In Praise of Winter Hibernation

On of my favorite things to do on a snowy day is sit in a chair by a window and watch the snow. Ideally, there’s a table with the chair, and I have a mug of hot tea and a book. So I will read, and at the end of every section I look out and watch the snow. Sometimes briefly, sometimes for minutes. It’s hypnotic and relaxing and magical all at once.

On a good snowy day (which to me means at least four inches of snow), I often don’t even leave the house except to put out food for the birds along with fresh water. When it gets way below zero (-15 and colder) I also put out peanuts in the shell. Generally, I don’t like to put out peanuts because almost always the squirrels find them first and bury them all; and there are squirrels in my roof, and I hate to reward these trespassers with one of their favorite foods. However, when it’s twenty below, even I take pity on the squirrels, although I was happy to see the blue jays got to the peanuts first both of the last two times I put them out.

The birds are a great part of my joy in winter hibernation. Just today I saw a house finch at the feeder—the first one I’ve seen this year, and so brightly colored I thought it might be a purple finch. But the female showed up and I was assured they were house finches. I have had tons of juncos this year! Far more than usual. And not nearly as many chickadees as in past years, so I was happy to hear several of them when I was outside earlier today.

Hibernation is also good for reading. One of the books I’ve been reading (a surprise theme find) is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson. Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which I haven’t read), it is a book focused on decluttering. But it’s half the length and feels much more pragmatic (mind you I’m only one-third through). Magnusson suggests starting in the attic or the basement. She suggests starting with large things. She suggests starting with easy things.

So after 40 pages I’m looking around the house for big easy things. There’s that large cloth shopping basket I’ve never used. What about this air conditioner that doesn’t work? And I have entire categories of easy things to get to—linens and shoes, for sure. (Interestingly, not winter boots. I was shocked, looking through my death-cleaning eyes, to see I have four pair of winter boots. That’s nuts! What can go? I have two pair for serious winter snow, meaning over six inches. One pair is for shoveling and outdoor work. The other is for wearing in public. For the rest of winter, I primarily wear my little black snow boots for every day wear out of the house. But for quick runs into the yard—to the compost bin or the bird feeders, I like my old cheap step-in moon boots. I have one pair of tennis shoes and four pair of winter boots? Hmmm.)

And of course hibernation almost drives one to cook. I tried a dish I’d never heard of, called kedgeree, a mix of rice and lentils with cumin, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, and likely a few spices I’m forgetting. Next time I will use red lentils, as the brown lentils I used took much longer than the rice to cook (boo!). But the taste was sound, and it would serve as a good breakfast, a side dish, or on a tortilla.

I also made my first minestrone soup. I used the slow cooker and it tasted great. However, I have a piece of advice: Don’t use a pasta in a soup that you haven’t tried on its own. I used an “ancient grains” pasta. After the allotted time, it had fallen apart. Was it the pasta or the cooking method? I am not sure, but next time I think I will cook it stovetop. Sometimes I need a little more control than the slow cooker allows. Also made in hibernation: ham steak with corn pudding, and a big batch of applesauce.

We’ve finally been getting some serious winter here. I will tell you, I will take snow over a polar vortex any day. The up side of the vortex is that now a 10-degree day feels quite comfortable. We just yesterday shoveled out six inches of snow, and we might get six more inches overnight tonight. And then maybe another six inches Thursday. So there will be a whole lot of shoveling going on.

Happily, I love shoveling snow (along with raking leaves, one of my favorite household tasks). My absolute favorite is shoveling at night. It’s so quiet; snow muffles sound. Just me and a few neighbors, the sounds of shovels scraping snow. I cannot explain why I love this. It even smells good to me.

Mind you I love the light fluffy snow (which is what we’ve been getting) and not the heart attack snow, laden with moisture (that’s more in March/April). And of course by March/April, all of the glow has worn off the hibernation, but that’s okay because the days are longer and warm days are in reach.

For now, we’re in a winter cycle at least through the end of the month. You can hate it, or you can ride it, and I’ve decided to ride it. With a shovel, some books, birdseed, and a full pantry.

