Thursday, January 28, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Walking on the moon

by June

Way way back in my family tree, a baby got named Archimedes. I know nothing about this great-great uncle except his name -- but that alone confirms for me that I come from a line of people who revere math and science. They design highways and airport terminals and cameras that take photos in 3D. And I don't fit. I'm a word person who feels her way through life. And I married a word person.

Guess what our daughters love?



And math. And not as in two-plus-two. As in the area of a circle equals pi times the radius squared. (They will correct me if I got that wrong.)

Thank goodness they also love words. Our approach to math and science, other than finding splendid teachers in the greater world, has been to read books. We started out years ago with picture books such as Jon Scieszka's amazing Math Curse and Science Verse. And now we're into biographies of great thinkers.

We've had an interesting time with the original Archimedes. It's been slow going through Jeanne Bendick's Archimedes and the Door of Science. Slow not because the narrative is difficult; it's beautifully readable. Slow because we shoot off in tangents.

One morning's experience seems to exemplify what homeschooling means around here. I struggle sometimes to explain fully to friends who are interested in homeschooling just how we go about learning. So, friends, here goes...

We snuggle down to read about Archimedes and astronomy. Almost every paragraph a question comes up... about the tides being pulled by the moon, about the Egyptian pyramids, about the changes in day length from winter to summer. As we talk, we find ourselves reviewing things we learned in space class last year. We recall our trip to see the King Tut exhibit in Philadelphia and refresh our memory about what we discovered there (besides the fact that little kids in a crowded exhibit hall see mostly the wide variation in belt styles). We remind ourselves of what we determined when we plotted our daylight hours for the Mystery Class on Journey North, (which we highly recommend as a great science site where kids can contribute to real science).

We try to keep reading about the astronomers charting the stars, but we get caught up in remembering a night during the Chinese Moon Festival. The girls were three or four. We went out in the canoe on the glassy lake and waited for the moon to come up. Blossom saw a plane only it wasn't a plane; it was Mars. Little as she was then, she still remembers that bright red planet. We all do.

We turn to the book once more, but we can't leave Mars behind. We get out our beloved copy of A Child's Introduction to the Night Sky and brush up on Mars. Then we think we might as well read about the moon again. We love the moon. We talk about how in this country we talk about the man on the moon; in China, there are stories about a jade rabbit and a woman who will live forever because of love. Seemingly off the top of my head, I predict when the moon will be new in February. I get it right. In amazement, Blossom and Fern ask me how I knew, and I tell them because Chinese New Year starts on the new moon. They Google to find a moon chart. We talk about the last full moon. We saw it rise in the winter sky over the Portland skyline. It was like a huge ghost. We talked about how it wasn't actually any larger than when it is high in the sky. If we held our hands over the buildings, it looked like its regular self. But seeing it next to the city just made it seem so extraordinarily huge. It is always huge. Its diameter is 2,160 miles.

Fern announces that she wants to walk on the moon someday. We talk about the men who walked on the moon and what that was like. She worries that her face will get red and puffy. Her science teacher, who trained with NASA, showed his students photos of astronauts training. Their faces apparently always get red and puffy. Fern remembers Sally Ride's face. Fern decides it would be okay to be red and puffy for a little while if it meant she could walk on the moon.

In the days that follow, we find an amazing new book about the Mercury 13 women. It's called Almost Astronauts and was a finalist for the Young Adults Library Services Association award. We learn about how Jerrie Cobb learned to fly a plane when she was 12. Fern declares she wants to become a pilot. She finds out she can fly before she can drive.

Birch builds a cardboard airplane with the girls. He takes them onto the air-traffic control website, where they can hear the control tower guiding planes into land. He promises to dust off his old flight simulator so they can try their hand at the joystick.

I find myself swallowing fears that Fern really means it. I talk to my dear friend who wanted to be an astronaut when she was Fern's age and who went on to be a solo global a 19-year-old. I tell her I don't know if I have the right stuff to be an astronaut's mother. I want to keep my daughters under my wing. How can I let them soar? How did her mother let her? She tells me her mother believes that worry attracts what you worry about. You have to believe it will all turn out okay.

