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Archive for the ‘Coming home’ Category

I make everything from scratch, to avoid ingesting hormones, additives, and preservatives that I consdier pernicious, or at least whose beneficial or pernicious qualities are an open question. Dinners, desserts, soda, sauces and jams, breakfast cereal, trail mix, all sorts of bread. (Still haven’t made my own noodles, because I can’t seem to run out of the ones I have. I’ll get there Susy Morris, I swear.)

At almost 60, I’m a remnant of the last generation that routinely learned to cook at home. While I never stopped making dinner- the stews and soups and roasted chickens- I had largely abandoned baking, picking it back up a few years ago. I started with crackers, then scones, and moved on to pie (yes the crust too, thanks for asking).

It turns out to be like language– while I do rely on recipes, I found baking intuitive for the most part; call it “touch memory” from my childhood. Like smells, it turns out the texture of a proper pie crust, and the correct amount of cookie dough to scoop up, and the shape of a pita are learned skills that lurk in the interstices of your brain until you need them again.

But I didn’t trust myself with bread.

I’ve been through many recipes- the Browneyed Baker, and Mark Bittman and my favorite legacy cookbook. I’ve watched the complex terror that is America’s Test Kitchen’s minute description of how to fail at breadbaking. I followed every step to the letter. I asked my pro-baker buddy for tips. But it wouldn’t rise, and it didn’t look right, and the crumb was too loose or too dense.

The only expert I didn’t consult was that lizard brain of mine, which kept telling me that none of my breads felt right.

A month ago I went to a bread baking demonstration, expecting to find That One Weird Trick That Will Make Your Bread Turn Out Correctly Every Time!

And I did.

The presenter started throwing ingredients into a bowl– warm water, melted butter, yeast, sugar, coffee, salt. He dismissed experts and recipes– “two cups of liquid, some kind of shortening, yeast, flavoring like salt, 4-5 cups of flour. That’s bread. Any kind of bread– flat bread, loaf bread, fancy bread.” Now this sounded more like cooking, and less like that scary, scientific, chemical-reactions, cautiously weighed ingredients mystery that is baking. And I remembered baking bread with my mother; she used to have a cookbook out, but I seldom remember her looking at it. She would just make the bread, and tell me “this is what the dough should feel like when it’s ready to rise, and this is what it feels like when it’s ready to bake.” Here’s how it looks and here’s how it smells.

So I started making bread, instead of reading recipes. The first time I ignored the recipe, I forgot the shortening in a loaf bread. Bread without shortening gives you flat bread, like pita, so you can imagine how nice and dense that loaf was.

But it freed me from the tyranny of perfection– I made edible bread armed only with ingredients and my knowledge. So I made another loaf (and forgot to punch it down– this results in a bread “balloon” in case you’re wondering), but it looked and tasted like bread. I’m on my fifth loaf now, and third successful loaf. Easy, in fact, as pie turned out to be.

Standing at the counter kneeding bread feels not just like, hey, I’m going to have some delicious bread in a few hours. It feels like I’m Eve, or Miriam, or Mrs. Ingalls, or my mother, doing what women do, and have always done.

Making bread.

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High school reunions, homecoming, Veterans Day. A time to honor the past, and our lost ones.

***

Last week I (Alexandra), attended my high school reunion. Since it was a weekend for remembering, I finished the trip at the beautiful graveyard near the house where I grew up. Some people had many remembering them, but some were waiting for me to acknowledge with a pebble that the departed ones are worth remembering, even by strangers.

many

one***

I (Sincerely, Emily) am remembering my Dad. He would have been 83 this past week.

Dad

Dad

***

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Hometown

I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, back when suburbs were leafy and dense, with public transportation connecting them to downtown.

But my hometown is Urbana, Illinois, where I went to high school and college.

You can’t imagine two places more different. My Brooklyn-bred parents never acclimated and my mother eventually homed back on the city and moved to Chicago. My father is still there, but it’s never felt like a natural fit to me, despite the fact that he passes for a native, corn-fed wife and all. The landscape is flat. There are no rocks. Public transportation hits the edge of town, if you’re lucky, and turns back around like there’s a force field preventing you leaving.

Eventually, of course, most everyone leaves. The diaspora from my high school graduating class stretches from Chicago to Texas to Manhattan to California to Tasmania. I left with a man, homing in on Chicago, his hometown. And now, I suppose, more than 30 years later, I’m a Chicagoan.

