Saturday, February 28, 2015

Notes from the laundromat

    It's a Saturday afternoon, and once again, I find myself in the laundromat around the corner from where I work. Coming to the 'mat has evolved over the past year into a weekly ritual that had been taking place -- like regular writing -- on an off-and-on basis for a number of years. The ritual became regularized when our washing machine broke for the third time in a year, this time at the end of the extended warranty that my husband Jim and I had purchased initially. Tired of the regular breakdowns and aware that a longer-term fix to our plumbing so that we could create a more reliable and cleaner space in our house for a washer and dryer hookup would cost more than we immediately had to invest, we decided that we could do without these household conveniences for awhile and make do with the laundromat. The weekly ritual is something that is a bit of a pain, but generally something I look forward to.

    Like a flight on a crowded plane, the laundromat is not exactly a comfortable place. It is cold at times, crowded, and a little stressful to get in and out of. But once here, with the clothes in the washer, it provides the same benefit of a short Albany-to-Chicago O'Hare flight -- a quiet space where no one really interrupts you for an hour or so.

    In the past year, I have used my time at the laundromat to grade papers, to catch up on reading, to make telephone calls, to run errands at nearby stores, and to write. I especially appreciate the brevity of space in between the wash and dry cycle for such quick hit activities.

    I find myself thinking a lot about the gap between scarcity and abundance these days, and how perhaps doing one's clothes in the laundromat might speak to that gap. For instance, the laundromat is perceived in some sectors of our so-called civilized society as a forbidden zone. It's a space where you go if you're desperate -- if you cannot afford a washer or dryer; if you're unfortunate -- your home machine broke; or if you're ill -- you cannot hold enough of a steady job or place in society to merit professional cleaning services. Yet, it seems to me that the laundromat really is none of those things. It is instead one of the few communal gathering spots left in domestic life. Over the past year, I have held conversations about folding, sorting, detergents, hikes, sports activities, politics, and horses.

    Eavesdropping yields even richer insight into the world that exists outside of one's comfort zone. During the "track season" that dominates the summer in Saratoga Springs, the demographic at the 'mat changes dramatically from the predominantly English speakers to Spanish speakers. Larger groups arrive with smaller loads per capita. The music is more lilting and happier, as families make the chore into a festival.

    For now, it is still winter. I suspect that the cold temperatures and ongoing snow are wreaking havoc on many people's home facilities. With a new crowd in the laundromat and myself appearing (for some reason or the other) to know what I am doing, I have found myself becoming a consultant on the merits of different machines, the uses of liquid over powder detergent, and the pros and cons of sorting clothes by weight versus color. For the record, I sort by weight -- and somewhat by type -- socks, I have discovered, can be dried and folded much more efficiently if they are not mixed in with the boxers that my husband wears. Towels and jeans take the longest to dry but are the easiest to fold. Therefore, it is not much of an issue if they dry last; it gives one time to get t-shirts and slacks folded and stacked into baskets -- sorted by sex -- in an orderly manner.

    The other day, I was in the laundromat feeling slightly stressed out. I was behind in my classes, behind in my correspondence with students, and fearing that the onslaught of more work would put me still further behind. As I folded, I overheard two young women talking. They were both students at a local community college, and were conversing about the pros and cons of various instructors. I listened to them talk about unanswered e-mails from their instructors, and felt a sense of empathy -- for them as well as their instructors. And then I heard them speak positively about instructors who gave them great feedback, even if it came belatedly. Somehow, their words felt redemptive for me.

    Writing at the laundromat is also a treat. It is dictated today, for instance, by the rhythm of time. That rhythm is set by the wash-rinse-spin cycle spinning dirt out of my clothes. It also is set by the minutes remaining on the free Internet access -- 30 minutes, total.

