Book #7 God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut

In a series of 90-second stories on WNYC, Kurt Vonnegut imagines a series of near-death experiences. Aided by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Vonnegut is brought to a place where he is three-fourths dead in a lethal execution facility in Huntsville, Texas. In his series of trips, Vonnegut meets 21 people, some famous, some ordinary, at the pearly gates, where he speaks briefly with them about their lives, their afterlives, and the place that they know as Heaven.

In true Vonnegut form, the interviews are extremely short, and filled with dark, subtle humor. He interviews all sorts of people–from Shakespeare and Adolf Hitler to James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King’s assassin) and a man who died trying to rescue his schnauzer from the jaws of a disgruntled pitt bull. Each interviewee has his own interests–obsessions maybe–that guide their conversations with Vonnegut. Sir Isaac Newton is obsessed with learning what the “tunnel” between life and heaven is made out of. One man, a hot air balloon enthusiast in life, encourages Vonnegut to experience a hot air balloon ride before he dies because he swears it’s better than heaven.

Interestingly, there is no hell in Vonnegut’s imagined afterlife. Even Adolf Hitler makes it to the heaven of Vonnegut’s imagination. Hitler asks, almost sheepishly, “for a small cross to be erected in the United Nations Headquarters” that bore the words “1889-1945 Entschuldigen Sie” which translates roughly to mean “I beg your pardon” or “excuse me.”

Most (regrettably, not all) of these recordings are available here at WNYC’s website. You can, of course, also read them in book form. I did both, and I strongly suggest listening!

 

1. In One Person by John Irving

2. Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

3. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

4. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

6. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

7. God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut

Mini Chicken Pot Pies

Do you know those days when you just need some comfort food? Those days when you’re worn out, maybe physically, or emotionally, and you just need to eat something warm and heavy that makes you feel full and content. Maybe for you it’s pot roast, or buttery mashed potatoes, or maybe it’s dessert–like a warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream.

This week has been a long one for me, filled with lots of love and a more than a little heartbreak, and I’m absolutely wiped out. At the end of it, I found myself in dire need of some serious comfort food. I decided on chicken pot pie. Warm, flaky crust with soft, creamy filling. Making chicken pot pie is enough work that it feels homemade, but not so much that you’re tired by the time you sit down to eat. I love it. Problem is–if I make a whole chicken pot pie, I think I might be able to eat a whole chicken pot pie. I’d like to introduce you to the mini chicken pot pie!

I totally used store-bought puff pastry dough. This is casual. All you really need are the cute little ramekins.

Here’s the recipe: (makes 4 mini chicken pot pies)

2 sheets puff pastry dough (or however much you need to get enough circles)

1 boneless/skinless chicken breast (or a couple of boneless thighs)

1 small squash

1 small zucchini

1 carrot, peeled

1/2 cup green peas (frozen)

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon butter

3/4 cup half & half (plus more for brushing the tops of the pies)

1 teaspoon nutmeg

juice of 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper to taste

To start, make sure your puff pastry dough is out of the freezer before you get started because you’ll need to let it thaw. When it’s defrosted quite a bit, spread it out on the counter and cut large circles out of it (the size of your ramekins). You’ll need two large circles for each pie. I also cut some small circles to decorate the tops with. Also, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Spray each ramekin with non-stick spray or wipe a little butter on the inside. Then, line each one with a puff pastry circle.

Now, chop your veggies and the chicken into little pieces. Throw some butter into a pot over medium-high heat and when it gets hot, brown the chicken pieces. When they’re about halfway cooked through, throw in the veggies and let everything soften up. Throw some salt and pepper in, too.

To make the cream sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small pot over medium heat. When it’s melted, add the 2 tablespoons of flour. It’s going to make a sort of paste. Now, add the half & half. (A word on the half & half: you can totally use cream. It’s going to be delicious if you do. You can also use milk, but it’ll be less delicious. Half & half is nice because it’s somewhere in between. Not quite so heavy, but still thick and creamy.) At the same time, add salt and pepper and the nutmeg. Whisk the mixture constantly, and in a few minutes, it will begin to rapidly thicken. When it’s thickened, remove it from the heat. Next, whisk the mixture as you pour in the lemon juice.

At this point, you can either mix the cream sauce in with the veggies and then put the whole thing into each ramekin, or you can put the veggies in first, and then pour some sauce on top. (Confession–I prefer the latter because the pot is easier to clean if there isn’t any cream in it!) However, you make it happen, after you do, you’ll put the second puff pastry circle on top, then decorate however you’d like. You can also cut a design out of the large circle to create negative space on the top of your pies. Get artsy with it!

