Pop.

I have never been the biggest fan of popcorn.  I have never disliked it, but it’s not one of those things I usually crave, or give much thought to.  Movie-going has never been a popcorn-mandatory thing for me, and those big metal tins of popcorn my mother would produce for us at holidays were… not bad.  But also not something I particularly looked forward to.

Learning to pop corn on the stove top shifted things a little for me.  I now had control of my popcorn.  If I wanted to pop it up extra spicy, spicy enough to make bring tears to my neighbors’ eyes, well, then, I could do that.  If I wanted to use sunflower oil or coconut oil, I had a choice.  But best of all, my little video game completionist self rejoiced in almost no unpopped kernels.

I’d made comments about how much better stove popped was over microwave a few years ago (asshole), and got a stinging verbal rebuke from friends about being elitist for dismissing microwave popcorn, saying that we can’t all trade convenience for taste that way, that it was a luxury to have the time to sit at stove and pop popcorn.

But microwave popcorn is not convenient.  You have to babysit it through the whole popping process (either method takes about the same amount of time), or end up with scorched popcorn.  That still hasn’t all popped.  And maybe you even accidentally lit the microwave on fire because you scorched it so badly (oops).  And yes, while there’s a taste factor involved (the major brands taste like plastic to me; I don’t know what they put in the “butter,” but it clings to the back of my throat like melted cellophane) the fact that I was too broke to afford a microwave was a bigger player in my decision to learn to make it on the range.

A few nights ago, my boyfriend purchased a box of microwave popcorn by accident when he ran to the store.  “Popcorn kernels” was the item on the list.  It didn’t occur to me that it could be interpreted as anything other than a jar of just the kernels, or perhaps that maybe popcorn just looks like popcorn sitting on the shelf.  Foolish human, I.  No one has the same mental image for things.  So, a box of three microwavable bags came home.  Some plain stuff, just palm oil, popcorn kernels, and salt.  We both tend to keep stuff simple.

I dithered and whined.  I may have even grumped a little (dear self: you’re a jerk).  But mostly I was anxious about using a microwave to pop them.  To the point where I cut open a bag, put a little oil in a pan, and used my tried and true stove top method: drop in 5-6 kernels, turn up the heat, let ’em pop, cool the pot for a 30 count to ensure even heat, then pour the rest in, fire the burner back up, and you have popcorn about a minute and a half later.  These?  They just burned.  Scorched to the bottom of the pan.

I tried the next bag in a microwave.  I hunched close the entire time, worried after an explosion… or at least a fire.  Or smoke billowing from the microwave and the fire alarm going off at 2am.  None of these happened.  But a good chunk of the bag didn’t pop.  ARGH!

“The things people will put up with for convenience,” smirked my boyfriend.

As we ate our bowlful, we speculated about what happened.  Did the palm oil have an effect?  Lower quality kernels?  We both groused about the unpopped bits, and I mentioned the past rebuke.

“Well, cooking popcorn on the stove takes more skill.  Microwave popcorn I know I can do, but I wouldn’t know where to start with the other,” he said.

“I could show you, though.  It’s so dead simple.” I had not quite recovered from my bout of nuker-anxiety.

“That’s not the point,” he said. “It’s simple for you because you know your way around a kitchen.”

I admitted that you had to know enough to use a high-heat oil, an not something like butter to pop your corn.

“See?”

“But it’s not like using a microwave takes no skill at all…” and I admitted to lighting my mother’s microwave on fire with an ill-fated bag of Pop Secret.  I didn’t mention the exploding microwave brownie kit.  The reheated spaghetti sauce hardened into a crispy crust.  The great butter fireworks of 2015. The Peep fire of 2008.  And then all the times I heated up food and forgot about it as I wandered off to do anything else.  I have a shit time with microwaves.

It takes skill to use either method.  One is not zero effort and the other effort-full.  We just lean on the more familiar set of skills.  Using a microwave to good effect is a skill.  It’s not one I’ve developed, since I’ve not always had one, and I’ve made disasters of more than one in my day.  Nothing hobbles the gaining of a skill faster than fear.

I’m handy with from-scratch stuff.  The chemistry of food makes sense to me.  I like how it forces me to be present, and I like the money I can save by doing away with “convenience” foods (it’s a lot of money saved!).  It’s a hobby as well as a means to feed myself.  It’s also not a skill everyone possesses.