Growing up in a college town comes with a strange dissonance, because millions of people your age also “gorw up” there, so that having conversations with people about your hometown often ends with “oh yeah, I lived there. That’s where I went to school.” They think they know Urbana, but they don’t remember when there was a movie theater in downtown Urbana, assuming they can even find downtown Urbana. They don’t remember when the Courier Cafe was actually a newspaper office, complete with printing presses, which was my secret source of giant endrolls of newsprint. I used to bring it to the art department when everyone else was buying it at the art supply store. Because I was from Urbana and knew where to go. Even those of us who stayed home to go to college think of ourselves as “town” not “gown”.

As has happened with high school classes across America, mine reconnected several years ago via Facebook. So many years after graduation, you find that the petty issues of high school are gone. The cheerleader and the freak are friends. The freak discovers that the cheerleader was probably a cheerleader because she’s so damn friendly and nice, and the cheerleader discovers the freak was a freak because she’s so quirky and creative. And everyone discovers this bond that is the hometown. “I know what you know” is a powerful glue.

I homed in on home this week, because the man that I left here with, 30+ years ago, left our home today.  I couldn’t bear to be there to watch him strip away half my life so that he could start a new one. And as I drove down I57, through the cornfields, past the familiar towns, and turned onto Lincoln Avenue I realized that you carry your hometown with you, and no one can take that away.

There really is no place like home.

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When my daughter Nga was 15 we went to Dexter, Michigan and found the house I lived in when I was 3. I took the picture below in an attempt to recreate the photo of me that is sitting (or was sitting) on my father’s desk for as long as I can remember.N at Dexter House

The photos were taken at approximately the same place along the road. A lot changes in 40 years.
Road to DexterHouse
Dexter House had been an antebellum mansion outside Ann Arbor in the small town of Dexter; it was divided into university housing for nearby U of Michigan and had supposedly been a stop on the underground railroad.

I have known this fact my entire life although I don’t remember when I first heard it. I think it must have been when we lived there, and that my mother explained what that meant.

I doubt I understood the concept of slavery, or escape, or race for that matter. I know that when I was in 3rd grade I did not understand what “colored people” were (that was the term used then). I know this because I can remember my friend Dodo (yes, Dodo, short for Dorothy) talking about someone’s “colored” gardener and the image that invoked of a person with skin like a book’s endpage– a swirling kaleidoscope of color.

This is not so much a beautiful evocation of the natural tolerance of children as of the rigid segregation in which we lived, inasmuch as I never ever encountered people of other races. I can remember vividly in fact, because it was so rare, the few non-whites I met growing up. The housekeeper at my school, the Hindu girl in fourth grade (also the only handicapped child I encountered), the three black girls at Haverford Junior High.

My kids knew from a very young age that there were different races, but they didn’t exactly understand what that meant. They knew their father wasn’t white, but since Asian people are essentially invisible in our society, and you never really encounter the terminology, they used to tell people that their dad was black, which people found very confusing. When Nga was about 6 she asked me one day, in her high piping voice, why we were the only white people on the train we riding. Everyone on the train laughed, especially since Nga is not, in fact, white.

I believe I told her that it was smart people who ride the train, and has nothing to do with the color of your skin.

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Landscape

Some things in life are guaranteed: the sun will rise in the east, corn will grow in Illinois, and there will be construction on I57 at Kankakee.

From the wide sky over Lake Michigan, waves rolling into the shore; the sight is worth the sand blowing tiny stings into my bare skin as I cross the beach. The aftermath of storm has left a rare rip tide. I ride it out of town.

I miss the prairie.

Another wide sky, with nothing to block it except the occasional wind farm coming over the horizon. Unlike the lake’s wide sky, this one fills the pirouette– no wall of highrises behind me. An inch of landscape and a mile high sky, all the way around.

As I roll down the highway in the early bright morning, my eyes and my heart are full with my love for this landscape.

In keeping with the  farmland solitude, the college town that is my destination is in that deep breath before the storm: the waiting period between summer and fall, before the cityites and suburbanites descend with their noisy, store-bought culture, forcing the eye back to ground level.

You can keep your mountains, and rolling blue hills, the picturesque, the monumental, and the grand. This land speaks to me,  fills my soul and completes the circuits in my brain in a way that I can’t describe. Why do I forget this in the city, where I pretend to be like city folk, louche and sophisticated. Is anyone fooled?

I dream of returning to a place with a horizon, with the endless prairie sky, uninterrupted- no mountain, no valley, scaled by the gods.

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