Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Cast of Characters

The dame, Marguerite, in the fishnet neck is the oldest. She is caramelized brandied cherry liquor. To her right are two young whippersnappers Jude and Dane. They are brothers from black currants. The dark square bodied Guy on the left is an eight year-old French styled walnut liquor. He’s eccentric and sweet though a little cloudy with age. And the rotund matron in the middle with the lumpy figures is Matilda.

These characters live in a cupboard and come out when it is cold and dreary, viruses abound and cheer is in order. Sometimes when infected with a spring fever like giddiness they’ll court some dish and consider themselves a perfect match. Often they are a quick shot or an eye-to-eye toast to a committed friendship. They are the bee’s knees.

Marguerite’s outfit has been in the family for generations. It is an old acid etched decanter with little stemmed glasses to match. Down to three from four after a tumble into a firestone sink, these glasses are fraternal triplets. Clearly intended to be identical they differ ever so slightly in shape and stance. Their hand blown uniqueness is a reminder of pre-manufacturing days. Mysteriously, Marguerite is improved by the vintage packaging that hides her flaws so well. Her cherries are all gone. They were sucked on when colds came knocking, laid beside fat rich charcuterie and scattered about in little bowls when guests arrived. Her pips remained inside, slowing down the mouth and entertaining the tongue. Indeed, there is something sad about the torn flesh of a perfect cherry.

Marguerite’s cherries were dark and juicy Bings from the Columbia River Gorge where the volcanic soils, cold winters and hot dry summers make some of the best cherries in the world. Cherries from here have a young history and names like Lambert and Black Republican. They’re relative elders, pushed aside, ripped out and replaced by young durable offspring with less character but the structure to travel long distances for export markets far away. Marguerite is burnt sugar syrup and brandy from 1996.

The whippersnappers, Jude and Dane, like many farm grown youth, are fresh and direct. Their fruit is thick skinned and seedy. Quite simple, they are a vodka and black beauty base with eight months of basement storage. A bit of sugar. And time. They fly through the mouth in a sweet and tart volley. The boys’ roots are on a Gaston OR farm where they were raised in a clean and wild environment. They are naïve and pleased with themselves. They are versatile, lean and bright. They can stand on their own or dress up with a splash of soda water. Recently, these dashing young men chased a toasted nut gateau down the gullet. I anticipate their maturation and mellowing.

I’d like to say Guy and Matilda are married but they are not. Guy is a mature old French recipe sometimes called 50-50-50- equal numbers of June green walnuts, sugar and alcohol. He leaves his dark stained mark on hands and wood. He comes from a walnut tree felled two doors down that dropped a mess too large to tolerate and cracked the sidewalk. He is her stubborn remains, hanging around to keep the memory of her alive. He is a devoted old son.

This Guy is strange. People either like him or not. There is an odd familiarity to him. He tastes a bit like Coca Cola. Yet, his sweetness quickly dissipates and is replaced by the bright memory of embryonic walnuts- he’s a flirt really, an old man. A ladies’ man.

He started in a jar on the kitchen counter. A chartreuse colored mass of ground green walnuts that bathed in the early summer sunshine and slowly turned brown-black from top to bottom. He is the subtleties that come with a stick of vanilla bean and fruit peels. A few handfuls of mint and lavender and some quality vodka. Then, like Jude and Dane, he spent a long dark winter in the basement with Matilda.

Ah, sweet Matilda. Matilda is Brooks Prunes and Armagnac. Look at her! So beautiful! Somewhat of a wallflower, I first met the likes of her about 27 years ago, a gift from a friend.

Nuggets of fleshy dried fruit soaked in booze, Matilda is more complicated than the others. She is soaked in a strong black-flower infused tea to bring tenderness back to her flesh. She bathes for years in an Armagnac and light brown syrup. The infusions of flavor are deepest in her nooks and crannies.

Matilda is happy stuffed inside a pork loin or nesting in the crook of a leg of duck confit. She’ll drape a bowl of homemade ice cream or drop in on a cup of coffee. She does well in nut cakes and fruit pies. She cures scratchy throats, angst filled teens and their parents. She soothes nursing mothers and their babies. Old ladies love her. Matilda courts and cultivates my love interests. Matilda has a poor reputation with the un-indoctrinated but is quite enchanting.