    And on that note I shall stop for now.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Green tomatoes

   The story of my fondness for fried green tomatoes does not have a lot of depth: On October 31, 2014, a Wednesday, my husband Jim and I were preparing to do our last farm food and cooking demonstration for the year for our ad hoc group, Two Wooden Spoons, at the Franklin Community Center in downtown Saratoga Springs. We had started these demonstrations a few months earlier with a goal of encouraging clients of the center's food pantry and other services to consider shopping at the local farmers markets. We wanted to invite the food pantry clients to come to the farmers market and would talk to them about how the farmers accepted EBT cards and often would offer special prices on seasonal items.

    While many people see the farmers markets as weekend diversions for the wealthy, Jim and I had a personal stake in promoting the economic value of farmers markets. We discovered their value when we ourselves were on food stamps for a few months in 2007 when I was in between adjunct teaching jobs and he was out of work. The fact that we could buy local produce and meat that was literally fresh from a farm and in quantities that would not spoil before we could consume us had convinced us that farmers markets were not only an enjoyable place to shop but an affordable one, as well. After that summer, we began to make a shift in our lives that would move us toward first buying most of what we ate at farmers markets and eventually growing the food ourselves. Like good evangelists, we wanted to share the message.

    Our approach at the Franklin Community Center was relatively low key. We show up with a featured vegetable, some basic cooking implements, and a few additional staple ingredients (oil, lemon juice, pepper, and sometimes a couple of other spices). We prepare the vegetable in three or four different ways and dish up samples. We then walk up and down the line of clients waiting for services inviting them to sample the food and explain how it was prepared with farm-raised local ingredients.

    In the midst of the project, I also began tending a community garden that had been established on the center's lawn. While the garden had good soil and was relatively protected from the elements, it didn't get the kind of sunshine needed to turn tomatoes red. The good news of this dilemma was that at a time when most other tomato plants in the area had shriveled and died from frost, the Franklin Center's plants were still thriving. The bad news was that the plants were producing large numbers of firm, healthy green tomatoes that refused to ripen to red.

    We were scheduled to take a winter break from our food demonstrations, which will resume this coming Wednesday, February 25. We decided that the last round of cooking should not feature foods grown in our garden or purchased at the farmers market but rather the community action center's garden itself.

    Enter fried green tomatoes.

    I had never made them before. I was pretty sure that I had eaten them, but I couldn't understand their allure. I liked tomatoes well enough when they were ripe, but to me they tasted sour and bitter when green. I couldn't fathom why anyone would bother frying something that was not so good fresh.

    But we had dozens of green tomatoes to dispense with so I looked up a recipe and proceeded to prepare them. I prepared a mixture of cornmeal and black pepper, and beat a couple of eggs. I sliced the tomatoes, dipped them in the egg and rolled them in the cornmeal. I then dropped them into a frying pan sizzling with hot oil and cooked them until the cornmeal exterior started to brown. I removed them from the pan and placed them on a paper towel before preparing the sample cups. On an impulse, I tasted one and nearly melted with joy. The sharp, sour taste of the green tomato raw had mellowed to a soft juicy undertone that perfectly complemented the cornmeal covering around it. The flavor melded crunchy and watery, and sour and sweet into a perfect companionship.

    Throughout the winter, I have thought often of fried green tomatoes and -- because we are fortunate in Saratoga to have a farmer who grows tomatoes hydroponically -- have prepared them more than once. The explosion of flavor continues to amaze me, and I have constantly sought to experiment with new methods of preparation.