I am going to stove pop my popcorn because I am broke and cheap.  I can make it fancy without spending extra money.  I am going to do this because it’s what I know the best, and it’s what I feel at ease with.  I won’t judge you for your microwave popcorn.  But if you value your microwave, please don’t ask me to make it for you.

 

 

Unexpected Friends

When I was little in New England, I had a clear sense that you could live off the land.  As a result, I knew the location and season for a number of interesting wild plants.  I could track down wild blueberries, knew where all the blackberry brambles were, had at least theoretical knowledge of how to blanch acorns, and then there were the wild onions: spicy little pearls announced by curled green tubes.  When I came home from school hungry one spring only to find the door locked, my sister may have cried, but I ate wild onions.

I never gardened up north.  Or, I never grew anything besides a child’s first flowers, the giant yellow disk of sunflowers, taller than my mother (who was tallest being in my small universe outside of my father).  I never learned the northern gardener’s curious habit of putting plants in these “cold frame” things.  Frost kill orange trees, yes, but we grow oranges outside here, and most years there is no frost.  Summer is a heat blight.  Start only basil, and watch the okra and sweet potatoes you planted in May do their thing. 

The idea of eating wild plants in Florida, then, seemed strange.  On one level, I knew it was not only possible but that for thousands of years, people had been doing just that, as well as cultivating plants, and using coastal resources.  On another level, it just didn’t stick.  I knew the plants up north.  New England was my backyard, and if you turned me loose among the stitched hills and granite outcroppings, I’d be thinner by the time you caught up with me, yes, but I’d be fed on something at least.

Now, picture this: a shady Tallahassee yard, tomatoes in buckets, unable to set fruit because there just isn’t enough light, and one girl, driven mad by the fact that she can’t seem to find anywhere to set her plants so that they happily photosynthesize.  Enter http://www.fallingfruit.org.  In Fort Lauderdale, I was already a mango thief, scouting abandoned trees or ones that overhung the road.  Why should I change my fruit thieving ways just because I’d skipped town?

I went with my boyfriend on an epic quest for figs, marked clearly on the map, and hitting the midpoint of their season.  I found none.  Or rather, I am fairly certain I found the plants talked about, but they weren’t figs.  They were some kind of stone fruit, fig-like in shape, but they did not smell in the least edible, oozing a white rubbery sap from the fruit itself.  Disappointed, my eyes were cast down.  My mosquito-bitten love did likewise.  It wasn’t long before I heard him call out, a little behind me, “Hey!  These are chanterelles!”

Sure enough, fringed orange fungi poked their damp and gill-less heads from among the tree roots.  And then it struck like lightning: I can feed myself from the woods.  We picked as much as the basket would hold, and carried our find home for dinner.  Turns out the boy-creature is no fan of mushrooms, but I found them rich and satisfying.

After that. I took up my research tools, looking for more plants I could identify and eat.  I stumbled on an old friend: the wild onion.  They grow here.  They grow all over North Florida.  I hadn’t seen them in Sarasota or Miami because that’s too far south, but here?  Here they grow!

Now all that remains is finding them…

Comfort Food

There are few foods I liked as child that I still like today. That’s why the concept of comfort food is a bit strange to me. I can list almost everything that childhood me enjoyed: hot dogs with mustard, chicken, black olives, mac and cheese, Rice Krispies, chocolate milk, lobster legs, potato pancakes, and orange sherbet. Only in my childhood lexicon it was “sherbert,” rather like “spaghetti” was “basghetti.” I used to also like the presentation called “Cubic Scoops,” with the orange “sherbert” and vanilla ice cream stacked in blocks, and we’d go purchase it at Almacs instead of Ro-Jacks, for some reason.

And this list? Comprehensive. I’m not quite certain how I survived into adulthood with a diet like that, but I did. My palate has broadened since then.

There are very few of these foods I eat today. Foods that comfort me now are things like eel maki with a bowl of miso soup, or sautéed Brussels spouts with garlic and salt, or lamb served with peppers and olives and feta. They make me feel warm and cared for, exactly the thing one needs when one is sick or sad or hurting. Most of the foods of my childhood… just remind me of my childhood, which involved a lot of yelling, and the food, a lot of preservatives.

But I haven’t my own kitchen to experiment in, these days. Making these foods is involved. So instead, last night, I walked to the grocery. In the frozen section, I scanned the ice cream offerings, following my sweet tooth. That tooth, while still something to contend with, has shrunk of late. But there they were, isolated in the corner: the sherbets. I picked up the orange. Blue Bell, in a round plastic tub, not a box. That was okay.

