Family Sausage Dressing

I rarely use a recipe. I cook by the memories of my ancestors. I know what a dish is supposed to taste like, and I know how to get there.

The stock. Last in, but first made. The fat, gelatin, skin, and bones of a take-home chicken from some too-tired-to-cook work night, thrown into the slow cooker with two bay leaves, a few onions, carrots, celery, salt, pepper, sage, and rosemary. White wine if there’s the bottom of a bottle hanging around. Some vinegar to pull the goodness from the bones. The acids lay down some dimension, and their forward taste takes a seat in the back of the room when everything’s said and done. Let that go for hours. When it’s time, pull out the solids with a colander, then freeze that gold until it’s called for. That’s how Mimi and Pipi would do it, too. Handy, since I make a Thanksgiving dressing with their ghosts as well.

Dressing is about diversity and abundance. Three loaves of bread. Sourdough. Darkest pumpernickel rye you can find. And a hearty loaf of wheat; extra seedy is good. Tear them all to bits the size milk bottle tops. Fill all your mixing bowls past what they can hold. Let the late autumn air suck the moisture out of them; or dry them out in the oven if you’re ready before they are. You don’t have to make croutons out of them, we’re just getting them thirsty for what’s to come.

In the biggest cast iron pan in the place, the one that handles Sunday mornings, drip a little oil in the bottom. When it’s warm enough to move like water, put in two pounds of Italian sausage. Bird sausage replaces pork sausage nearly unnoticeably. When it’s nearly browned all the way through, add those seven or so small onions chopped with the Red Pig knife from the  grandmother on another side of the family. It’s alright that they pile above the top of the pan. They’ll cook down. When they do, pile on the chopped celery. Two full hearts.

In another pan, melt a whole block of Irish butter. Mimi never did get to Ireland. I wish she had, but dying with a few unfulfilled dreams means having never lost the ability to dream. Two full heads of garlic, chopped coarse for slow continuous release. Rubbed Sage. Rosemary. So much it seems indecent. Life is about flavor. Pour the herbed butter over the meat, onions and celery. Let it simmer a bit. Wash a few dishes.

In the big pot used for canning, the only thing in the place—aside from the bathtub—that will hold the whole thing with room to stir, dump in the bread. Pour everything from the cast iron pan in. Stir with gusto enough to dredge the good stuff up from the bottom of the pot and the generations. When it’s good and mixed, with so many shades of white, brown, and gray, without accumulations of any one thing in any single place, take stock, and add the cohesion. Stir more, getting the stock into every morsel, relaxing it, giving it some semblance of oneness.

In big heaping scoops, transfer it into a huge aluminum roasting pan. Cover it in foil. Tomorrow, it’ll taste like West River Street in Deerfield Michigan.

Jogging the Gym

Every Phys Ed. class in high school began with jogging around the outer edge of the lines painted on the hardwood floor, under what must have been fifteen layers of varnish. Gym class was where all of our hormones were laid bare. From showers, to the smell of teenagers learning to manage their smells, to acne, to the unmistakable awareness of our incoherent sexualities and all of the posturing and evasion that goes along with them.

While running laps around the gym one morning, my best friend—then, and still—said to me matter-of-factly “Well, last night I asked my dad to teach me to shave.” I have no idea what my response in the conversation was, but I remember both admiration and envy.

My father had died at the beginning of my freshman year, though in truth, his life was largely lived far away from me, and there was little he would’ve been able to do to help usher me through the perils of puberty. My stepfather was a difficult man to approach with any request. He was quick to shut down anything that wasn’t rock solid, and he’d surely have pointed out the fact that I really didn’t have a hair on my face that would warrant learning to shave…that is, if I’d have asked him.

Instead, I gazed in the mirror with his shaving cream on my face, and one of his disposable razors in hand, and started moving the blade across my face just as my best friend had described his lesson from his father.

I have now grown well into my adult body as I look toward age 40. Now I shave with either a straight razor or a double-sided brass safety razor, and the occasional disposable.

It occurs to me that we as a people continue to borrow words from the past that lose connection with their original source. We often speak of “honing our skills,” but to hone is to run a razor over a stone at just the right angle, with just the right pressure to leave an edge that can either make you bleed or can give you a sense of a clean, fresh start, and a sense of manhood. The hone in my life wasn’t either of two men who bore a version of the title “father” in my life. It was then, and is still—Dave.

Two clean shaven young men on a first day of school.

Pink Lady

IMG_2892A decade ago I was living on the east coast. My then-partner and I had decided to make a weekend trip from New Haven to Boston to spend some time with a couple who were friends of ours. We stopped by a fruit stand along the way and picked up half a dozen apples and a pear.

