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An adventure in canning

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

I’m not entirely sure why lately I’ve become so obsessed with being able to take care of myself.  The main way that I see this concern is a desire to stock up on food.  I’m sure that one contributor to this development is Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which describes her family’s year of living locally.  As she describes that year, the chapter on August is called “Living in a Red State”–talking about the endless harvesting, and, more important for the family, preserving, of their harvest of tomatoes.

Lately, I’ve been subscribing to a CSA–community supported agriculture.  The farm delivers a box of seasonal organic vegetables to me–actually, to me at work–once every two weeks.  [They come every week, but, as a single person, I can’t get through it all in one week.]  In a recent newsletter, the farm mentioned that it was possible to special order a 20 lb. box of Roma tomatoes.  So, with a recipe in hand, I ordered the box.

When it arrived, I found that 20 lbs. is a lot more than I thought.  So I planned my strategy.  I started peeling, seeding and pureeing the tomatoes, and put the resulting puree in a container in the fridge.  By the time I was done, it came to 6 quarts of puree.  I have to say that the hint for peeling tomatoes from the Joy of Cooking really worked.  I put a batch of tomatoes in a single layer in a roasting pan, then covered them with boiling water.  By the time the water was cool, the tomatoes were easy to peel.

Then there was turning tomato puree into spaghetti sauce.  The recipe was very insistent on the importance of following the recipe exactly for reasons of food safety.  I’d just as soon not experience botulism, thank you very much.  And the thing that protects from it is either acid or high heat–higher than boiling water.

I was interested to taste the result–the recipe includes powdered dried lemon peel, which turns out to be an ingredient that I may need to add to my repertoire.  The recipe also include cinnamon and nutmeg, which add a bit of a Mediterranean accent–entirely welcome to my mind.

After a bit of exploration with the equipment that I had on hand, I realized that it was going to be necessary to acquire a canning kettle.  Not too much later, I had seven pints of sauce.  I suppose that I could have put it up in quarts, but as a usually single person, pints seemed more useful, and the canner holds only seven jars at a time.

As the jars cooled off, I was delighted to find that the seals held.  So now they’re acting as silent witnesses in my cupboard.  And I’ve moved on to pondering a pressure canner, so that I can put up pears.   I have to admit that I have a dreadful weakness for canned pears, but they have to be canned in a pressure cooker for food safety.

I’ve been trying to figure out the answer to the question:  If I had to live for a year on just the tomatoes that I canned myself, how much do I need?  I’m pretty sure that the answer is between a pint per week, and a pint every two weeks.  In either case, it really represents an investment of my time.

Once again, as a “city kid”,  I’m confronted with the fact that farm life is hard work–and apparently unending.  I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must have been for people, probably women, to just get the harvest in and preserved for the winter, to say nothing of the rest of the year to come.

 To circle back to Barbara Kingsolver’s book.  The answer to “What do you eat in January?” is “Everything”, but the time to think about it is August. 

Book: A Void

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

[Warning: Posting from a world of odd cogitation.] 

This book, A Void, is a translation by Mr. G. Adair into Anglo-Saxon of a Gallic original, La disparition. It contains a mystery about Mr. Anton Vowl, who is abruptly gone without a word. A group of individuals look for him without luck.  His diary contains particular prosody by a quincunx of famous authors: One is by W. S. and begins thusly:

Living or not living: that is what I ask:

If ’tis a stamp of honour to submit

To slings and arrows waft’d us by ill winds,

Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions

OK, I give.  This effort to write without using the letter “e” is waaaay beyond my ability to sustain for any length of time.  So, the point of the French original [by Georges Perec, so you can see why I couldn’t mention his name in the paragraph above] is that it manages to be a more than OK mystery that, along the way doesn’t use the letter “e”.  [According to the flyleaf, Perec’s next novel Les Revenentes made up for the imbalance by using only the letter “e”.  Yoicks.]  Astoundingly enough, the translator has managed to produce a version in English that respects this difficult constraint.

By the way, the technical term for a work that avoids a particular letter is lipogram.  In English, the “usual” letter to avoid is “e”.  If you imagine a work that avoids the letter “x” for example, it would probably go completely unremarked.

An interesting choice is the poetry.  In the original, there are five poems copied into the diary of Anton Vowl [or Voyl in the French].  The poetry is all exceedingly familiar to any French reader–but wouldn’t have the same familiarity to English speakers.  So the translator found poetry that, I expect, we all recognize:  “Living or not living”, PBS’s Ozymandias, John Milton’s On his Glaucoma, Arthur Gorden Pym’s Black Bird [‘Quoth that Black Bird, “Not again”.’]  The one poem that remains in French–or rather the Gallic version–is Arthur Rimbaud’s Vocalisations [in French it’s Voyelles.  Just so you can appreciate the amazing talent

Here’s the first line of the original:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,

And the translation:

A noir, (Un blanc), I roux, U safran, O azur:

The poems, in addition to being recognizable “copies” of the originals, also scan like their models. 

There is, of course, a certain stilted quality to the prose–it’s amazing to me how frequently the prose just flows along and I don’t notice that there aren’t any “e”s.

If you want a bit of a trial, try writing a paragraph of Anglo-Saxon.  Soon you’ll remark that this task is difficult.  But I know that you will find ways to bring forth your cogitations using this unusual diction and syntax.

More Mark Doty–Memoirist

Friday, April 25th, 2008
     I just finished Dog Years, and once again found myself in tears reading this author.  This memoir is largely focused on his life with two dogs: Arden, a black part-Labrador, part-Newfoundland, part-who-knows-what mutt, and Beau, a golden retriever.  And, given ... [Continue reading this entry]

Mark Doty–poet of the depths of surfaces

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

A Display of Mackerel

They lie in parallel rows, on ice, head to tail, each a foot of luminosity . barred with black bands, which divide the scales' radiant sections . like seams of lead in a Tiffany window. Iridescent, watery prismatics: think abalone, the wildly rainbowed mirror of a soapbubble sphere, think sun ... [Continue reading this entry]

‘Radishes Smile, and All Beings Rejoice’

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008
The title is a quotation from one section of Edward Espe Brown's book Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings.  I'll be talking about radishes in a bit, but first some words about the author and about the book in general.  Edward ... [Continue reading this entry]

The pleasure of re-reading

Saturday, April 12th, 2008
Over the years, I find that I'm more likely to re-read a book that I have previously enjoyed than I am to find something new.  Weirdly enough, this is particularly true of genres that most people think of as "one-time-only"--like ... [Continue reading this entry]