Fern, then age 7, on an early flight

Believing it will all turn out okay.... My mind jumps to a YouTube about a man who went every day to a collapsed pile of rubble in Haiti that was once the bank where his wife worked. He called her name. Every time the heavy equipment stopped for a minute, he rushed onto the rubble and called her name. On the sixth day, she answered. She said a drink of water would be a pleasure. She sang when the firefighters pulled her out, sang a song about not fearing death. A reporter asked her if she thought she would live, and after six days in the darkness, alone and in pain, she answered, "Why not?"

Somehow we started with Archimedes, and we moved from the stars and moon to a child's dreams and a mother's fears and at last to the pure wondrousness of the human spirit.

As Fern researches how to take flight, I study on how to let her. But who knows where her imagination and energy will focus. Reading our history book the other day, we were three paragraphs into a chapter about Jamestown when the Virginia Company was introduced. Which led to an explanation of buying shares in a company. Which led to an explanation of the stock market. Which led to some Googling about how small investors can get into the stock market...very small investors. Ones who penny-pinch their egg money and who desperately want a goat.

That's homeschool at our home. Who knows where we're headed high finance, to the stars, to something great. In the meantime, we're all learning all the time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Living from scratch, inspired by Aunt Ella's noodles

by June

Lately, I've been very aware of the work that goes into living the way we do. Mind you, we are not up in the hills or at the end of a long road. We are not off the grid or off the clock. We can walk to the library or drive to the market in a few minutes. We have almost daily obligations to the greater world that require us to check the time, plug ourselves into meetings, grind against deadlines. And, yet, we choose to live on our little patch of land in ways that my great-grandparents would have recognized: We grow much of what we eat. We preserve what we can. We hang clothes to dry on the line and feed the sourdough starter daily. We chase the chickens out of the spring sprouts and gather eggs. We create a meal around a head of cabbage or a batch of homemade noodles. As much as we can, we live from scratch.

But why? My great-grandmother would have loved our electric dryer. The computers, the iPhones, the cameras, these would have boggled her mind. The way we live seems plain wrong-headed on days when we go-go-go then come home ravenous to a kitchen where supper begins with peeling or chopping and ends, if we're lucky, an hour later with a sink full of pots and pans and dishes.

I think the credit (surely not blame) belongs to my dear Aunt Ella. She was my grandmother's sister, and I was born on her 71st birthday. I baked her a birthday cake every year (early on using my E-Z-Bake oven), and she made me popcorn with sugar, gave me her wedding quilt when I graduated from college, and taught me to adore cooking her way.

Aunt Ella's portrait on top of our piano

When I was a child, a certain tone of awe accompanied the words "from scratch." This was at a time when many of the mothers I knew (and mothers, not fathers, were the ones doing all the cooking then) were exchanging recipes that included the word "easy." The easy part involved opening a can or a bottle of catsup. But even as convenience became the chief kitchen virtue, Aunt Ella would make a Sunday dinner of chicken and noodles whenever our Kansas family was coming. My daddy was known to grumble about little bones slipping into the meal, but as young as I was, I knew this was special food. It was made with love and anticipation of a good time: Her sister was coming! Aunt Ella served the chicken and noodles on her good china, and we drank our iced tea and milk from little pink glasses left over from the Depression.

What I learned at my Aunt Ella's Sunday table, I have carried into my everyday life. And somehow it lends every day a little air of celebration: We are together around our table, eating food made with love. Sometimes we even pour our milk from a little pink pitcher left over from the Depression. For me, Aunt Ella's homemade noodles still epitomize the best in life: our own eggs, our hands rolling out the dough, our pleasure in the meal. She gave me her quilt and her locket and a bracelet; and she gave me a way of life.

It's a way of life that families are choosing more often because we must consider sustainability. But what if we embrace this way not because of our fears and guilt but more because it slows us down and reacquaints us with the simple joys of sustaining ourselves: the aroma of soup simmering on the stove all day, the time to think as we pin laundry on the line, the anticipation of warm bread as it is rises and bakes? What if we choose it because deep satisfaction comes from making our own way in the world? For a short span of decades in the whole sweep of history, we humans have dismissed our traditional ways in favor of throw-away convenience. My lifetime has seen the worst of it, I hope, but I feel blessed to have been influenced by someone born in 1893 and blessed also to be able to pass her knowledge on to my children, who were born in 1999. Fern and Blossom can make Great-aunt Ella's noodles from scratch. They are never going to forget that. And they are sure to pass it on.