Brush some cream on top of the pies, then put them on a baking sheet with a little bit of water in the bottom. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the tops are brown and a little crispy.

Take them out and enjoy (carefully–those ramekins take a few minutes to cool off)!

Great is goodness;

I do not know what it is any more than I know what

health is… but I know it is great.

Great is wickedness… I find I often admire it just as

much as I admire goodness:

Do you call that a paradox? It certainly is a paradox.

The eternal equilibrium of things is great, and the eternal

overthrow of things is great,

And there is another paradox.

Great is life… and real and mystical… wherever and

whoever,

Great is death… Sure as life holds all parts together,

death holds all parts together;

Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light,

death is great as life.

-from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Book #6: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I’m accidentally getting ahead of myself. I’m almost done with #7 and I haven’t written about #6 yet. #7 I’m really excited about, and #6 just isn’t quite as great. I didn’t really consider when I started this project that I would have to write not-so-good reviews of books that I read, so I was (oddly) not really expecting it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been avoiding this post?

Let’s be clear. I don’t dislike this book. I just wouldn’t recommend it, you know? It was entertaining, and I read it voraciously, but it is not high on my list. It’s what I consider beach reading. It’s fairly light and easy to digest, but the story isn’t very original or memorable. It’s about two sets of twins, the second set are the daughters of one of the first set. At it’s heart, it’s a love story. (Are you surprised? This lady wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife!) A love story where the boundaries of life and death are fluid, impermanent.

My favorite part of the book is that it’s set in and around a London apartment which sits on the edge of Highgate Cemetery. When the characters are not exactly likable, the setting is charming and moss-covered, comfortable in its familiarity and worldly predictability.

My favorite character in the novel is Martin, a man who has debilitating OCD and lives in the apartment above the drama of the undead in the twins’ apartment. He is home-bound, surrounded by the relics of his life, each item individually wrapped and packed into cardboard boxes. He’s the most charming character in the novel, quietly struggling to step out of his apartment into the hallway. He befriends one of the twins, and she begins to sneak him medication to ease the grip of his OCD, telling him that they are vitamins. He knows, of course, what they are, but he allows her to believe that she’s fooling him. Martin is kind and honest in a way that makes him terribly likable. However, his character has very little change through the novel. He does eventually leave home, but I sort of knew all along that he had to venture out before the novel ended.

Although the plot leaves a lot to be desired, I can’t discredit Niffenegger’s skill as a wordsmith. She understands the power in a metaphor, and she can turn a phrase with the best of them. I found myself stopping to reread small passages, simply to take in the way that she uses words and images to create feeling. In one scene, the twins are being funneled into a tube station, crowding onto the escalator. The narrator says that the “crowd moved like syrup.” Just that single image places the narrator as a 3rd person omniscient narrator. Where do you see syrup moving? From above, as you pour it.

If you happen across Her Fearful Symmetry on the shelves at the library, perhaps pass it by. I really did love The Time Traveler’s Wife–and I think I would rather have only read Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel. The title is maybe the best part of the whole 450-page affair. Taken from William Blake’s “The Tyger,” the ode to the English poet is arguably the most creative piece of the novel.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The list so far:

1. In One Person by John Irving

2. Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

3. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

4. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

6. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Simple Tomato Sauce

Let’s keep it simple today, what do you think? This is weeknight dinner. It’s the kind of thing that takes a little bit of work upfront but is totally worth it later. We’re making fresh tomatoes into a rich, tasty sauce that will freeze all winter and keep away the pre-made tomato sauce blues. Believe it or not, this is single dude food. It’s so easy, you’ll be amazed with your cooking skills. And so will everyone else!

Also–if you’re some kind of Italian cooking genius, I would stop reading. I made this up. I’m sure it’s all wrong.

You’ll need these things:

6 fresh tomatoes (I’m not actually sure what kind I used…)

3 cloves of garlic

1/2 small can of tomato paste (optional)

1 onion

dried oregano and basil

salt and pepper

red pepper flakes

(And pasta, of course. I’d also recommend freshly grated parmesan cheese.)

Here’s what to do with those things:

The tomatoes will need to be peeled. If you cut an X on the blossom end of each tomato, then dunk them in boiling water then into cold water, the peels should slip right off. Then, give them a rough chop (you can do this according to how chunky you like the tomatoes in your sauce to be).

Dice an onion and the garlic and brown them in a pot with a generous amount of olive oil. When they’re transparent and fragrant, pour in the tomatoes. (Disclaimer–this is where things get weird.) I totally used a pastry cutter (this thing) to break up the tomatoes a little more. I have no idea if this is an acceptable way to treat tomatoes. It’s usually how I break down fruit to make jam, so I figured it would work for tomatoes, too! It does the job.