We arrived and were greeted by the couple and their small community that was often to be found painting, drinking coffee with heavy cream, talking, or playing with the two toddlers running around the warm home. As we settled in, we drew out the fruit and with a pocketknife began cutting each one into slices; each into their own bowl–red apples, green apples, soft apples, firm apples, and the pear for a bit of wild card variety. As if enjoying a wine tasting, we each drew a morsel from the same bowl and describe its character. Some were bland; some were juicy. Some were mealy, while others snapped.

There was one apple which stood out as a clear favorite all those years ago, still stands out as a pronounced favorite now. The Pink Lady was a wonder for everyone. Sweet, crisp, a little tart and wrapped in a blush that earns her a name.

The sticker on that pink lady that I’d enjoyed long ago said it was grown in Peru. While I love being able to explore the world through my taste buds, whenever possible, I’d rather travel the world myself and have my food have a simple trip down the road. So it was much to my delight that in this week’s CSA there were four beautiful Pink Ladies grown right here in Washington.

Recommended Pairings:

Cheese: A nice soft blue cheese

Music: Lady Divine” by Alela Diane

This post was originally prepared as a writing sample for a fruit blog. 

Commemoration

“it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
—Tom Robbins

Dad in some beautiful mountains of his own.

Every year since, I’ve taken time on September 7th to myself. Often, I’d request the day off work to visit a cemetery, read old letters, or spend time outside remembering the limited and wonderful joy that life is. It’s been an important ritual. I remember calling my grandparents every year to remember my father; their child. While they returned any other call, I could never reach them on that day, nor did they return those calls.

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My Grandpa and Dad enjoying some nature.

Last Friday, was my father’s father’s birthday. I celebrated in the way that I like to. I wore two of his shirts that I’d pulled from his closet after he’d died. I took a walk in a park with a friend remembering those who’s time has gone by. I explained that the hat I was wearing was from the golf course that he and my grandmother build in their back yard. Such a funny dream that was, and they brought that dream right into the world. I admire that.

After my grandmother passed away, I tried to extend my ritual by making a point to call him or stop down to his house on the anniversary to say hello and that I was remembering the day. What surprised me was his response: “There’s nothing special about today.”

My grandfather was an interesting man for a barnful of reasons, but an image of him that sticks with me is from the day we buried my grandmother. After a moving funeral and the graveside prayers, he stayed as the funeral home staff removed the tent, hardware, and astroturf. When the venire was gone, He fully took in the enormous truth of a hole in the ground with a casket cradling his wife’s body at the bottom of it. He took a handful of Deerfield earth and crumbled it lovingly into the void.

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Continuing a family tradition of finding my own mountains.

In a few hours it will be June 19th. Sixty Six years ago my grandparents welcomed my father into the world. I think I’d like to give both of these men birthday presents.

September 7th, Grandpa? There’s nothing special about that day. But June 19th, that’s my Dad’s birthday. I think I’ll celebrate.

Dear Reader—No Decisions Required.

Everyday I come home from work, open up the front door and pick up a pile of junk mail, bills, maybe a parcel that I’ve sent to myself. Maybe it’s a book that someone recommended. Maybe I’ll read the first half of it. We’ll see.

Super MoonBut there is the blue moon.

I have a handful of friends who send a real letter from time to time. I imagine that the more I send, the more I might also receive. It’s one of those tragedies that need not exist.

I studied theater in college. I never turned it into a career of writing and directing movies as an aimless 18 year old, I had half-dreamed. I did however learn the anatomy of a story, how to hang an ellipsoidal, become a character, and perhaps most importantly that memorizing lines is not where my creative strengths flourish.

The theater is full of characters. The ingenues and would-be-ingenues are everywhere. There are the techies, who all hang out with the English and Philosophy majors and spend time complaining about the actors. There are the divas and musical-theater crowd who are ready to offer you their full performance of the Rent soundtrack while driving a rusty Oldsmobile to McDonald’s for a double cheeseburger after rehearsal, just before they close. Then there is the fight club. These are the guys who love ninjas, attend their biology 101 in partial ninja attire, and have a bigger reaction to video games and swordplay than the ingenue throwing themselves at them.

Then there are the writers and directors. Having pitched their tents in every theater camp, these are the goofs I like the best. They brood. They emote. They are the comedians and the wits.

One such fellow is my dear friend Tony. With a cluster of socially awkward tendencies, he could have easily sat outside of anything resembling a community.

The small Catholic liberal arts university we attended was all beautiful old brick buildings in the old tradition. Tony, was the only person I’d ever known with an honest to goodness case of OCD. I didn’t know it right away, but years later he told me of his routines of finding all of the ways to navigate the campus only using staircases with even numbers of steps. While most of us theater majors were half-hearted academics more dedicated to the grueling joy of rehearsals every night for months, Tony was a secret force in every sphere. He ached with self-doubt, but wrote the best fucking plays, poems, screenplays, and would then end up holding down lead roles in all of the plays of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. But in-between each of the incredible things he did, he wandered around campus like Winnie the Pooh.