I walked back to the house, lost in music and melancholy, and when I arrived, served myself of the melty mass. One taste. One taste and it was summer in New England. Milk and orange and cicadas. Milk and orange and Catwings at the Norton library, in the basement children’s section of the old building. Milk and orange and turtles in buckets caught by neighborhood kids down by the river, my dog with them, dripping with pond slime, her odd eyes laughing. So what did I do? Cry, of course. I always cry. I didn’t know a taste could capture all the escapes I had known as a kid.

But it wasn’t a comfort.

A Vast Gardenscape

My grandmother, Muriel, was a hard-edged, depression-era woman.  She reused the tinfoil from her lunch wrappings.  It is because of her that I am loathe to waste food, cloth, wood, anything.  It is because of her that when I see large yards filled with nothing but lawn, I cringe.

Do you know what it takes to maintain a lawn?  How many gallons of gasoline per year to keep that grass short clipped?  How much extra water it takes to keep green plants that don’t belong growing in Florida’s climate?  How many types of pesticides to keep at bay the white grubs, the fire ants (damned invaders), the beneficial creatures that no one loves, the wasps and bees and spiders?  It breaks my heart.

What would it look like if every yard were filled instead with native palms and slash pines, with live oaks or sand oaks or laurel?  What would it look like if everyone grew plants that belonged here or edible ones, no lawns for miles, but instead tomatoes and okra and arrowhead and cocoplums?  What if we had neighborhood mills for all those acorns, to blanch and grind into flour?  What if we ate from our yards, even in cities?

So much waste.  I can only hold so many plants on my balcony, wanting to grow hedges of pomegranate,  but only able to keep kitchen herbs.  My tiny pots are at least an inroad.  I will attempt to transform what little space I have into a hanging garden.  I will attempt to keep our bellies full.  I will attempt to gift my growings to others, who likewise see the potential of unwasted space.

Lit Bit: Sex Doesn’t Even Rate

We give so much credence to sex.  Sex and love, sure. We want these things, ache for these things, sometimes.  But the real stuff of humanity, the glue that holds us all together, is food and stories. 

We make community in the kitchen cooking meals, swapping jokes, unwinding our days like a skein of yarn.  Our threads tangle us all together as we take dinner, refabricating moments lived and weaving lovely lies for each other’s entertainment. 

And sure, many of the stories are about sex.  Or romantic love.  And we compare good food to orgasms.  But the bread that sustains us is this kneading of our fractured days into a narrative arc. The meat of our daily rituals consists of the social taking of food, so that we may converse, so we may tell tales.

We are the stories that we eat.

A Time for Harvest, Thank the Bees

A little more than sixty days out, and the okra is ready to come in. Pale flowers, buttermilk and raisins, greet me each day as I go out to water. The pods follow, longer than my fingers. I follow the pods, basket and garden scissors in hand.

I garden to get out of my head. Strange though it may sound, but with my knees in the dirt, I’m finally firmly planted in the real world. It’s the world of food, greens, sun and bugs. You can talk about your responsibility, your money, your debt, but it doesn’t get much realer than the food chain. Healthy dirt is healthy people, and we are sorely lacking.

I amend the soil in my garden: compost mostly, clippings here and there, kitchen waste, and sometimes a little manure. I watch for bees: they’ve been absent, save a few bumble bees, who give me hope. Wild honey bees are almost gone in North America, not that they were native, but neither are many of our food crops which depend on them for pollination. Colony collapse is serious business. I belong to the disease camp of theorists. The bee business is mercenary, hives sold from around the world regardless of pests, parasites, and illnesses, and we wonder why there are so many infestations of virus-laden mites. We feed our bees on monocultures, and shrug when their immunities go down. We over-winter them on corn syrup and soy and marvel when they die.

Corn syrup and soy: American bees eat like American people. Tell me, what’s wrong with this picture? If we find the foods we eat to be empty of real nutrition, why are we feeding them to the most precious link in our agricultural chain? The prospect frightens me. Forget cell phone towers– malnutrition paired with the global exchange of bee parasites and illnesses, is it any wonder adult bees abandon ship and die alone leaving only disease-ridden larvae to rot in the hive?

Nervously, I consider apiaries myself, but fear the pesticides in my neighbor’s picture-perfect yard. I peruse my plantings now in flower, all that okra, my pumpkins, and the sunflowers. I see a bee. She gives me hope.