Saturday, February 20, 2010

And now for something good about small town life...

As I believe I've mentioned, my family and I are insufferable food snobs. (Yes, even the 2 year old.) Upon moving here, we were bereft without easy access to our beloved Whole Foods. However, there has been an upside to moving to a small town, and that is proximity to farms.

Within days of settling into our house (if you could refer to waiting for the entire contents of your house to arrive as "settling in") I discovered that the local farmer's market operates 6 days a week. Saturday is the big day, where there is wide variety of produce, meat, baked goods, honey, fresh flowers, and handmade soaps, but during the week there is always at least one local farm there selling the basics. E and I quickly settled into a routine of going downtown for a trip to the library or the coffee shop, and then swinging by the farmer's market for ingredients for that evening's salad. The tomatoes never looked quite as attractive as the perfectly shaped, blemish free ones I used to purchase in Whole Foods, but they were local and they tasted fabulous.

I began to appreciate our proximity to farms even more this summer, after I read The Omnivore's Dilemma. I have to say, I never thought I would be so fascinated by reading about how grass grows, but I was, and this book has really been the catalyst for changing how our family eats. After reading it, I did a little research to see if sustainably raised meat was available in my area, and I stumbled upon a truly wonderful organization, The Local Flavor. It's a farm buyer's club that operates in our area, bringing grass fed beef, pastured poultry and eggs, and organic produce from the farms that produce them (about 90 miles from here) to consumers in the area. You place your order online, and once a month go to a local site to pick it up. It's an easy way to access sustainably raised meat and organic produce, and after just one order, I was a total convert.

I know what you're probably thinking. Yes, it is expensive. It would be hideously expensive, if not for the fact that grass fed beef and pastured chicken and eggs taste completely different from their supermarket counterparts, they are healthier for you, better for the environment, and buying these products supports the local economy rather than huge agribusiness. Once you take into account all of those factors, it's practically a bargain. But the question still remained - how was I going to pay for my newly discovered sustainable meat addiction? Easy - eat less meat!

I took a good look at the meals we eat on a regular basis to see if there were any that I could turn vegetarian, such as tacos. Now, instead of tacos made with ground turkey, we eat black bean tacos. I've also been experimenting with different ethnic recipes, both to find new ways of cooking balanced vegetarian meals, and to find ways of stretching the meat we do eat a little further. I've been working on this for about 6 months now, and I've come to see meat consumption differently; it's no longer the centerpiece around which we plan our meals. I also think more consciously about what we eat and where it comes from, and I've become downright passionate about lentils. (Fabulous source of protein and iron! Quick and easy to cook! A dollar a bag! Frees up money for grass fed beef!)

As much as I miss city life and the ease of accessing good food, I am incredibly appreciative of the ability I have here to buy food all but directly from the farm, and the healthier diet my family and I eat as a result.

Black Bean Tacos in the Crockpot

The night before, put 1 pound of dried black beans to soak in 8 cups of water. In the morning, drain and rinse the beans, and then place them in the crockpot with 6 cups of water. Cook on low for 8-10 hours. About 30 minutes before you're ready to eat, add in the taco seasoning (recipe follows) and cook on high. Serve with warm flour tortillas and any of your favorite taco fixings. We really enjoy this with an avocado salad that resembles deconstructed guacamole (recipe follows), which has the added bonus of providing some nice healthy fat and additional protein!

Taco Seasoning for Crockpot Black Beans

2 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Stir spices together and add to crockpot.

Deconstructed Guacamole

1 ripe avocado
2-3 ripe tomatoes
1 clove garlic (optional)
1/4 onion
1/2 jalapeno pepper (optional)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
juice of one lime
salt and pepper to taste
few tablespoons olive oil

Cut avocado in half, remove seed with spoon. Using a sharp knife, cut the flesh into small cubes and scoop them out with the spoon. Chop and seed the tomatoes. Finely chop the onion and cilantro. Finely mince the garlic and jalapeno if using.