The Lexicon of Real American Food

Much as Speaking American taught me about regional differences in words for things throughout the U.S., The Lexicon of Real American Food, by Jane and Michael Stern, taught me a lot about regional differences in food—both specific twists on common foods, and things that seem to be pretty unique. Here are some of the things I learned:

An egg cream has three ingredients—chocolate syrup, whole milk, and seltzer. I have heard of egg creams (New York), but I always rather assumed they had egg in them.

The chow mein sandwich appears on menus of diners, drive-ins, and cafes in parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Made with crunchy noodles topped with sauced sprouts (no meat) on a plate with a bun.

Grape-Nuts Pudding, found in New England, consists basically of stirring Grape Nuts into a custard pudding. I’m not even going to venture to guess why New Englanders wish to punish themselves this way.

The Juicy Lucy is close to my backyard. A hamburger with molten cheese in the middle, it was invented in Minneapolis in 1954. Two bars take credit for it (and interestingly, they are not very far apart). I have eaten at both of them and find the Juicy Lucy at Matt’s Bar the hands-down winner.

A half-smoke can be found in Washington, D.C. Primarily street food sold in carts, it’s a fat hot dog with a coarse texture and heavy smoke flavor, served in a bun and usually topped with beef chili.

Also in the hot dog family, a ripper is a hot dog deep-fried long enough for its skin to rip. Rippers are a New Jersey thing.

Move inland to Ohio and find a different sausage specialty: the Polish Boy. Found in the barbecue restaurants of Cleveland, it consists of a large piece of crisp-cased kielbasa and comes on a bun with French fries and coleslaw, all topped with barbecue sauce.

Pico de gallo usually refers to a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, peppers, and lime juice. In Tucson, however, it is a mix of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama. This is spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with a hot chili-powder mix. Wow.

Barbecue took up more than 10 pages. I learned about pulled pork, whole hog, Kentucky mutton, Texas beef, California barbecue, plus barbecue salad (Memphis, TN and Arkansas) and barbecue spaghetti (Memphis). Chili also gets several pages (including a recipe for Texas chili). But there are also separate entries for chili mac, Cincinnati chili, Green Bay chili, green chile cheeseburger, and Minorcan chowder.

Pizza also takes up a few pages: California pizza, Chicago pizza, Detroit (square) pizza, Ithaca NY’s hot truck that invented French bread pizzas, Maryland pizza, Memphis pizza (has a major barbecue element), New Haven pizza, New York pizza, Old Forge PA pizza, Southwest pizza, St. Louis pizza, and West Virginia pizza. I had no idea.

I also learned a few new things. For example, Jell-O is Utah’s official snack food. There were a lot of red items: red beans and rice, red beer, Red Bull, red-flannel hash (beets are involved), red-eye gravy, and red hots.

I also learned to read this at least somewhat skeptically. When I got to the entry on sloppy joes, I learned that in Minnesota it is gulash. Whoa. I grew up with goulash. Also called plain “hotdish,” Minnesota goulash is a casserole (i.e., hotdish) of hamburger and macaroni in a tomato sauce. It is not put on a bun, and it is very often served with Jello-O and a pickle. We also have sloppy joes (which I also called barbeque sandwiches while I was growing up). No goulash sandwich though.

Quibble aside, this is a very fun book. Check it out from the library. Even if you don’t read every entry, it’s fun to peruse, and there are lots of fun pictures.

Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?

A Whimsical Year

A few years ago, my family adopted the tradition of no “new” gifts at Christmas. You could make something, provide a service, regift, or even buy something used, but buying new was forbidden. It has been a lovely tradition, and has migrated far beyond my family Christmas.

The best idea I have come up with so far is the Whimsy Box.

This grew out of an original idea of coupons to be redeemed over the year (e.g., homemade meal of choice, dinner at favorite restaurant, a day getting lost in Fort Snelling State Park). I originally thought big—a special meal out, a special meal in, a full day at the park), maybe 10-12 a year. A lot of them were fun, but we didn’t do them all. Mood, life, timing. Sigh.

This year, as Christmas rolled around, I didn’t want to do coupons. I wanted to do something a bit more fun, with a spark of spontaneity. Hence, the Whimsy Box.

Partly the idea stemmed from the box: a fine tie box (a Native Northwest design that we got in Victoria, British Columbia; it has hinges)—a box I had thought to use as a box for a gift (thinking the box half the gift), but I changed my mind (thinking 95% chance recipient will throw said box in trash).

