26 February 2012

Sunday Meditation #17: Seeds for the Soul

A burst of joy landed at the Gumbo homestead earlier in the week.  Spring is not far away, and that means it is time for seed catalogs. Huzzah!

A seed catalog may not match Victoria's Secret for le sexy stuff, but nonetheless I was thrilled to find the latest Burpee's homage to All Things Growable sitting in my mailbox.  It came at just the right time. The cover was graced with a brilliant full-color photo of a zinnia, resplendent in eye-popping yellow spattered with red. Neither of those two colors is my favorite but the combination filled me with a bit o' the happies.

I was feeling a bit melancholy.  The gorgeous flower was a nice hit of pretty and a reminder that spring is coming.  I didn't have the energy or time to plant a garden last year, and I don't know if I will this year.  I do know that I like flowers, and the idea of the seed.

Humble little packets of mystery that produce things of beauty, things of savor. A feast for the eyes, nose and mouth.  Sometimes all three if you plant the right stuff.  I would most like to have is a kitchen garden, full of good growing things that I can see, smell, touch and taste.  This is a quiet dream of mine.

I opened the mailbox, with a heart weighed down by care, and a piece of the sun fell into my hands. Spring is on the way, dear readers.  Choose your seeds, plant with care and let the green things revive us.

25 February 2012

Shangri-La Beneath The Winter Moon

February 24th, 9:19 PM. The wind howls outside my window.  The cold moves in, but I am safe and warm.

Led Zeppelin played on the stereo of my mind. The lake drained from the valley, allowing the demon to be exposed and killed.  It was easy, once I poured the boiling broth into the pan and set it into the oven.  It swirled around the rice in its faint golden glory.  Soon, I would eat, and the demon of hunger banished from my belly.

Perhaps it wasn't as dramatic as all that, but dinner made for some interesting reading later in the evening. I encountered the minor vexation of running out of saffron. The last little pinch in my small supply became a key part of my culinary adventures. The sight of the now-empty jar induced a sigh and a wish.  Soon, perhaps, I'll procure some more.  It is, after all, good, tasty, and beautiful.

The saffron I like come from Kashmir, the region shared by India, Pakistan and China. To gild this lily, it is called "Mogra Cream", which certainly sounds luxurious.  The price, unfortunately, would seem to confirm that notion. Because of the price, I tend to not buy it very often, although this particular batch was a gift to me from someone I hold very dear.  I suppose that is what contributed to my wistfulness to see it go.

So what does this have to do with valleys, lakes and demons? Oh, and for good measure, Led Zeppelin?  Very often when I cook, part of my mind roams the aether. It freewheels through many things.  I was thinking of the song "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin, it looped over and over in my head while I prepared dinner. As I dished up the food (a saffron rice pilaf with salmon and onions and celery) I also mused on the geographic area of Kashmir.  I wanted to know exactly where it was and what it meant.

So I did a little research to refresh my memory and compile some new ones.  It was then that I learned some of the basic myths behind the name.  Legend has it the Kashmir valley was once a lake, and that lake was inhabited by a demon. A nasty bugger who tortured and devoured the locals. Along came a chap named Kashyap, who was a brahmin (and the equivalent of a saint, if I understand things correctly) and through penance managed to get the blessing of Lord Vishnu, who caused the lake to be drained.  This exposed the demon and it was killed.  The valley was named Kashmir in Kashyap's honor.

I didn't know any of that when I sat down to eat.  Demons and saints weren't my dinner companions but I'm pretty sure I had my own version of Shangri-La right there in the bowl.  All it took was Led Zeppelin and a pinch of saffron to set me on the road to Kashmir.

24 February 2012

Fan Chao In The Gumbo Kitchen

Thursday, February 23rd, 9:03 PM.  Spring-like winter night, windows open. It is good.

Fan chao, in so far as I can trust a free translation application, is the phonetic English for the Chinese phrase for 'stir fry'.  I sought this out because I wanted to know what it was in Chinese. Alas, I cannot read Chinese script (not yet, anyway), so phonetic will have to suffice. It pains me slightly that I do not know the dialect, so I will take it on faith that it is correct to say 'fan chow'.

I like how it sounds. Especially with emphasis. Fan chao!  It's like shouting "Rock on!" in English.

