Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dry and bitter

The high yesterday was 90 degrees. Today it hit 94. The forecast for tomorrow anticipates 92, and 95 for the day after.

Living where we live in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, hot often also means humid. The air gets thick, and my normally straight hair starts to look thick and curly. The extra moisture in the air has an effect of softening my normally dry skin, but it also brings out the mosquitoes and saps away both my energy and my appetite.

Fortunately, the high heat of summer in our part of the Adirondack foothills is brief. Usually, by mid- to late August, I'm back to wearing a long-sleeved jersey at night. And during this season of high heat, I have found a way to enjoy home-cooked dinners. The secret passwords are dry and bitter.

Let me explain. If you follow my blogs, you know that my husband and I grow a lot of our own food. The high heat of summer also is the time when much of what is in our gardens begins to blossom into real food. As a result, many of our days are spent outdoors in the sun, pulling weeds, hand-pollinating corn, and planting -- still planting -- seeds for the plants that grow fast and thrive in this kind of summer sun. Toward the end of the day, as the sun starts to head down the western horizon, we harvest, mostly for our night's dinner but also to store for the winter.

Which brings me to roasted and bitter.

Turnips and radishes are very pickable now, as are peas, beets, kale, collards, Swiss chard, and increasingly garlic (of which we'll be doing a mass harvest this weekend). Turnips and radishes are especially good because they come with a bonus: Their rough, sometimes prickly green tops also are quite good to eat. I have begun to think of these green tops as a "throwaway crop", simply because so many people with gardens simply cut off and throw away or compost these greens. I don't blame people for doing this because the greens are a bit of a chore to clean. Turnips and radishes are root veggies, which means that the tops are often dusty with soil. Each turnip and radish also has a pretty hefty handful of leaves, which can make consuming ALL of them a challenge.

So what does this have to do with roasted and bitter? When it's hot, my body starts to crave flavors that I can best describe with those two words. Usually, these are spices that come in the form of a seed such as black mustard, fenugreek, and cumin. However,  also have found that turnip and radish greens also fit this category.

I have an flat Indian-style skillet known as a tawa. It is like a griddle, but it is made of cast iron, which means it needs to be seasoned with oil every so often to keep the iron from oxidizing. What this means is that there's almost always a thin coat of oil on the tawa, which makes it perfect for roasting spices listed above.

About a year ago, I had a thought: If I could roast spices on an almost dry cast-iron pan, I should be able to roast bitter tasting greens, as well. I had just pulled some turnips, so I cut off the greens and washed them very very well. I then drained them in a colander and shook off as much of the excess water as I could. When the greens were about as dry as I could get them to be, I sliced them into thin ribbons and gave them another rinse. I then let them dry further, while I heated the tawa and began roasting the cumin, mustard, and fenugreek. Once the spices began emitting a fragrant odor, I tossed the sliced greens onto the tawa, mixing them into the spices with the help of two wooden spoons.

The greens wilted rapidly, so I didn't cook them for more than 2 minutes. I removed them from the tawa and put them into a serving bowl, making sure to scrap the tawa to get all of the spice essences. The taste of the greens was amazingly heady. Without oil to coat them, flavors that were simultaneously sweet, spicy, and fragrant blended together in a roast that I can only describe as dry and bitter.

We eat bitter these days about three or four times a week. I have found that radish green tops taste as good cooked in this way as turnip greens. Because they cook fast and dry, the clean up is minimal. And, I have found that unlike many other garden grown greens, these ones will not wilt and lose their flavor if you clean them well and leave them in a wire strainer basket or some sort of similar device in the refrigerator's vegetable bins. Eating them eases the heaviness of the humidity and adds much spice to the high heat of summer.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Our next door neighbor came over tonight as we were beginning the preparations for our post-9 p.m. dinner. I make note of the fact that it is a post-9 p.m. dinner for reasons that might make sense later.

Our neighbor is a good friend, and our deck, front door, and picnic table under the maple trees are always open to him. So are meals, desserts, seltzer water and beer, though usually he's eaten well before we've even begun to consider what, how, and when we're going to get around to preparing dinner.

Tonight, he brought up a topic that seems to be a recurring theme in many conversations I've had of late: college degrees. A friend and another friend and perhaps another friend all went to college. They're tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and they can't find a job.

"What's the point of a college degree," he asked, his voice rising with a rather odd anger, "if you can't get a job."

My response was probably neither soothing nor satisfying. "The point of a college degree is to learn to be a good thinker, and to be an engaged and active participant in society. It's really not about getting a job."

"That's not what they tell you," he retorted, his voice now in a shout. "Why bother going to college and spending all that money if you're not going to use what you're taught?"

I guess I don't like being shouted at, so even if he didn't mean to direct the comments at me personally, I sort of took them that way, and retorted in turn.

"College doesn't promise you a job," I said. "But if you approach it the right way, you'll use every single skill you picked up in college in every part of your life, at a job or off."

Good and mad, I went on, "College creates choices. It teaches people to think, to be inventive and creative, and to question the world we're living in."

"I'm creative and inventive," he responded. "I didn't need college to teach me that."

The conversation bothers me several hours later. I think one reason it does is because I think my neighbor is right. On one hand, nobody needs college to teach them how to be creative and inventive world survivors. For centuries -- right up to the end of World War II, for the most part -- more than 95 percent of the people on the planet did just fine with their lives and never even gave college a thought.