Not a box I was ready to part with. Beautiful box. A box for ideas. A box of the imagination. A box for suggestions. Suggestions!

Hence the Whimsy Box: I took this tie box, and filled it with whimsical ideas—things I think we will both find fun, often at the drop of a hat. More than 10. A lot more than 10. More like 50. Some examples:

  • Happy Hour at Dixie’s (great catfish basket)como-tropical
  • Take a walk by the river
  • Spend a winter afternoon at the Como Conservatory
  • Go to the downtown library (Minneapolis)
  • Spend a day at a state park
  • Walk to the mailbox
  • Learn a yoga pose
  • Visit our friend in Hastings
  • Go for a walk in the snow at night
  • Take the bus to Uptown and go to the bookstores
  • Go to Minnehaha Falls

And, since Hal has taken an interest in learning to cook a bit (ever since reading Real Food, by Nina Plank), I included several kitchen basics: learn how to fry an egg, learn how to make French toast, learn how to make pea soup, for example. And also, I thought it might be fun for us to learn how to make something together (even in our small awkward kitchen) and so I threw that idea in the box as well. We have talked about possibly doing a frittata.

This is a super easy and very personal gift you can tailor to individual preferences, whether it be to spend more time together, explore new places, spend less time together (not as crazy as it sounds—example: “I will leave the house for an afternoon and you can have the entire house to yourself.”), get more exercise, try new restaurants, get more culture, etc.

We have already had a lot of fun with it (a walk to leave books at a Little Free Library, learning to make French toast), and this weekend, I think we may make the frittata.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

Garden Update with Cactus

We’re still having an early spring. Today I was in the back yard without a jacket, sometimes reading, sometimes watching birds, and sometimes poking at the garden.

I KNOW you are not supposed to do anything gardening related in March in Minnesota, but I did take the piled-up leaves off the rhubarb again (I had covered it back up a few days ago when we got a bit of a snowstorm). And I cut back the dead catnip from last year to clear it out, the better to let this year’s crop come in. And coming in it is—several little clumps already a couple of inches high. With a few more sunny days, they could double in size. This would make my cat very happy, my catnip-loving cat who doesn’t understand why I don’t have fresh catnip for him every time I walk in the door.

The other thing I did was an experimental cactus transplant. Parts of my (prickly pear) cactus are getting a bit overlappy with the sidewalk, never a good thing where a cactus is involved. I clipped two pads off, and set them down in the rocky soil a few feet away. Nothing I could find online indicated that this would work, but I wanted to try it since I had seen the cactus itself doing this (though it was still attached to the plant, which is kind of a major caveat). We will see. I’m not even sure why I’m propagating this cactus. I think it’s mostly just that I so much love the idea of a cactus that is native to Minnesota.

But wait. This cactus is edible. Both the flowers and the pads. Since I’ve never seen mine flower, I don’t think I’ll wait for that. But I do think I will try eating the pads. Even on the one plant I have, the pads can get quite large—a substantial contribution to a meal. They are supposed to taste like mild lemon. They have a sort of gel-like consistency (perhaps like aloe vera?). How would you use that in cooking? With potatoes? Carrots? Asparagus? Deep fried on a stick?

At any rate, there are very few year-round edibles in Minnesota (though these cacti do look quite puny and melted in winter), so the fact that they are edible, in addition to providing a potential barrier to the raccoons that seem to love that south wall as a latrine (plus the fact that I can’t get anything else to grow in this space) has convinced me to work towards a prickly pear cactus garden on the south side of the house.

Other garden notes: The dogwoods are just starting to bud and I think the lilacs are nearly leafing. The currant bush has buds, as does the rosebush. Tiny buds. The feverfew is back, and I was happy to see the bit I transplanted to the front (can’t allow the feverfew to encroach on the rhubarb!) has taken hold quite nicely. The coming weeks will tell if the transplanted comfrey is doing as well.

Is there anything to be heard outdoors these days over the singing of the cardinals? They are so loud and so numerous sometimes I’m surrounded by chorus (in a happy singing way, not in an Alfred Hitchcock The Birds way). But I did hear something other than the cardinals after all: the first mourning dove of the season. I haven’t seen one yet, but I know they’re here.

This is one of the most magical times of the year. You never know what will show up next.

Caucusing

I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.