Not that I was shouting tonight.  No need or desire.  What I wanted, went looking for, was a little peace of mind.  Lately, there has been a lot of stormy weather on the ocean in my head.  Too many thoughts, too many perturbations and stresses.  I sought that peace in the solace of cooking, as I often do.

The exception to that has been recent history.  I haven't cooked as often as I used to, nor have I cooked truly good meals on a regular basis.  A lot of grab-and-go type behavior, and tonight I made myself stop. I stopped, took a deep breath of the cool air lazily coming in my windows, and decided that tonight I would stir fry something.

That I don't possess a wok, or even a basic range of typical Chinese pantry items beyond the ubiquitous bottle of soy sauce I keep in the fridge, was of little consequence.  Fan chao had seized my wearied imagination, ergo fan chao it must be.

I was in luck, to some extent.  I had a chicken breast, a bunch of celery, three green Hungarian wax peppers, an onion and some fresh garlic.  Along with some aleppo pepper and soy sauce, they would constitute the feast.  I retrieved my trusty cast iron Dutch oven from the cabinet, and set to.

The chicken was sliced thin and marinated in soy sauce and rice vinegar with a touch of garlic and cornstarch.  The vegetables sliced thin, celery on the bias, and garlic chopped fine with aleppo. Small amount of oil in the pot, heated to shimmering.

Slice. Chop. Heat. Scatter. Stir. Fill the kitchen air with fragrance, as the mind drains of tension.  The moment of truth, as the chicken and vegetables tilt into the bowl, on their way to the waiting mouth. It is good.

Sit. Breathe. Eat. Sip tea. For the space of an hour, that is all I was or needed to be: a hungry human, eating. That was peace.

19 February 2012

Sunday Meditation #16: Patapsco Whorl

The shell was a thing of beauty, held in the hand of my beautiful daughter.  She found it at the base of a tree, after stopping next to this big sycamore and insisting I take her picture in the silver-white light of a mild winter Saturday afternoon.  The shell surprised and delighted us, as it made up for the lack of river glass and freshwater clam shells we had set out to collect. 

The sandbar I had hoped to mine for glass bits and clam shells was no longer to be found. The river was running a little higher than the day I had first seen it.  Perhaps the recent storms had even washed it completely away.  My daughter was disappointed.  In the morning, she had been talking about collecting river glass after breakfast and through lunch. So we trekked on, looking for other natural delights.

Then there was the shell in the picture. She 'oohed' and 'ahhed' over her discovery. I took joy in seeing hers. She bubbled with excitement as she brought the shell over to share.  I had never seen such a thing on all my walks along the river.  This was something new and fascinating. It helped make a good walk better. She happily wanted to carry it in her pocket, beaming as she told me she couldn't wait to show it to her mother.

On the return leg of our walk, we stopped at one of the small tunnels under the railroad tracks, through which rushed a brisk, cold stream.  It makes it way through the tunnel and spills out into a little pool before running into the river.  There were stones and moss.  Her whim dictated that we spend some time lobbing small rocks into the water, listening to the splashes and plunks.  She seemed particularly amused by the wet plop of stones into the thick beds of underwater moss or algae.

She found a rock she wanted to keep. It sparkled.  I mentioned it probably contained mica. She wanted to know what mica meant.  This led to a discussion of rocks and minerals, and the difference between a geologist and a mycologist.  It was she who gravely informed me that the latter was someone who studies mushrooms and fungi.  I was amused and proud that she even knew what the word meant.

We walked back to the car, in that way peculiar to kids which combines an amble and an eddy.  She wrote her name in the dirt with the rock. I contemplated the beauty of my legacy, and the shell in her dainty hand. The sun, the river, my lovely daughter enchanted me.  In a nacreous whorl the size of a cherry, I saw my place in this universe: to breathe, to be content, to know love.

18 February 2012

Surfeit U.S.A.

February 17th, 2012. 9:42 PM. Perched in bed, trying to empty my head.

Watching "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" on the telly with my daughter tonight.  It was her choice.  The Wee Lass digs the show, and by extension so do I. We both enjoy the breadth and depth of people, places and especially the food highlighted on the show.  There is much to see and so much to eat in this country.  So while I was watching, chatting with my daughter about the yummy stuff we were seeing, what was it that was causing me some disquiet?  It's food, man, not a scary movie.