Just before Christmas break, Tony who was just as broke as the rest of the thespian crew, wandered the halls, giving each person a gift he’d picked up from one of the many dollar stores. Each one was perfectly chosen. Tony the Pooh, didn’t think about Divas, Oldsmobiles, ninjas or ingenues. He saw Bridget, and Emily, Jason, Mark, Doug, Christian, the other Emily, Don, Rick, Lisa, Michael, Trudy, Drew, and Chris. There were many more, but he saw much further than me. My best guess would fall short of whatever his actual even numbered flight pattern had been.

That year I received a plastic chess board from Tony. “I don’t know if you know how to play” he said pulling the box from one of several plastic bags hanging from around his arms, “but if not, you should. You’ve got a mind for it.” And off he went on his merry way.

Tony and I would get together from time to time in summers to see an art film that wouldn’t show in any of the multiplexes. Tony was and is a Francophile of the first degree, so something with languages—which one didn’t matter—was an added layer of delight. Tony loves to read as much as he loves movies. When you’re watching a foreign film you can do both! No decisions required. We would also get together to write. Playful writing. Someone would name a challenge or a genre, and everyone would give it a go. Read it out loud, and enjoy what each other had made. Penultimate good time.

Our friendship has spanned over many moves across many cities and states. He’s been in New York City for the better part of his post college life. Some eight and a half years ago now, I was on my way out to work with him on his latest Theater project. I would flip Midtown burgers by day, and direct his plays by night.

But it didn’t happen.

I got a professional job in Michigan, and didn’t make the move to the city. Tony treated me with no less kindness than on the day he shoved a plastic chessboard into my hands. I felt like a son of a bitch letting him down. And despite whatever disappointment I’d brought to him, he cheered me on.

We went a long while without seeing one another. But there is the blue moon day when I come home, and I have a letter typed on an old manual typewriter, or 10 or 12 pages written on either carefully chosen stationary or scrap paper. Each letter is a concentrated burst of deep thought, play with language, smattered with strange and wonderful facts and updates.

This past Christmas, sometime around the 20th of December, I arrived home to carefully packed homemade sheet of sweet Hungarian bread, with a note apologizing for not glazing it for fear of it getting ruined in the mail. He lives in New York City. I live in Seattle. Are you kidding me?

For a while there, I saw Tony a lot. My professional job carried me to New York several times a year, and I’d often sleep a night or two on an inflatable mattress in the studio apartment that he and his DOPA Larry share. New York space is small. If you don’t think there is way to extend Tony’s ridiculous doting courtesy any further, try adding Larry and his thick cut bacon quiche, and a view all the way up 8th and 9th avenue.

I haven’t seen Tony in a few years now. He’s been meticulously composing and editing draft after draft of his novel. The most recent draft numbers in the 20’s. I read his masterwork of a poetry book “Subway Down” which may never ever see the finish of a Barnes and Noble bookshelf. It pains me to inform you, that your life is lacking for your lack of access. The draft of his novel that I laid eyes on is even better.

The prompt I received in my email today that has brought me to the keyboard suggested that I consider keeping a specific reader in mind to focus my  thoughts as a writer and a blogger.  No Decisions Required. Tony. Of course, Tony.

Tony

Going Backwards, Going Forwards: Peacemaking with Vonnegut’s Slippery Time

Today is the Anniversary of September 11th, 2001 tragedies. Last night President Obama spoke of the military operations to be carried out in Iraq and Syria. My heart sank. I know that there is immense suffering, and immense hatred and cruelty. While his presentation is more palatable than when we heard something similar over a decade ago, it also seems very much the same.

I don’t know what the answer is.

I think of the Dominican Sisters in Iraq who fear for their lives. I especially think of my friend Diana. I want them all protected, safe, and free to tend to their peoples’ joys and sorrows. “Violence begets violence” seems both true and an oversimplification. A military approach to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL” seems like an incredibly aggressive position. But I also don’t want the people slaughtered.

I don’t know what the answer is.

I think of the term “Post 9/11 mentality.” Certainly every side bares its affects. What would be different with a “Pre 9/11 mentality?”

Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, has taken on such an experiment. He was a prisoner of war in World War II. He was in Dresden when the allies firebombed it, leveling it to the ground. While considered a science-fiction writer, his style is not the usual flavor for the genre. He writes with humor about very serious things, and emphasizes the importance of our humanity, peacemaking and kindness. In Slaughter House Five, Billy Pilgrim is a fictional stand-in for Vonnegut. Pilgrim—and perhaps Vonnegut as well—very likely has what today we call PTSD. In this scene from Slaughter House Five, Billy is experiencing “detachment from time.” His thoughts extend backward, forward, and sideways. Time for Billy is slippery at best.

Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals.

Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

Slaughter House Five, Chapter 4

If time were slippery for you, like it is for Billy Pilgrim, what moment in your life, or in the history of humanity, would you like to see revisited or recreated in the present for sake of our humanity, peacemaking and kindness? If shared with the right person, people, or powers, what would be the best possible outcome for an issue that we face today?

I find myself looking for those answers in times like the era of The New Deal, when the WPA (Work Progress Administration) and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps)  built the US highways systems and the national parks to help pull the country out of the great depression.

“But what on Earth does that have to do with September 11th, or declaring everything short of war once again?” A friend and teacher of mine recently reminded me of a basic principle: Almost all conflict can be traced back to someone being robbed of dignity, or the perception of being robbed of their dignity. The New Deal was not about vanquishing problems. It was about growing solutions. An approach which could go a long way both at home and abroad. If I could carry the President, the Speaker of the House, and some of the leaders of ISIL through the wormhole of time, I would set a course for the Oval Office. We would sit down for a nice fireside chat with a presidential polio survivor, and see what we as humanity might conspire to do.

May all of our best memories guide us as peacemakers, and may all who are suffering be relieved.

Book Pairing #1: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas & Mutant Message Down Under

“Taste this,” I said to Dave, my best friend, as I handed him a glass of white wine. Dave is a beer drinker and rarely touches the fruit of the vine. But, ever ready to take a dare, he swallows it down. Then I shove a piece of bleu cheese into his hand, which he chews slowly, paying attention to the experiment that I’m laying down for him: “now taste the wine again…”

“Wow. That really changes things.”

Dave will never be a wine drinker, but a willingness to take on something new, be it through dare, curiosity, thrill-seeking, or social experiment, is an admirable quality.

Cheese and wine have a good long history of sharing the real estate of the table as fine neighbors. Fermented milk beside the fermented grape. Not much in common, except for the effects of time offering them each a transformational experience. So too, can it be for books!

Chris in the Chelsea Kitchen
A younger version of myself, loving life and literature in Boston.

I’ve never read as ravenously as when I moved to Boston. I graduated college, sold my car in Michigan and got on the train with less then $2,000 to my name, and moved away from my city in the mitten for the first time. Relieved of the rigors of academia, and all the split focus that it offers, subject beside subject, semester beside semester, workload of study beside workload of paycheck beside the social life of those urgent early 20’s. So when I moved into a Boston flat with a couple of old friends who had married each other, life became a little more relaxed. Having a commute on buses and subways—never less than an hour from door to door—I could read any book of my choosing for several hours a day, and read them I did!

I began with the books that I’d started in college, but hadn’t finished—though I was unencumbered in reporting on the portions I had read. Recalling the words of another friend, Jason— you should really finish books, the endings really make them — his insight became an obvious truth that propelled my appetite further. The World According to Garp, was the longest book I had ever read, and every page turned was an accomplishment and a delight. Garp was followed up with The Fourth Hand, another John Irving yarn from later in his career, masterfully told, but more subtle and polished. It was a vertical tasting as the libation coinsurer would say of the same variety from different years.

No pairing of texts has yet to strike me so fine as the pairing of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas followed by Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message Down Under. Both tales—presumably true—carry the reader along with the author through alien worlds. First HST drives us screaming down the boulevard of Vegas along with his lawyer while they consume every drug they can find, in hot pursuit of the ever-illusive American dream. Often dismissed as a story about drugs, it is Thompson’s gonzo journalism revealing the dream of a nation as a hyper-sensationalized delusion that ultimately matters. Insightful. Critical. Inside of all the madness as a willing participant who just can’t stand it. It’s a book that matters.

And then there’s Marlo Morgan—the bleu cheese to the pino griggio—an anthropologist in service of the young Aboriginal people of Australia who are lost as they try to acclimate to city life. After catching the attention of a tribe who walks out of the desert, she is invited on a walkabout. She knows not where she’s going or when she will return. After burning her clothes and possessions, she is reliant on the tribe who call themselves the Real People and identifies white people and the alien culture they inhabit as Mutants. Far from the mutants of today’s cinema, the term in the context of the book reflects a sickness and a loss of connection with the planetary systems of life. Mutant Message is as easily dismissed for a story of “the noble savage” as Fear and Loathing is dismissed as a story of “aren’t drugs crazy?!?” Both dismissals are dead wrong. The reflecting mirror offered to MM of her own culture through the eyes of another is of extreme value.

“now taste the wine again…”

“Wow…”

Dave approves!
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