Is It You or The Recipe?

Dear Readers,

I love this manic little chef from Woman's Favorite Cook Book (1902)

I love this manic little chef from Woman's Favorite Cook Book (1902)

You may have heard it said that to become a good cook, you need to cook a lot.  As in, every day.  "Practice makes perfect," these culinary sages say.

Well, I am here to tell you: cooking every day doth not a Julia Child make. After about a decade of daily cooking, I continue to have recipes that stubbornly refuse to cooperate, baked goods that turn out like stone, and listless concoctions that only a man who really loves me would ever even try to eat for dinner.  And all that despite having a head start, with oodles of delicious family recipes handed down from grandmothers on both sides of the family who were darn good cooks.

I liken mastering cooking to mastering the fine art of playing piano.  They share several deeply frustrating similarities (and yes, I took piano lessons for many years, only to realize I would simply never become anything more than a somewhat mediocre pianist).  First, if you don't love cooking (and eating), preparing food will always feel like a chore.  Much of my childhood was spent unwillingly chained to the piano (figuratively, of course!) practicing scales and dying of boredom.  I liked the piano, I just didn't love it, which made all the difference...although several well-meaning teachers probably developed early gray hairs (thanks to me) in their attempts to inspire me to musical greatness.  The same is true with cooking: it can often be very monotonous even if you DO love it (dirty dishes, I'm looking at you). 

Next, reading the music (so to speak) can be very tricky.  You listen to someone very talented effortlessly play that gorgeous Liebestraum by Liszt, for example, and think, "I could do that!  Anyone could do that!"  Ha.  One look at the score's tricky key changes, arpeggiations, and cadenzas will fix that.  And don't even get me started on Chopin. Same goes for recipes of all sorts, even deceptively "easy" ones (I always view any recipe described as "easy" with deep suspicion).  You can look at stunning food photography all day long or watch beautiful videos of a recipe being prepared; sadly this does not guarantee that you will be able to get the same results out of the same recipe. As a beginning cook, it can even be difficult to tell the difference between a "good" recipe (i.e., one that suits your taste, budget, and ability) and a "bad" recipe (such as one that is way too hard to make, has heinously expensive ingredients, and isn't a dish you like to eat, after all). 

Finally, all musicians, like all foodies, have their own quirky tastes and preferences. When giving a musical performance this is usually not a problem, as those who detest Chopin will typically not be found voluntarily attending a Chopin concert.  So if you love playing Chopin and end up giving a concert performance, chances are your audience will adore you and present you with a huge bouquet of roses.  

Giving a culinary performance, whether you are throwing a party or cooking a family dinner, however, presents a truly scary scenario. It is nearly impossible to cook and serve a dish (or two or three) that everyone at your dinner table can agree is, and I quote, "good."  (Actually, anything with chocolate is exempt from that rule). What's more, there are so many dietary restrictions these days, many of them quite necessary for your diners' survival through the meal and beyond, that you may find yourself in tears just trying to plan a menu. The magic solution to this, which every hostess these days seems to have adopted out of sheer frustration, is "BYOFB" (Bring Your Own Food & Beverages), or a potluck held in someone's home. (I bashed this entertainment style--can you call it entertaining?--in a post last year.)  Perhaps the resulting smorgasbord gives everyone indigestion afterwards, and leaves them peckish and hungover...but at least there was something for everyone.  

If, despite all odds, you persevere and cook something for your fickle guests, brava. Just don't have a nervous breakdown if your diners sit there picking at their beet salads instead of throwing roses.  Or complain about the onions.  Or ask for something that suits their dietary restrictions (although it's a good idea to be proactive and ask your guests up-front about this, when you issue the invitations).  All cooks need deeply appreciative eaters, and when you find a good 'un, invite him or her back. Often.  

Yours Truly,

Sarah

 

 

 

 

 

 

April (Kawoni/ᎫᏬᏂ), "Month of the Flower Moon"

Signs of spring: buttercups blooming in the Virginia Tidewater

Signs of spring: buttercups blooming in the Virginia Tidewater

Dear Readers,

April in Cherokee is "The Month of the Flower Moon." The actual word for this month, "Kawoni," can mean either flower or duck in Cherokee, depending on the context in which it is used.  The syllabary version of the word April is ᎫᏬᏂ.  