It hit me, then and there, in the middle of a segment on a mighty fine-looking Cuban sandwich (even the bread had me fascinated) that I knew the source of my perturbation.  It was the abundance.

I was struck by how every dish I saw prepared seemed to be based on the idea of endless abundance. A cuisine of inexhaustible resources.  Monster portion sizes.  Long ingredient lists.  Everything done "with a twist."  Even the condiments oozing out of a sandwich and dripping down a forearm is pitched as the mark of a really good dish.

I confess it all puzzles me slightly, especially the juice down-the-arm thing.  I think what bothers me the most about that in particular is that it seems kind of...infantile?  Is that the word I am looking for?  Personally, when I eat a sandwich, I don't want it spraying out on me.  I enjoy my food, but have no desire to treat it like finger paints.

Anyway.  I digress.  The gist of my observation is that the food culture in this country is not unlike the energy culture: we predicate our actions on having abundant and cheap raw materials to fuel our consumption.  It explains why a hike in food prices or fossil fuels causes everybody to stress out.

I watched. I wondered, what happens when we have to make do with less? I was thinking of the Italian cucina povera (literally translated as "poor kitchen"), an approach to food and eating that arose out of the necessity of dealing with not having a plethora from which to choose.  It is about making do with what you have to create something bigger in its whole than in its sum.  Do we even know how to do that anymore?

The issue has been on my mind a lot in the past year, as I have delved further into the bachelor life I lead and trying to establish a cuisine for myself while dealing with unemployment.  I realized that I could no longer afford to treat every meal as separate and unrelated to the other things I would eat.  That can get expensive and wasteful, especially if one does not deign to eat leftovers.

I understand that restaurants do not and cannot approach food the same way as the home cook.  They have to sell the food to prosper and survive.  But watching another humongous portion disappear down another celebrity gullet, I sensed a little bit of fear underlying the gloss and dazzle.  It is the fear of not having enough, of the good stuff running out. 

The parade of Bigger! Spicier! Glossier! things is an attempt to persuade ourselves that we will always have everything, and that we don't necessarily have to be clever to eat well.  This never-ending stream of plenty distracts us from truly considering what we eat, and as the credits rolled, I pondered the consequences of not thinking about our food: we forget how to fend for ourselves.

17 February 2012

Considering The Claws

He pads lithely through the jungle while following the threads of fascinating scents wafting about in the winter air.  It is winter, although he has no name for it.  Not like the humans do.  He knows it simply as a time of less heat and scarcer water.  He knows it as a time of hunting grown harder.

He does hunt.  Often.  The belly brooks no want and the claws must be kept sharp.  So in the faded sunlight that oozes down below the leaves the beast rises to his feet each dawn and dusk.  There is blood on the wind and flesh on the bone.  The hunger calls, and the time has come to feed the maw.

He picks his way down the hillside, paws gripping the moss covered stones.  He knows nothing of the hands that shaped the stones, built the ziggurat that he has only known as a part of his natural world.  There are temples there.  He knows these things as places of power.  He feels it in his legs, his belly, his jaws.

He makes his way to the edge of a small plateau.  Sitting back on his haunches he can see far and wide over the river valley while remaining hidden in the leaves and brush.  Below him, vultures and parrots skim the emerald canopy. Their cries echo. The hunger grows.  A low rumble rises from his belly, and he growls.

He raises his muzzle to draw a deep breath into his  lungs.  The raspy tongue presses the roof of his mouth in an attempt to extract as much scent from the air as he can.  Something kaleidoscopes across the scent memory in his brain.  His paws twitch, claws gleaming in the winter light. The claws are sharp, and he knows it.

16 February 2012


Dear readers, it has been a slow month here in the Republic of Gumbolia.  Slow in a writerly sense, I mean.  I want to offer up something for the edification and delight of you.  But I'm blocked.  Or maybe just lazy.

My mind is a shattered mirror tumbling through space.  The sun, moon and stars reflected by a thousand brilliant shards to diffuse their light across the ether.  Gah.

Around the end of January I went for a walk along my beloved Patapsco River.  I was of a mind to catch some fresh air and sunlight on an unusually warm winter day.  Good for the body and soul, it was.  I saw not one but two freight trains as I ambled.  Two trains in one afternoon was also somewhat unusual.