After that’s done, add half the can of tomato paste, then the basil, oregano, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste. Here’s the scoop on tomato paste: it’ll help the sauce thicken faster. If you don’t have it/don’t like the way it tastes, your sauce will have to cook down for a much longer time to lose that fresh tomato taste and thicken up. I don’t mind the paste.

Simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, for 30-45 minutes until it has thickened up. You’ll know when it’s time.

You can also add ground beef, carrots, or celery to this sauce if you want. I would just add them at the beginning (before the tomatoes).

Serve over hot pasta with grated parmesan on top! The leftover sauce will freeze well. It’ll also keep in the fridge for a week or so.

 

 

Sierra Nevada 2012 “Beer Camp” Sampler

Thanks to the folks at Sierra Nevada, there is such a thing as Beer Camp. I didn’t even know that Beer Camp should be a thing. But it should. It so should. And it is. Every year, a lucky few spend several days at Sierra Nevada’s facilities in Chico, California, where they learn about the whole operation. Quoted from the Beer Camp website:

“Meet us in the morning as we open the gates to learn ins-and-outs of Sierra Nevada and see if you have what it takes to be a brewer. At the brewery, you will see, feel, and experience everything that Sierra Nevada has to offer. First you’ll get an in-depth tour of our facilities, including our brewhouse, hop and barley fields, cellars, and hop rooms. Then more fun: a tour on the brewery on our one of a kind, homemade 12-seater Bar Bike with stops on the bottling line and hop yard. Meet with the “mad beer scientists” in our Quality Assurance and packing laboratories to learn the science behind beer storage and chemistry.”

(You should go to their website to check out the artwork for this stuff, too. Unreal.)

Every year at Beer Camp, the newly educated campers design their own beer, which Sierra Nevada then makes. They have several beer camps every year, and they release a sampler pack of the products! Jason picked up this year’s sampler at Carrboro Beverage Company because the guy there said it had a decent IPA, and that’s generally our favorite.

As it turns out, the IPA is the least exciting one of the whole pack. Which does not mean it’s bad. It’s delicious. But the rest are remarkable. Are you a fan of sampler packs? We get a lot of them because Jason likes darker beers (even in summer), and I tend to like the hoppy ones best for summer. However, there’s almost always a weak link in a sampler pack. It’s pretty exciting to find one that’s as well rounded as the 2012 Beer Camp Sampler, but alas, it’s only temporary.

The Floral IPA: At 5.9 % ABV, it’s not a terribly alcoholic IPA, and you can tell. It’s also not aggressively hoppy. It has enough bite that you know it’s an IPA, but it’s light and floral–not at all sweet or citrusy, which is pretty expected from an IPA. It’s certainly understated, but in a good way. The hops hit you in the finish, and it leaves you with a light, summery aftertaste. It’s a great summer IPA.

The Oatmeal Stout: Holy cow. This stout made me long for cold winter nights and fires and gloves. It’s almost buttery it’s so rich and velvety. It’s a dark (almost black) chocolate color, and it smells and tastes strongly of both coffee and chocolate. My favorite part is that isn’t too malty like some stouts can be. It’s exceedingly well-balanced, and so velvety it begs to be dessert. It’s the most alcoholic of the bunch at a serious 9.0% APV.

The Imperial Pilsner: I’m not usually a huge fan of pilsners, but this one knocked my socks off. It’s super light and refreshing without being boring. It’s certainly hoppier than most pilsners, and it’s not sweet at all. It’s dry and crisp with a light malt flavor in the background. It’s an easy summertime brew at 5.6% ABV.

The Imperial Red Ale: This one is our favorite by far (which is saying a lot). It’s an amber ale, and it somehow manages to be both aggressively hoppy and very malty, but in perfect balance. I don’t think I’ve ever had an amber ale that did such a great job of that balance. Most of the time they are either more hoppy than malty, or they somehow fall short on both fronts. This one manages to hold its own on both counts. It’s a little sweet, because of the intense malty flavor, but it’s balanced by the hop choices–they’re dry and a little grapefruity. All that maltyness does bring it up to 8.1% ABV.

As far as finding this pack somewhere near you, try any small beer stores that sell specialty things or lots of craft brews. Definitely Carrboro Beverage if you’re close enough, and try something they have on tap while you’re there!