You may recall that I experienced some confusion over the terms used for the Cherokee months of the year in my March blog post on that topic.  One of the reasons for this, come to find out, is that the Cherokee did not originally use the Gregorian calendar (12-month) that we use today, as they had no contact with Europeans until c. 1540.  Instead, they operated off a lunar-based system, naming their months after each full moon that occurred in the 29-day lunar cycle. Additionally, their calendar incorporated a 13th month (called "The Month of the Blue Moon") to make up for any discrepancies (in this case, all those extra days that eventually added up while following the 29-day lunar cycle all year: if you do the math, 365 divided by 29 equals 12.6, meaning that eventually you'd need a 13th month in there ocassionally).  This 13th "catch-up" month was only necessary every two to three years, and was observed with great ceremony.  According to one resource I found online, a Cherokee tribal elder is credited with this statement, saying that the 13th month:

…is a time of letting go of anything we might have against someone. That means we check ourselves. You might say the 13th month would be a time when we harvest our experiences and see what we need to let go of. It is probably the most important holiday in our year. It is a day of propitiation, a return to harmony.

You can read more about the phenomenon of the "Blue Moon" (from whence originates that popular catchphrase, "once in a blue moon") here.  

Anyway, April was traditionally a time of celebrating the renewal of life and the coming of spring.  According to one source I found online, the Cherokee would celebrate the advent of the new season with a dance called the "Knee-Deep (Spring Frog) Dance."  This dance, along with hundreds of others, is beautifully described by the brilliant anthropologist Frank G. Speck, who began working on his now out-of-print book Cherokee Dance and Drama in 1913.  He studied the Eastern Cherokee and other Native American tribes for many years, and his fascinating work on the Cherokee was published posthumously in 1951.  

Mr. Speck described the "Knee-Deep (Spring Frog) Dance" thus:

tu’stu [is] onomatopoetic for [the] voice of the diminutive tree frog, or spring peeper.

Two parallel lines of men and women circle counterclockwise in a slow, shuffling step. Each line has a singing leader, one of whom uses a gourd rattle after singing two songs; he is followed by a woman partner with turtle leg-rattles. At one side is a drummer, who does not sing, but all the dancers participate in the singing...The dance is popular for relaxation and sociability, and women are especially invited to participate.
— Frank G. Speck, Cherokee Dance and Drama

If you've never heard the sing-song voices of these little tree frogs, native to much of the Eastern half of the United States, click here to listen to a recording.  Here in the Virginia Tidewater, they are a cheerfully deafening chorus that welcomes April in with a flourish, come evenings in springtime.

Yours Truly,

Sarah

Baking With Sprouted Grains

Dear Readers,

I recently started baking with this sprouted whole wheat flour from One Degree.  It's my first foray into sprouted flours, and so far, I'm a fan.  

Basically, One Degree is producing their flour in a way that mimics (as closely as possible, with modern agriculture) the way grain was grown and harvested for centuries.  

Prior to industrialized agriculture, wheat was harvested by hand with a scythe (see: the Grim Reaper), and then stood up in the fields in bundles (called "shocks" or "stooks") to dry before the threshing process began. At this point, the grains would often start to sprout, making the wheat more digestible.  After the grain had dried, the process of hand-threshing began: it was a laborious task where the wheat berries were separated from the chaff (the inedible parts of the wheat plant).  If you're familiar with the stories of the Bible, look no further than the Book of Ruth for a lovely romance that takes place around an ancient wheat harvest.

Today, less-romantically, conventional wheat is often sprayed with a probable carcinogen, glyphosate, prior to harvesting, in an effort to dry out the grain in the fields (also called "desiccation") so the wheat will be dry enough to harvest. Glyphosate is icky stuff: please click here to read a very detailed report from November 2016 covering the pesticide.  Regardless of the known or potential side-effects of glyphosate, it's just unappetizing to think about eating food sprayed with pesticides, no matter what they are (or what they could potentially do to your body).  

Sprouting wheat after harvesting is about the closest most of us will ever get to the nutritious wheat grown and harvested according to the traditions of the past.  One Degree's flour packaging states,

Once harvest is done, we sprout our grains, triggering an explosion of taste and increasing vital nutrients. We retain 100% of the grain’s bran and germ, and preserve nutrients by keeping temperatures low when processing our raw flour.

You can also buy organic wheat berries and sprout them yourself, and then grind the wheat berries once you've dried them in a dehydrator.  It's a bit time-consuming, as you can imagine, but definitely something worth looking into if you're a purist and want to control the whole flour-making process from start to finish.  

My experience with sprouted wheat flour is that it is even denser than most organic whole wheat flours, so you have to compensate by allowing for longer rising, or the results can be a bit brick-like.  This particular variety from One Degree has a pleasant, nutty taste and turns out delicious results when used to bake my Honey Whole Wheat Bread.

Yours Truly,

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Sarah