But living from scratch is work. My father grumbles that there is no can opener in our house, by which he means no electric can opener. It's not that we don't open cans, we do. We just aren't willing to give a can opener space on the counter where we need to knead bread and roll out Aunt Ella's noodles. We just work a little harder at opening a can if we have to open a can.

We work a little harder in general. And it can get tedious. Sometimes I wish Aunt Ella were here to make supper for us, but since she's not, the four of us pitch in together. We pull the meal together, each one doing a little bit: washing the greens or dicing the onion, boiling the water. We talk about our day. We roll out dough and dance to Otis Redding and laugh at ourselves dancing to Otis Redding. Then we eat well and drop into our beds satisfied (and hopefully we've remembered to get the next day's bread rising).

I watch how our daughters embrace this life. They have never known another. Even on the coldest days, they suit up (coat, snow pants, boot, other boot, hat, scarf, glove, other glove) and head out to care for the chickens. I tell them how proud I am. I say that not every ten-year-old would shoulder the responsibility when the wind is blowing two-below. Fern looks up and says, "But then they'd have dead chickens."

So out they go into the bright cold of the new year. I watch them track back and forth carrying water. They examine frost-nipped chicken combs. They find the eggs. From the kitchen window, as I wash dishes, I watch my daughters turn toward the warm house at last. They trudge toward the door through the drifts of snow. Suddenly Fern pirouettes in her boots. Behind her, Blossom twirls too. Then they trudge on.

Somehow those little twirls signify everything. We are doing the work of our lives here, and it is cold and hard sometimes, but there are moments when we forget we are working, when suddenly we are dancing.

Aunt Ella's Hand-rolled Noodles

one egg per person
2/3 cup flour per egg
1/2 teaspoon salt per egg

Sprinkle the salt into the flour. Make a bowl of flour on the counter. Beat the eggs together then tip them into the center of the "bowl." Swirl a fork through the flour and into the egg, back into the flour, back into the egg. Do this until a soft dough forms. Start rolling it out on floured surface. Use more flour if it is too sticky, but try not to let the dough get heavy. You want it to be soft yet elastic. Roll it out until it's a thickness that appeals to you, really thin or really thick.

Either flour the rectangle of dough and roll it up, jelly-roll style, then slice. Or run a crimped cutter along it (or a pasta bike if you have it) until you have long strips. We let them rest on the counter until we scoop them into a pot of boiling water (or boiling broth). Time in the pot will depend on thickness. Taste frequently to determine how you like it best (but do leave some for those who everyone who helped make the noodles).

They are good with chicken from a pot. Or they are good with melted butter and a good zesting of pepper and salt. They are best served with good memories.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The 10 best foods we are eating...and how we eat them

by June

Do you get blog posts piled up in your head but then don't get them downloaded onto your blog? Sometimes I wish I had a wireless connection between my Apple and my brain. I spent the last month spinning so hard to stitch and Photoshop and bake up our holiday festivities that when I finally stopped, I spun down into a heap on the lap of my big red chair (a.k.a. Ruby Comfort, more about her later).

Now, at last, I've sprung back to the keyboard, prodded by the New York Times' most e-mailed list, particularly by an article called "The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating." Beets and cabbage are at the top of the list. And since I have borscht bubbling on the stove at this moment and since borscht is built around beets and cabbage from our garden, I feel compelled to throw our family's huzzah of support behind ten of these lovely foods. If all of us really aren't using these great ingredients, maybe we all just need refreshed inspiration for how to best enjoy them.

I have to admit we don't eat one of the eleven. (Well, Birch does, but the rest of us sidle out of the room when he's doing it.) I hope you'll share your ways of enjoying these enjoyable foods. Here's our variation on the theme...