Pin-spiration Sunday (week 6)

Yesterday was one of those infrequent days in a North Carolina summer when it doesn’t break 85 degrees. It rained all day; not the humid kind of afternoon shower rain, the kind of rain that settles in for a full day, bringing cool temperatures and mist. It made me dream of fall. I love fall. The first time the weather is clear and crisp, maybe in the low 70s, I get excited the way a little kid does. It makes me want to play hookey and spend the day outside, reveling in the first chill of autumn. By the time the leaves are turning and the pumpkins are getting orange, I’m basically beaming with excitement every day. Yet somewhere between January and August, I forget how that first cool day makes me feel. Yesterday reminded me. Since then, I’ve been in full swing fall anticipation. Today, I bring you some of the many things that I’ve seen lately that give me that first inkling of that jittery fall feeling.

1. The thing about these macaroons are the COLORS. Can you believe those? Aside from tasting delicious, they’re just beautiful!

2. I love layered necklaces. I have my eye on a few that this designer on ETSY makes. But how cute with the white shirt.

3. Is it weird that braided hair makes me think of fall? This picture especially. With that mustard-colored flower! I’m glad my hair is growing out.

4. Beet Ravioli. Need I say more?

5. I dream about layers like this. I especially love the stripes with the floral scarf. Also, I’m currently blazer-hunting.

6. Jewel tones are a big part of why that feeling, the jittery fall feeling, gets me. Fall is when deep, saturated colors like these happen in nature. They’re my favorite colors.

Okay, I officially can’t wait for sweaters, scarves, pumpkins and fresh school supplies. Swoon!

 

 

Book #5: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

Does a novella count as a book in this 50 books thing? I say if Carson McCullers wrote it, it should count. She could pack more into 55 pages than almost any other author I’ve ever read. Squarely placed in the Southern Grotesque, McCullers should be classified with the likes of Faulkner and O’Connor. Although perhaps less frequently read and appreciated, I’m smitten with McCullers.

When I was writing my Literature thesis at UNCA, my advisor suggested that I read this novella at least once a week. Looking back on my work within the tradition of the American grotesque, I totally should have read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. When Cousin Lyman comes trudging into the small, rural town in which the story is set, I smiled at his (and Miss Amelia’s) tangible grotesque-ness.

There are three main characters: Miss Amelia, Cousin Lyman, and Marvin Macy. Miss Amelia owns and lives in the only store in the small town, and she distills liquor in the swamp behind her home. She’s tall, gangly, and sinewy, with crossed eyes and a disregard for the traditional roles of a woman. She’s entirely self-sufficient; the whole town looks to her on the first cold day of the winter to see if she’s going to slaughter her pig. When she does, they all follow suit.

Cousin Lyman’s entrance into the town is absolutely an exemplary moment of the Southern Grotesque. Cousin Lyman is unnaturally short, hunchbacked, with a large head and shriveled limbs. I won’t quote the scene for you (because it’s better just to read it), but I know I’ll never forget the image of Cousin Lyman hulking down the road toward Miss Amelia’s house. In less than a page, McCullers is able to bring the reader into her imagined world completely. Surrounded by the lush humidity of a summer night in the Deep South, flooded with detail about the “lavender crepe circles” under Lyman’s eyes, the strange characters and events in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe become plausible, despite the obvious absurdity of the larger-than-life characters.

What I love about the grotesque is the literal interpretation of the character’s internal lives. Cousin Lyman’s hunchback is affixed clearly to his back to remind us that he carries emotional baggage and strife. The weather after Marvin Macy returns from prison turns unseasonably warm, causing everyone’s sausage to spoil. I think I like to imagine a world where an evil person would carry an aura of palpable danger. Where a woman with “long, sinewy fingers” would wear a “peculiar red dress that hung awkwardly around her knees” rather than her usual overalls when she felt insecure, a place where the smell emanating from the nearby swamp could correctly identify the mood of the day to come. Is it so crazy that I think the South is pretty close to that? I don’t think McCullers was exaggerating all that much. Like Flannery O’Connor said,

“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

The list so far:

1. In One Person by John Irving

2. Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

3. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

4. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

Book #4 Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

This book. Oh man, this book. If you don’t know, Gabrielle Hamilton is the head chef and owner at a New York City restaurant called Prune. Blood, Bones, and Butter is the story of “the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef.” I will warn you, before you pick up the book, I would plan some sort of trip to New York to eat at Prune because I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time staking out the menu online and I WANT TO GO TO THERE.