    Tonight I tried them a little differently. I had obtained a large number of green tomatoes from the hydroponic Shushan Farms around Christmas. I had kept the tomatoes in the refrigerator to prevent them from turning red and rotting, but by mid-February I knew I had gotten to a point where I needed to use them or lose them. I looked up a recipe for pakora, which is a spicy Indian snack consisting of vegetables dipped in a chickpea batter and deep fried. I prepared the batter with chickpea flour, turmeric, and some crushed red pepper, and submerged my green tomatoes which had been sliced into quarters in it. I heated some oil in a deep frying pan and dropped the pieces of tomato into it. The result once again was an explosion of flavor that I can't wait to reproduce -- again.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Things on the brain


Not sure what's causing the snow to fall, but hey!
I have been silent on all of my blogs for the past several months. The silence was neither intentional nor the the result, really, of something that's often called writer's block. I have been writing, as usual, at least once a day, usually twice a day, and often in three or four stints. What has felt stultifying and has deterred me from blogging has been a sense of rhythmic familiarity. I developed good habits. I settled into rituals. I began to anticipate seasonal events -- like the spring planting, the fall harvest, the frenetic pace of November's National Novel Writing Month, the celebrations of the fall festival season, and the quiet hibernation of winter -- and participated in them with joy. It was fun and enlightening, but there was nothing new to share. So my blogging voice -- remembering its training from the days of journalism -- fell silent. I had thought that I would wait until I had something truly "new" to report on before I began blogging again.

    And well, I still don't feel as if I have anything new to report on. But a new blog established by my friend Pauline Carrico (a former colleague at the college where I teach) convinced me that perhaps it is time to break the silence.

    Pauline's blog is entitled Thoughts on Everything and Nothing. That title led me to think that perhaps for a bit blogging on what's on the brain might be a way to kickstart the habit.

    And, so, it's Friday, February 20, 2015. What's on my brain?

    1. Winter, for sure. I am not fond of cold weather, but to be honest, I am not tired of winter -- yet. I rather like the northeastern New York winters with big dumps of snow, howling winds, and temperatures below zero. Not because I like to venture out in them. I am not the person you will see snow shoeing or cross-country skiing. I like the excuse they give me to slow down and stay in. Lately, I've been thinking of life cycles also as having sets of seasons. Not to get too graphic, but after thirty-nine straight years of monthly menstrual periods, something that my new primary care provider calls "perimenopause" seems to have kicked in. For the moment, that means a seasonal adjustment to my life patterns. My diet is changing, my habits are changing, my body seems to demand more rest. Winter is good time to let those changes sink in and become a normative aspect of life.
    For instance, over the past week, I took over -- perhaps temporarily, perhaps in a more sustained way -- the morning chore of taking fresh water out to the chicken coop at 5 a.m. so that the birds would have unfrozen water to drink as they began to wake up. Realizing that mornings are evolving into incredibly good times for me to get the quiet work of writing, reading student assignments, and prepping for courses done before the day's daily distractions kick in, I've been working to reset my body to fall asleep by 9 p.m. so that I can take advantage of the hours before the 10 a.m. "witching hour" of e-mail deluges, meetings, and appointments. What I have found is that resetting the body clock is really not difficult. My body demands eight hours of sleep, so if I'm up at 5 a.m., it will want to shut down at 9 p.m. What has been challenging has been resetting the rest of my life. For instance, how do you tell a student who works until 8 p.m. and needs to discuss an assignment that it will be very hard to be available at the time that they are?

    2. Overall health and diet. My husband and I decided finally to switch to a different primary care provider after four years of me feeling consistently dissatisfied with the "there's a pill for every ailment" approach that our previous doctor was taking. I did some research and decided to try a doctor with an integrative medical approach. We had our first appointment in late January, and after listening to my list of concerns, she ordered a round of substantial bloodwork, recommended a nutritional supplement for sinus relief, and told me to abstain from dairy products and most sugars for a temporary period of time. After two or three weeks, I can report that I feel better physically, but I am still not sure the regime is attacking the root ailments. I don't feel very hopeful that the bloodwork will reveal anything different, but I am hopeful that this doctor will not just shrug her shoulders and stop.

    3. And finally fitness training, teaching, writing, sleep, and farming. These feel like the biggest activities of my day-to-day life. The elusive search into how to balance them out so they each get the attention they deserve persists. So perhaps that's a theme to develop, as 2015 blogging resumes ...