We love them roasted then grated into caramelized onions and tucked into ravioli or roasted and tossed with walnuts and shards of parmesan. We like them, raw or roasted, heaped with goat cheese. We find they are especially good on an arugula salad with a lemon-and-walnut oil dressing (and since I hear President Obama loves arugula but doesn't love beets, I think he should try them together; next year, for sure, beets wouldn't get left out of the White House garden). Sometimes we grate beets raw and toss them with orange juice, lemon juice, salt, pepper and parsley. Yum.


We braise red cabbage with apples, red onions, red wine, and bay leaves on slow heat for four hours. We stir fry Chinese cabbage. We also pickle it, then stir fry the sauerkraut or dice it into nuggets to sprinkle over Chinese noodles. Birch does a mean cole slaw. Borscht makes the house feel so cozy in the winter, as do Italian bean-and-Savoy cabbage soups.


I admit that I love chard more in the garden than in the kitchen. But it's just that I don't like boiling it before sauteing it with garlic. Sometimes I balk at an extra step. But chard is great in bean soup. It is sheer wonderfulness as bright, tiny leaves in spring salads. By far, the best way I've found to prepare it is Tea's recipe for tzatziki.


One of our favorite spices, cinnamon ends up in granola and muffins and oatmeal and hot chocolate. Beyond breakfast, we use it in some of our favorite sauces. It is the secret ingredient in our famous spaghetti sauce; now you know.


One of my favorite childhood memories is of the time my best friend somehow procured a pomegranate. Up until then, I thought pomegranates only existed in Song of Solomon. I loved the strange cushiony bulb for the way it split into bright halves, spilling seeds. But I loved it most for the burst of astringent flavor from each taut juice pod, followed by the crunch of the grainy seed in the center. What an entertaining fruit! My girls love the fun of pomegranates too. More often, we drink POM Wonderful, which is such a clean sharp drink it has the zing of a cocktail. I think of it as juice for grown-ups, but my kids love it too...straight from the curvy bottle or mixed with lime, fizzy water, and maple syrup.

(Full disclosure: POM Wonderful did send us some juice. But I will only ever recommend something if it is a product we do love and use.)


They're still called prunes at our house. We like them in warm dishes, like oatmeal. We adore them in that old stand-by dinner-party recipe from our newlywed days in Brooklyn, the Silver Palate's Chicken Marbella. Whenever we make the dish, we have to be vigilant that the prunes don't get high-graded out with the first servings. Who wants leftovers without the prunes?


We eat them like popcorn, roasted straight from the pumpkin then salted or spiced up with Indian seasonings or Mexican or... We also sprinkle them on salads, rice dishes and couscous. But they are the cornerstone of Birch's amazing homemade mole sauce...amazing.


Can't do it. My parents used to bring canned sardines on vacation when I was a little girl and mostly I had no choice but to eat them. If I had a choice it was Vienna sausages. 'Nough said. I know I should eat them and relish every bite. The girls know they should too. But we just can't like sardines. We'll get our Omega-3s elsewhere. Birch chokes down a few, but he too can conjure a true craving only for fresh, grilled sardines...squirted with lemon and tossed with parsley.


We eat a lot of Indian food and grate a knuckle of turmeric right into the sauces. Birch adds it to yogurt dips too. He claims he sneaks it into whatever dish he can. You'd think that bright yellow zest would give him away.


If given the choice, we would graze blueberries off the backyard bushes all year. But they would be frozen if they were out there now, which they aren.t They are in the freezer, though they never last long enough because we toss them by the handful into pancakes, muffins, smoothies, and pies. I have particular fondness for a certain lemon blueberry bread from the Ozarks, but I lost the recipe. Lost it! Anybody got a good one?


It's not autumn until I've opened a can of pumpkin to make chocolate-chip pumpkin muffins. Following Grandpa Hickory's recipe, we also make canned pumpkin into something like a pie, only without the crust. We call it pumpkin pudding. Pumpkin pancakes are good. Pumpkin is also great stirred into risotto with sage butter and a little crushed-up amaretti cookies sprinkled on top. Really.

Let's help keep one another healthy. What are your favorite ways of eating these eleven foods we're all supposedly not eating?