Anyway, about the book. I’m sure that Gabrielle Hamilton’s food is knock-your-socks-off good, but she is a writer. I mean, it’s undeniable. She has an incredible ability to reproduce the details of a scene that I can only guess at. Do you know how you feel when you’re with your family, doing things that your family does, when you feel totally at ease, and it’s almost like the air is thick with sentimentality? Does it have something to do with the way the lights twinkle? Or the particular smell of salt in the air? It’s almost impossible for me to put words to what it is that makes those moments come alive. Do you know what I mean? You can feel it, but asked to describe it, words don’t ever quite fit. This is not a problem for Gabrielle Hamilton. Seriously, in one paragraph, I feel like Hamilton’s mother could be my mother. She says:

“I remember the smell of sulphur every morning as she lit a match to warm the tip of her black wax pencil. She pinned her dark hair back into a tight, neat twist every morning and then spent the day in a good skirt, high heels, and an apron that I have never seen her without in forty years. She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled, olives, small birds we wold have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease” (pg. 7).

After that, I can feel the respect that Hamilton has for her mother, edged with a lingering bitterness. I can see Hamilton’s mother, wielding her oily wooden spoon, as if she were my own mother. That is a gift. The whole book is quietly honest; it’s a beautifully patchworked tale of how Gabrielle Hamilton became a chef.

If I had to recommend one book that I have read so far, it’s this one. It reminded me what’s so great about books, especially memoirs. I felt transported: Hamilton’s childhood home in rural Pennsylvania, the bar where she worked as a seventeen year old, the Italian home of her mother-in-law, and the tiny, hot kitchen of her own restaurant in New York. Buy it. Read it. Pay attention to those little things that make your world beautiful.

Pin-spiration Sunday & Fig Lemon Lavender Preserves

Today’s inspiration is Mona. She’s been my dog since I was nine. Although she might be the most difficult animal to care for in the whole world, she’s my favorite one. She’s ornery, mean, mostly deaf and blind, and she has to go outside at least 6 times a day. She takes Prozac. In her younger years, she ran away from home more times than I can count, she once swam across the Intercoastal Waterway and lived off of what she could forage for a week, and she survived both a coyote attack and an accidental baseball bat to the head. I have no idea why she ever made it to old age, it seems impossibly unlikely. But, here we are, almost fourteen years later, and she’s still the most adorable little creature I’ve ever laid eyes on. She’s intelligent, fiercely loyal, snuggly, and as hard-headed as ever. And I love her.

Mona came to visit with my mom yesterday. She napped while we made fig preserves. Just looking up from a steaming pot while my  mom chopped figs beside me to see Mona in her little bed made me smile. The way she curls up to nap makes me feel warm and happy from a place I can’t really identify. It’s somewhere between the pit of my stomach and the catch in the back of my throat that makes me feel a little like crying. When we had a moment’s lull, I would walk over and wake Mona up to be met with this happy face. The way she looks at me reminds me how completely and unconditionally she loves me, and that makes me feel like being a better person. Is that just crazy dog person talk? It probably is. But you dog people understand. There’s nothing in the world like seeing a look of pure adoration on your dog’s face.

Okay, figs? Let’s talk about those. I got hold of my figs from a guy in Pittsboro who has several trees and more figs than he can handle. I had about six pounds total, and we made all of it into preserves.

Oh my gosh, the combination of figs, lemon, and lavender… holy cow! You’re not going to believe it. I wish it was January right now so that I could crack open a jar of this stuff and just smell it. It feels like a dip in the ocean when the water is in the 70s it’s so summery. The lemons make it fresh, the lavender gives it some depth, and the small amount of sugar really helps the figs shine through.

And that’s it. Figs, lemon slices, sugar, and lavender. Cooked until your house smells like heaven and the preserves have thickened. Did I tell you that I recently got a Le Creuset pot? It’s beautiful, right?! I got at the Habitat store for so much less than a new one, I don’t even feel like it’s right to tell you how much I paid for it. I think it would just make you sad. Aside from the price tag, it’s white and doesn’t look like it has been used at all. I’m completely smitten, if you couldn’t tell.

Okay, okay, here’s the recipe:

3 pounds of fresh figs

1 lemon, sliced as thinly as you can manage, seeds removed

1 and 1/2 cups sugar (or 1/2 cup for every 1 pound of figs that you’re using)

1 teaspoon dried lavender blossoms

Wash and cut the figs into eighths, then put them into a large, heavy-bottomed (beautiful) pot with the sliced lemon, the sugar and, the lavender. Heat until simmering and stir consistently for about a half hour, or until thickened. You can tell it’s ready when the jam clings to the back of a metal spoon. Pour the hot jam into sterilized half-pint jars, wipe the edges, screw on the lids, and process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes.

Makes about 6 half-pint jars.

Remember, summer doesn’t last. It might seem like the oppressive heat and long days have no end in sight, but one day–not too long from now–you’ll wish for the heavy plop of a ripe fig in the palm of your hand. Hopefully, you’ll have something as delightful as this jam to remind you of the feeling.