Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm with the Tralfamadorians.

In a recent blog, Jim remarked about how weird it was to think that he could remember his parents being the age he is now, and how surprising it is to realize that age doesn't necessarily bring certainty, contrary to popular myths of adulthood. (BTW, that's my paraphrase--Jim may have meant something entirely different.)

Since my mom and dad were, respectively, 38 and 40 when I was born, I'm only now getting to the point of being able to remember them at the age I am now. In fact, I recently came across this snapshot and realized that I'm the same age now that my mother was when this was taken. She looks a hell of a lot better at 42 than I do, by the way, and I can't even say that I've had four kids that ruined my figure like she could have (though clearly that wasn't even the case for her, dammit).

As you can see, this was shot the day of my sister's high-school graduation, which dates it to June 1970. My sister is thirteen years older than I am, and a few months ago while we were shopping in Pittsburgh someone assumed she was my mother (referring to me as her daughter). She was incensed, though I think it was a harmless assumption on the clerk's part. Still, I probably didn't help matters any when I remarked that people used to mistake the two of us for twins. D'oh! I really was trying to lighten the situation, but it was a thoughtless thing to say.

Still, it goes to show what a moving target the idea of age really is--though of course, that doesn't make the idea itself any less potent. Personally, I prefer the Tralfamadorian sense of time; as Kurt Vonnegut writes in Slaughterhouse Five, they "look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them."

Like this one, for example.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

All I can say is: ramps stink.

When we last met, I'd just purchased a bunch of fresh ramps (pictured below) and was rhapsodizing about the joys of rampy spring goodness. As you can see from the photo, the ramps had undoubtedly just come out of the ground, and they took forever to, they went into a bucket of water in the fridge for a few days until I could figure out what to do with them.

Well, yesterday I decided I'd chop them up and freeze them in anticipation of a visit from my parents next weekend (my mom was sad to have missed the ramp festivals, so I figured we'd experiment with some ramp cookery when she came down instead).

Everything I'd read about ramps warned of their stinkiness, but wow...I wasn't quite prepared. What's really odd is that they don't seem smelly at all initially--it's not like chopping onions, where you get that eye-watering blast of sulfur. They seem a lot like mild-mannered scallions, until...some gas escapes them and coalesces in the atmosphere after the fact, the molecules attracted to each other in some inextricable way.

And mind you, this was after making vegetable curry for dinner, so the ramps had a lot of competition for airspace. I tried opening windows, burning some Body Shop satsuma oil (which only resulted in an appalling ramp/orange combo)--nothing worked. And the odor seemed to take on a nearly physical form and migrate through the house; I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and walked out in the hallway upstairs and there it was, like an olfactory poltergeist.

I'll cook these babies when my mom comes, but outside on the side burner of the gas grill (with apologies to the neighbors).

Saturday, April 19, 2008


For years I've been hearing about the Appalachian delicacy known as ramps, which are wild leeks that can only be found growing in the region in early spring. So when not one but two ramp festivals were being held this weekend just north of Morgantown, I had to go check them out. And besides, having been disappointed by the other famous local foodway--pepperoni rolls--I was ready for a shot at local-food redemption.

The first festival we went to was on the Pennsylvania side of the state line, and was what I think most folks think of as a typical local festival: parking in the grass, baby animals, some guy with a guitar playing old Hank Williams songs over a crappy PA system, and a dubious but humorous craft sale (my favorite item: varying lengths of railroad ties lashed together with rope, with a lamp on top and some ceramic figurines and fake flowers on the lower levels...pigs, angels, whatever charms you).

And, of course, the food. Here you could get beer-battered, deep-fried ramps (thumbs up), hard-boiled eggs pickled in ramp vinegar (big thumbs down, though whatever wild creature eventually eats the half that Tom flung into a field might disagree). We eschewed the ramp wine, but did get the ramp sampler platter: ramp latkes (really), ramp tapenade on bread, baked beans seasoned with ramps, deviled eggs with ramp filling, ramp salad, and a ramp chocolate-chip cookie (which, believe it or not, wasn't bad). And some home-brewed sassafras tea to wash it all down while sitting on a blanket looking out over the hills where the redbuds are in full splendor. Paradise.

Once we were able to waddle back to the car, we tooled down Buckeye Road along Dunkard Creek to the ramp festival on the West Virginia side of the line--aptly enough, at Mason-Dixon Park, where the intrepid surveyors apparently had to stop their initial expedition when their Native guides refused to continue into Shawnee territory.

Here, I'd say the "festival" was a little more like your traditional single-food celebration, with no a la carte options: you pay your $9.00 and you get your sit-down ramp-themed dinner, eaten at long communal tables with folks who probably live right down the road. Since we were still belching ramps from the previous adventure, we declined to get in line, but were intrigued as we walked back to the car to hear some guy in a car with Florida plates asking where there might be chanterelle mushrooms growing wild. Another wild spring foodway that we need to find out about, perhaps?

Unfortunately, I don't trust my foraging skills to recognize non-poisonous mushrooms, or to find ramps in the wild (though I could've bought a ramp hoe at festival #1). Instead, we bought a bunch of fresh ramps to bring home. Who knows what we might do with them--not cookies or wine, I can assure you. But with their mild, garlicky-onion flavor and leafy texture, they'd probably be delicious in just about anything else. (Maybe these recipes from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette will provide some inspiration.)

But man, I already know that late next winter, I'm going to start craving the battered and fried version again. Maybe by then my arteries will have cleared...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Botanical nostalgia

The last couple of days have turned out to be surprisingly lovely here in Motown; each day, it looked like we were imminently about to get a thunderstorm, then the clouds moved off and by the time I got home from campus, the sun was shining, and it was about seventy degrees. So what else is one to do but get a bug up one's ass to trim back the ivy that's started to grow across the driveway and finally rake up all the dead leaves that have accumulated around the garbage cans? Which is precisely what I did.

Aside from such quotidian--if necessary--tasks, I've also been drooling over gardening catalogs and waxing nostalgic about the many plants we had at our old house that I miss and would like to try to grow here. My hope is that if I was eventually able to be a successful gardener on the godforsaken corner of 10th Street and 13th Avenue in Greeley, Colorado--land of drought and duststorms--I should be able to make a go of it in a more generous climate.

In particular, this time of year I've been missing the pasque flowers and the black, stubby beginnings of the Virginia bluebells that grew under the viburnum bush in a shady corner of the backyard. And later, I know, it'll be the enormous, fragrant pink peony blossoms that I'll think about, and the Canadian shrub roses and lavender.

Frankly, I can hardly believe I'm even writing any of this, since I grew up watching my mother lavish attention on her garden thinking, "What's the point?" And I honestly thought that I was doing all that yardwork in Colorado just because I couldn't understand the point of watering something as boring as grass three times a week.

But apparently I got the bug, and I get the point: gardening is a crucial way of making an anonymous space home. Waiting for the reappearance of plants you put in over the years not only marks territory, it marks the passage of time, and is a long-term investment that pays off repeatedly and continuously. So, I'm looking forward to getting my hands in the dirt here, which is so loose! Not like the rock-hard soil of Colorado...the early white settlers weren't nicknamed "sodbusters" for nothing. And already I'm thrilled to see things blooming that I never saw there--for example, this magnificent forsythia in our front yard. And the azalea bush out there is already full of buds.

Uh...clearly, I got reacquainted with my seasonal affective disorder this winter! But the long-awaited reward is right outside:

For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

--From Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon" (1865)

--I think Swinburne had a bit of a case of SAD, too...