Place all ingredients in a medium bowl and add lime juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss gently until all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Can be eaten immediately, but the flavor will be best if it's allowed to sit for at least an hour. Can be made up to 24 hours in advance.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

When I left for college, my Gram gave me 200 dollars and a case of Snapple. Shortly after I was settled in, before I'd even made a dent in the Snapple bottles stowed under my bed, letters began arriving.

Letters had never before played a role in our relationship. I'd grown up in the house next door to her and our relationship was based on the every day details of life. She taught me how to iron, she taught me how to polish silver, she taught me how to garden. I learned all of these things just from being around her, from walking into her house after school or in the evenings, never knocking. Then through the distance, she taught me how to write letters.

Like our relationship, the letters were about the everyday details: the latest drama at the church food pantry where she volunteered, my classes and friends and new adventures. I wrote faithfully and in return I could count on a letter in my mailbox at least weekly. Over the years, I would slack occasionally, and I knew I'd committed a big offense when I received note cards and stamps as a gift, her not very subtle comment on the frequency of my letters.

I have friends I've held onto throughout the years and friends I've lost along the way. I wonder, though, if those friends I've lost would still be there if our means of communication was letters. Would I ever have written a letter to them in the first place? Do modern means of communication boil our friendships down to nothing more than Facebook status updates? On the other hand, email, Facebook, and even text messaging have also allowed me to maintain or renew connections with old friends, and those connections have proved to be a blessing.

Still, writing letters feels normal to me, and I think there is something special about a letter. Someone has to think of you, find stationery, a stamp, fit what they want to say to the space on the page. The moment of coming home after a hard day and finding a letter from someone who loves you in the mailbox cannot be replicated through email or Facebook. Sometimes, it's as much about the fact of the letter itself as it is about what the letter actually says.

My Gram is old now, and frail. She can't hold a pen long enough to write letters, but she still sends me cards, and that moment of going to the mailbox and finding a reminder that you are loved still exists. When she could still write letters, she wrote to E. I've saved those letters. Even though he won't have the moment of finding those letters in his mailbox, I want him to have them nonetheless, a reminder that someone loves him.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Surviving Snowpocalypse

The end of the world was upon us, and we have been spared.

Today, the sun is shining and the snow is already beginning to melt. Of the many trees huge trees on our property, only one branch (so far) has fallen under the burden of this heavy, wet snow. We even managed to make it through the whole ordeal without losing power. However, coming from a cold weather climate, we failed to realize the significance of this storm. We didn't understand that in addition to stocking our home with enough foodstuffs to last until the spring thaw, we also needed to prepare our souls, lest we be found wanting when the day of reckoning inevitably arrived. Maybe it was naive of us, but we really thought all we needed to get through this storm were a few groceries - ingredients for homemade guacamole, the makings for potato leek soup, and some nice bread and cheese.

I realized my miscalculation as soon as I walked into the grocery store on Thursday night to purchase my paltry provisions. Tomatoes, broccoli, garlic, avocado, chili peppers, bananas, leeks - all gone. At that point, I was surprised, but not overly concerned. Mainly, I was just annoyed that guac and potato leek soup were no longer on the menu. I managed to scavenge a few lonely onions, some underripe apples, and a package of carrots. Then I made my way over to the bread.

I turned the corner, and got my first real sense that something was wrong. There was no bread. None. No sandwich bread, no bagels, no English muffins, no hamburger buns, no hot dog rolls. There was not a crumb of white flour carby goodness to be had. It was at that moment I first felt panic prickle the back of my neck, and realized everyone in that store - and there were many, more than I'd ever seen - was there for the sole purpose of taking food from my family. I might have been slow to catch on, but I now understood. The snow was coming, life as we know it was ending, and only those with enough food stockpiled would survive the state of nature-like conditions sure to follow. It was all I could do to keep myself from ramming my cart into small children as I rushed to the lentil aisle, which seemed to me the most sensible food with which to face the end of the world.