        Today, things are different. Millions more people think about college, and hundreds of thousands each year actually enroll. Some higher education experts call this development the "massification of higher ed." But there's a difference between starting and finishing. Every college and university in the United States faces a reality of high student attrition. More students drop out or flunk out than succeed.
And, among those who do make it across the graduation stage, immediate job prospects are bleak. As a result, students often are saddled with debt and jobs in the minimum-wage service sector they were trying to escape.

       All of this fuels claims that college is some sort of conspiratorial trick designed to get people to waste time and spend crazy amounts of money with the lure of a new but false future at the end of the graduation rainbow. Voicing these claims is an effort, perhaps, to speak truth to power, with power being equated with those who have degrees and jobs and truth being equated to those who do not. Hence, I am power and my neighbor is truth.

      But I'm not convinced that it's all that clear-cut.

       Those who have bachelor's degrees -- a little more than one-fourth of the adult American population -- statistically do earn more money and occupy a more privileged place in society than the three-quarters who do not. Those with master's degrees and doctorates hold -- or maybe we think we hold -- an even more privileged position. And those of us who have parents and/or grandparents who hold higher educational degrees are said to be in an entirely different class of people, altogether. But these realities do not erase struggle or ensure that the acquisition of a degree leads to a job.

For every well-heeled, elite, hoity-toity holder of a Ph.D., master's or bachelor's degree whom I know, there are dozens of others who struggle to make mortgage payments, work 15 to 18 hour days, and are on perpetual contracts in "temporary" adjunct positions that can be terminated at any point.

Economically, I, too, am in a position of struggle in many ways. But I also am aware of the fact (cognizant is one of the fifty-cent words that I like to use because it speaks, I think, to a more acutely felt understanding of a particular form of knowledge or fact) that the position of struggle is somewhat one of choice.

The 9 p.m. meal becomes relevant here. Dinner is at 9 p.m. because at the height of summer that's when the sun goes down. The heat of the day is prime time to work: whether the work is writing or consulting with students, working in the backyard fields where my husband and I grow much of the food we eat, running errands in town, or doing our daily rounds of exercise. After sunset, after the chickens return to their coop to roost for the night and the garden beds are watered and the vegetables for the night's dinner are picked, we're able to think about dinner and to relax. Following dinner comes time alone: I write and my husband often listens to music. Bedtime is often around midnight because our 1840s-era house -- which we have chosen for my reasons of personal comfort and for our interests in planetary sustainability not to be cooled with a central air conditioning system -- takes several hours to release the heat it has absorbed during the day and isn't cool enough to be comfortable until then. Eight hours of sleep means I don't rise until 7:30 or 8 a.m. My husband rises much earlier when the rooster crows and runs outside to open the door of the chicken coop so the birds can begin their day on their schedule. He usually comes back to sleep as long as he's let them out and fed the cats.

These choices are intrinsic to the learning we both acquired through pursuit of higher educational degrees. My husband doesn't hold a degree, but he has accumulated a pile of college credits through previous work as a nuclear engineer for naval aircraft carriers and coursework at a variety of colleges and universities. He lacks primarily the final credits and the culminating experiences that would declare him a bachelor's level specialist in a particular discipline to hold the piece of paper that would certify him as a college graduate.

Neither of us have jobs that earn us much money, and he, in fact, does not have a job at all, to the extent that a job is defined in terms of receiving a taxed paycheck and a W-2 form at the end of the year. That was a choice we made collectively. A choice that I think both of us would attribute being able to make to the critical consciousness, global awareness, and responsibilities of active citizenship that we learned in the process of doing our degrees.

I spent four years as an 18-22 year old in a bachelor's of journalism program. I was one of the luckier ones who went from college right into jobs in the newspaper industry. Twelve years ago, I put that career on hold to go back to graduate school. I spent three years in a master's program and seven and a half years in a doctoral program. When I finished my doctorate, I realized that I had devoted a quarter of my life to pursuing it. People look at me with a certain level of incredulous disbelief when I tell them that I didn't do it because I always had dreamed of being a professor, that I did it because I was curious about certain histories, politics, and social developments that had influenced contemporary society and wanted to gain a better understanding of them so that I could articulate my own relationship to those issues more justly and effectively. At the same time, I realize that I may not have gone down this life path at all if my father hadn't been a college professor. He was the first child of his village in India to leave the area for high school and ultimately college. His pursuit of higher education helped uplift his family and brought him and many of our relatives to the United States.

Today, most of the students I mentor or teach are much older than I was when I began my bachelor's degree. Some are older than me. Like my neighbor, their lives have been filled with different kinds of work and personal experiences that have made them creative and innovative individuals. I work with them to define the learning they gain through these experiences and help them consider how college coursework might help them deepen their understandings of themselves and their worlds. I do not promise them jobs.

      Considering these factors, I see how I am conditioned to view higher education as valuable and good -- whether the degree or degrees lead to a job in the field or not.  At the same time, I wonder how and why the holding of the degree came to be associated with a guarantee for a job in the field. It seems that learning is a process and practice that is with you for life. It's a culture, perhaps, but not an insurance policy. It lacks guarantees.