I adore these characters and their diverse personalities. I relish the anticipatory waiting from start to finish and the slow doling out of precious reserves. They are more than their origins, process and shared values. They are the loss of a valuable tree or a diverse palate. They are preserving for the future and hanging onto the past. They are appropriately self-centered at the peak of their fruit. Their seasonal immediacy is pertinent to their long-term success. They, and I, are parts towards a good end. I have to listen to their qualities and coax them along. Every year is a different year. They too are mastered by their own set of influences that may or may not bear a good year. And yet, there, in the pursuit of perfect, comes the nuances of their personalities. Cheers.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Szivesen means with my heart

This started when someone said, “Isn’t it a lot of work to grow, can and cook food?” “Work?” I wondered aloud, “I think it is about love”. We all have our own.

I fall in love easily. Last fall, I fell in love with a man named Csabi. It was not for the way he smelled, rather, I fell in love with every expression of who he is and what he loves. I fell for the integrity and sensibility with which he works. I fell in love with the way he works; fully and completely in love with what he does. I fell in love fast and it lasted about eighty minutes. Now, I marvel at this unusual love. I work with my hands. I love with my hands. And I try to create something meaningful today from what he unknowingly gave me.

When I arrived at Csabi’s farm, I closed my eyes. The dairy smelled of warm sweet dung and the moist, healthy exhalations of animals living in a good place. The gentle lowing in the dairy barn spoke volumes of satisfaction. There was a quiet hum from a tractor and birds twittering. The animals were happy. Their eyes were bright and alert. They were curious. The cows demanded privacy during milking. The bulls stared, two together, resolutely bullish. And the wary calves moved in skittish side steps and uttered insecurities. Csabi, a veterinarian, has made a model dairy farm from knowledge, common sense and natural systems.

We use words like sustainable, green, clean, good and organic to describe what Csabi is doing. The words antibiotics, growth hormones, transitional, organic tried to find a toe hold in my questions as I took in his farm but they were useless and frankly irrelevant. From one framework, these are good descriptions of his farm, yet Csabi’s methods of running a dairy are rooted in his traditional values. He produces clean milk and delivers it to the community. It is a simple, straightforward and honest plan.

That was the first time within those eighty minutes that I fell. The second time was when I visited his home. I fell hard enough to crack something. Hungarian hospitality is exceptional, though not unique. An offer of a coffee and the use of a bathroom is a given. Csabi opened his home and more. He fed us things he made with his hands; ham, mangalicsa, bread, drink.

Csabi’s home life reads like a perfect short story that tells more than the words written. He knows what order things belong in and his place in that order. Like the best chefs and farmers I know, he tinkers and creates from a deep understanding of the animals and life he husbands. Knowledge and practice sit on a continuum of acquired experience, work at hand and hope for what may come out of his efforts. At his home he maintains a quality and shape of place that is enriched by an ethic of work and love, two sides of the same coin.

Csabi lives on the Hungarian Plains in a small town. He has three pigs with unique genetic histories; a mangalicsa, a wild boar and a mangalicsa/duroc cross, if they are still alive. If they are not, they have become blood sausage and meatballs and they are becoming hams, szalonne and mangalicsa szalami. His curing room and smoke house hold the meats of four pigs. The storeroom is filled with pickles, peppers, jams and palinka, a homemade fruit brandy. The house, summer kitchen and nuclear yard are their own small-scale integrated production system stewarded and guided by principled decisions. The raising, butchering, curing, eating and sharing of an animal is one long chain of reverential events.

Csabi, like many of us, has all the ingredients for a good life. I fell in love with his ability to sincerely combine the elements of his world. I fell in love with his love of mastery and his participatory love of making good quality things like milk, delivery systems, animals, breeds, spaces, food, drink and hospitality. Work, one way or the other, provides what we need and it is an expression of our capacity to love.

I am in love when I am in my yard. I work the soil as if it were my daughter’s hair. I brush it into braids as I think about what can come out of the future.
I am in love when I am in the kitchen, standing before the window that overlooks a small potential of urban land. I am kneading dough on the counter in the sun. With work, it becomes satiny, soft and pliable. Some bodies will be happy.
I am in love when I am alone in my language, in fields, picking corn with my eyes closed.
I am in love when there is a quartet of pots on my stove, simmering, boiling and still. People are coming.

In Hungarian, “szivesen” is how to say, “You are welcome” and it means literally “with my heart”.

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