Lentils, beans, chicken broth, canned tomatoes, cornbread mix, macaroni. Eggs, milk, cheese, flour, butter, yeast. I waited in the endless line to check out, congratulating myself on my choices. I could make dozens of meals with these ingredients! It was only after I got home and realized almost all of my foods required cooking and/or refrigeration that I realized the masses had been correct. Bread and peanut butter are what is needed when the power goes out, when you can't cook and your refrigerator doesn't work. I was in possession of exactly one half a loaf of bread. As the snow began to fall Friday morning, I could only hope that would be enough.

Saturday came, and I breathed somewhat easier. We had made it through the night - a night of howling winds and heavy snow. E asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and I stifled my primal urge to tell him that we needed to save our bread. How long could those two slices keep us alive? Once the bread was gone, could we eat dog food? We had just purchased a fresh 16 pound bag on Thursday. E and J made sugar cookie dough - how long could we live off that?

The snow finally stopped at about 5pm on Saturday, and this morning I woke up to the sun shining brightly over an icy, white world. In spite of my smug, substandard preparations, we had survived. I understand now that snow is different here. Snow has the power to end all things. There is only one way to ensure a slight chance of survival.

Buy bread.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Faith and Stinky Cheese

When we first moved here, we found ourselves frustrated by the poor selection of fancy stinky cheese. (We are obnoxious cheese snobs.) The local wine shop carried a small, massively overpriced selection, which we quickly tapped. After that, we stocked up on our periodic trips to the Whole Foods 60 miles away. In between Whole Foods runs, we settled for the chunks of brie available from Costco, which were massive in size rather than price. Still, the memory of the most perfect cheese ever lingered. A blue chevre we’d had a couple of times in our old city, it was the perfect balance of all that makes chevre and blue cheese good. It seemed laughable to think we would ever track it down here. I scoured the internet. Nothing. Yet, how could I give up on perfection?

The lack of blue chevre seemed to represent everything that chafed about small town life. You have to cling to the memory of how good the blue chevre was, because if you don't, you slowly become accustomed to the huge chunks of brie available at Costco, which are not altogether bad, but are not blue chevre. It takes work to get blue chevre, and it's easy to get brie from Costco. Plus, there's more of it, and it's cheaper. After awhile, you find yourself wondering what was so great about blue chevre, because after all, it's been over a year since you last had it, and it's probably not nearly as good as you remembered it, anyway. Certainly not worth driving 60 miles.

Our experience of being an interfaith family is quite similar to our experience of being obnoxious cheese snobs, and it’s one of the reasons we strongly feel the need to move back to an urban environment. Our first year here, we were preparing to celebrate Hanukkah and realized we couldn’t find Hanukkah candles. We looked in several stores with no luck. At Passover we had the same struggle with finding the right type of matzo meal. The overwhelming majority of the population here is Baptist, whereas in our old city, we knew a number of Jewish/Christian families. We lived a mile away from a great Jewish Community Center, and within walking distance of an incredibly open and welcoming Catholic Church. There, it was easy to feel like part of a community.

Here, we find ourselves feeling a bit like an island. It’s easy to find yourself slowly losing the things you once valued, simply because they are harder to come by. If you can’t find blue chevre, you pick up some Costco brie. If you can’t find Hanukkah candles, you improvise lighting the menorah with votives, but in both cases, you are left feeling unsatisfied and unsettled, as if something about you just doesn’t quite fit. These are the things that make it hard, but these are also the things that make us more focused on celebrating the traditions of our respective faiths within our family. If we let them go now, there is nothing here that will bring them back to us.

In our old city, there was a community that could have anchored us to those traditions, but here we must anchor ourselves. Ultimately, I think we will be thankful for the time we spend in this town, as it's prompted us to really examine our faiths and the roles they play in our family's everyday life and traditions. Until then, I look forward to the day I can go to the store and pick up blue chevre and Hanukkah candles, all in one easy transaction.