’t even remember it! (This is not completely unprecedented. I read Stephen King’s novel The Stand and forgot, and it’s much longer than A Room With a View. But I hold E. M. Forster to a higher standard than I do King, and so I am quite disappointed—shocked even—at myself for forgetting.) My guess is that it’s because the movie is so ingrained in my mind that the book just kind of adapted itself in my brain to the movie, because Lucy Honeychurch will always and ever be Helena Bonham Carter to me.

FruitJuly was also a bit about cooking as I ventured into the world of salads. Fruit salad, tuna pasta salad (with lots of celery and peas), creamy cucumbers, and potato salad (my first attempt was not too bad but my second will be much better). Having covered the common bases, I decided to branch out into an orange/lentil salad (lentils cooked with orange zest, ginger, and cumin and then mixed with large chunks of orange, served cold). This was a very good idea in theory, but in practice we liked the lentils so much that we just ate them on their own (both cold and hot). I made juice (and fruit salad) out of the rest of the oranges.

We got tortillas to eat with the lentils. Then I thought to pick just a few herbs from the garden and put on a tortilla, cover with cheese, and microwave for 30 seconds. Particularly delicious with basil. Since we had the tortillas and it’s such an easy summer lunch, I made more lentils (also just because I wanted to practice). And when the lentils were almost gone, I made a batch of refried beans. We are now experimenting with whole grain tortillas. There are a lot of tortilla options out there. Recommendations are welcome!

Also on the food front, I have to say I am extremely glad I didn’t have a goal of eliminating 100% of industrial meat from my diet! One surprising thing I’ve found is how many meatless days I’ve had. I’ve only been tracking for 10 days, but half of those days were meatless. This is in large part due to the fact that I’m eating out less. I think I have cut my restaurant eating by about two-thirds. (And I can tell. I’m starting to miss the social aspect. Need to put other things in place so I don’t become a hermit.) But even eating out, I find I’m ordering more non-meat options than I used to, purely to avoid the industrial meat.

I expected to do much more meat eating at home (since we get our meat at the co-op, sourced from sustainable farms), but as mentioned above, I’ve been experimenting with salads and lentils and beans this month which has cut down on our carnivorous tendencies. Come autumn and winter, meat will return to the table.

GreenTFor now, it is mostly about the garden. I’ve got tomatoes coming in (green and plentiful). I continue to harvest chamomile nearly daily, and my plants are doing well enough that I am now using two screens for drying instead of just the one I had been using. I have two late-blooming chamomile plants that have just started flowering. Worth the wait, as these flowers are about three times the size of those in the other pots! I’ve also been more diligent about harvesting my herbs for use over the winter and have already started jars of dried rosemary, yarrow, thyme, plantain, and sage.

The other best thing about spending time in the garden is the wildlife. I’ve seen fledging cardinals, blue jays, robins, and catbirds this year. More than ever before. Also many monarch and swallowtail butterflies, a great spangled fritillary, and different kinds of bumble bees. I think maybe I’m just paying more attention.