The second train was stopped on the tracks, up the embankment from the river where the swinging footbridge crosses the water.  I could hear the thrumming of the idle engines as I strolled up the path to the bridge.  I scaled the small slope to the tracks for a better view.  The locomotive was right there, the head of a long line of what appeared to be ore or coal carriers.  The cab brooded over the tracks with a slight ominous air caused by the deep tint of the windshields.  Eyes of a giant, holding me in its gaze.

It was the engine noise that gave me the analogy I was looking for.  Deep, edging into that which is more felt than heard, the locomotive hummed and hissed.  There was no mistaking the feeling of great power held in check, awaiting release.

I stood on the gravel bed and felt the power vibrate up through my boots.  I yearned for it.  I wished for some way to store it for later, but there was no container that would hold such energy.

A vibration in the earth.  Hulking machinery idling in a river valley among the leafless trees. Waiting, brooding. This is me, shifting and ticking over while awaiting a signal to let the power go.  This is my winter.  Winter will be over soon.  I sense spring in the roots of me, ready to sweep away the cobwebs.

07 February 2012

The Brownie Report

I mentioned brownies in my post on Sunday, February 5th.  Home made.  From scratch. Honest-to-goodness brownies, made with the assistance of my darling daughter.  She read the recipe out to me, in steps, and I put things together.  She was scary good on the reading.

This was the first time in over two years I have baked something, and my first attempt at a dessert item in perhaps ten years.  I am delighted to report that, with the exception of a tendency to fragility, the brownies we made are excellent.

She tells me that when she grows up, she wants to be a cupcake maker and a veterinarian.  I have no doubt that she could do very well at both endeavors.  One can do far worse than be a cupcake-making caregiver to animals, and I'm going to support her in making that come true.

06 February 2012

Nine Billion and One


Then I gave up.
The names of God?
Far too many
to know every one
but I grow weary
of everyones' claims
to have the water of truth

Foolish, they are,
these clamoring voices
raucous rivers believing
themselves flowing
to completely separate seas
I bid them, Silence!
To hear, to taste, a singular ocean

05 February 2012

Sunday Meditation #15: A Bowl Too Big for the Masher

It is a snowy, wet evening.  The night before the biggest annual sporting event in America, and I am walking the local mall with my dear daughter in tow.  The Super Bowl is far down on my list of things to ponder; we are in search of that which may have more import for me and the Wee Lass.  We are looking for a potato masher and some brownie mix.  Tomorrow is a big day: we want to make brownies.

We eat dinner and set out for the kitchen wares store, the type that has an extensive selection of finely made stuff, and the overheated price tags to match.  I had in mind the masher I wanted. Heavy duty, sturdy, preferably stainless steel.  The kind with a flat, perforated disk attached to thick bars and a solid handle.  I have never possessed such an instrument.  Having read reviews and done research, the disk type seems an excellent choice. 

The store has an excellent selection of mashers of various types.  Wee Lass enthusiastically joined in the search, bringing me various mashers she took delight in finding on the racks.  The low end started at $20, a coil type that seemed bizarre.  Next up was a rubber handle/metal shaft, also at $20.  Then, solid metal at $25.  None was the disk type.  Then I found it: chromed stainless, holey disk, Swiss.  Almost like a fine watch.

It was $45. Forty-five dollars.

I admit, I balked.  It was indeed a very fine tool.  Well-made. Sturdy.  A Ferrari among the Hondas, as it were.  In my state of jobless-induced fiscal austerity, out of my league at the moment.  I wistfully placed the masher back on the rack, telling my daughter we might have better luck with brownie mix.

We found the brownie mix.  Tastefully done packaging, extolling the delights of fine dark chocolate and the creators' passion for excellence in baked goods.  Handsome fellows wearing aprons on the box photo, beaming over a plate of what surely must be brownie nirvana.

Nirvana, at $17 a box.  I silently put enlightenment back on the shelf.  My sigh was audible.  I told her I would look for a likely recipe on the Internet, or in my collection of food-related books at home.  She smiled and said okay. Before leaving the mall, she and I strolled over to a nearby department store, whereupon I found a serviceable thickset silicone masher of the disk type.  Price? Nine bucks.


Purchase tucked under arm, we wended through the mall on our way back to the car and home.  Wee Lass strolled along beside me, we laughed and chatted.  But I had this moment of clarity, a voice speaking quietly but firmly in my head as we passed all the new stores full of shiny things we may want but do not necessarily need. Stores crammed full of things that here pass for ordinary, but would be luxuries in many places on earth.  People buying, people jonesing for stuff as the voice said:  When did we as a society come to want so much, and why?  When did we lose perspective on content over form, value over cost, truth over hype?

I thought of the impending Super Bowl, a contest which, in all candor, makes me yawn but which much of the nation seems to treat as a secular holiday.  Full of hype, of noise and blather, of aggression and over-indulgence.  A spectacle that I as an American am supposed to want watch just because its, well, the SUPER BOWL!

But I don't.  I enjoy a good sporting contest, but this just seems like an over-blown aggrandizement of the many negative traits of consumer culture.  The real kicker for me, the one that made me wonder about the pop culture my daughter will grow up in, be surrounded by, and possibly be made to feel like an alien if she doesn't care to participate in it...is that even the commercials get just as much publicity as the game.  The commercials, for crying out loud!  People actually say the only reason they watch the Super Bowl is for the commercials.  30 seconds, millions of dollars, all for the purpose of getting us to buy stuff.

For some reason this made me sad and anxious.  Those thoughts, and my humbling search for a simple potato masher, left me feeling a sense of dislocation like I was an alien among a different tribe.  I reached for the only antidote I could think of at the time: I took my daughter by the hand, and we walked out into the snowy night, marveling at the fat flakes falling from the sky.  She laughed to catch one on her tongue, and so did I.  It was then I felt closer to home and okay in my affinity for simplicity.  Tomorrow, we would make brownies from scratch and know that they are good.

Epilogue: Wee Lass and I spent some time discussing the merits of spending $45 dollars versus $9 dollars on a potato masher.  I did my best to explain the difference between the 'value' and the 'cost' of an item.  She did me proud when she nodded her head and said "The plastic one will do for now, and you can get a better one later when you have more money!"  Well said. At home, I dug out my copy of the compendium 'Cook's Illustrated 2004'.  Lo and behold, there was a recipe for brownies.  From scratch, simple, and just what I needed.  And more for less.

03 February 2012

All We Need is Wooooah!


I need a few more of these in my life.  Those moments where I could just shout it.


I'd love to burst out with it in the middle of a business meeting someday.  I think it would be a great way to let everyone know my enthusiasm for the topic at hand. Get some attention, for sure.  Wouldn't that be cool?  Random explosions of joy, of exuberance.


What holds me back?  Decorum, I suppose.  Not wanting to perturb co-workers or random folks passing by.  Although that wouldn't be so bad, would it?


I used to shout it out.  That was back in the days of being a young Gumbo, at concerts and dances where it was noisy and I could get lost in the crowd.  The problem for me was self-consciousness and a lack of good musical voice.  Not that being able to sing is necessary, but it is better if you can at least get it in key.  I can't sing, and for me to hit a key is more chance than skill.


These days I don't get my woah on very often. It has to be the right moment, almost always music inspired.  And I don't do it in public.  Mostly in the car, or in the odd moment at home when I can occasionally be moved to caper about like a fool to something on the radio or my music collection.  I kid myself that I can do it well.


Sometimes I do get it right.  And when I do, I smile and play my air guitar or put my fist in the air, recalling the energy I once had and the time I cherished where a good woah fit right in. These days, I hear one on the radio and I know that exuberance can be had, if I know where to look.  I used to think that growing up meant I'd have to leave it behind.  For too long, I did leave it behind.

Now I know better. It's still there, peeking out from the shadows of my jaded heart.  It won't manifest every day; that's no longer possible.  But it doesn't have to be every day.  All I need to know is I have it, and all it needs are the right moments.  I'm happy to say that, even in the midst of nearly four months of being jobless, I'm having quite a few Wooooah! moments.

That is a very good thing indeed. Wooooah!

Two of the best wooooah! moments I have heard recently is in a new favorite song of mine, "I Don't Owe You A Thang" by blues guitar virtuoso Gary Clark, Jr.  If you want a great pick-me-up, you can listen to the song/watch the video HERE. Great stuff.  I wish I could do it the way he does it!