It’s been almost a year since my last post. I have been writing, but not here. If you’d like to follow my continuing adventures, you’ll find me at victoriaraschke.com.
I love food. I mean that’s pretty obvious even if you’ve never met me or seen me in person. If you read this blog you know that. No one who doesn’t love food starts a food blog or goes to culinary school (or at least they shouldn’t, especially on the second thing). I’m sure there are psychological reasons why some people become “foodies” and some people don’t. There have always been people who live to eat and those who eat to live. If some Freudian wanted to root around in my childhood and adolescence, I’m sure they’d find all kinds of reasons why I am what I am. I’ve already disclosed that I was anorexic in high school. I think that set up a lifetime of disordered eating that I still wrestle with occasionally. When you have disordered eating there is a tendency to assign some moral value to what you eat and therefore yourself based on what you eat.
Hell, I don’t think you even have to have an official diagnosis of disordered eating to assign a moral value to food. How often do you hear people talk about food as sinful or naughty? People “cheat” on their diets. There are probably 10000 blogs and Pinterest boards dedicated to “clean” eating. As opposed to what? Dirty eating. And what does that look like? In my mind it looks like a one year old face deep in chocolate birthday cake. And that looks like fun. But I’m pretty sure they mean something closer to shame eating that chocolate cake, crying and standing over the sink.
I can’t say that I don’t still assign some moral value to what I buy and cook and eat for myself and my family. I try really hard to source most of what we consume locally and organic as much as possible. If it’s not a moral value, it’s an ethical one, but I seem to have an easier time with that. I apply the don’t be an asshole rule when eating with others – I’m not going to turn my nose up at something that someone else lovingly prepared for me because it doesn’t fit my worldview, unless it will make me sick, like raw bananas.
While I was assigning all this moral and ethical value to my food, I was also assigning it to myself. I genuinely felt like I was a bad person because I had a piece of cake. Let me tell you, gentle readers, that way lies madness and binge eating and laying in bed night after night cataloging my eating sins of the day and how I would pay for it the next day. One who wishes to function well as a human being doing adult life things should not sacrifice sleep for mental hair shirting. And for the most part I don’t anymore. Some expensive therapy (which I probably should have done WAY sooner), lots of reading on why people (especially women, but everyone) have screwed up relationships with food, and the insights of a host of bloggers who run the gamut from people pulling themselves out of that pit of despair themselves to professional nutritionists and psychologists have been invaluable to not spending my nights figuring how many naked spinach days I have to endure for a slice of wedding cake. It’s so much nicer.
Am I completely “cured.” Um, no. I think it’s its own wagon, this journey. Occasionally I will have a really bad day and find myself swearing to fast to go to some event or beating myself up because I haven’t eaten enough different colored vegetables for the week. Mostly though I strive to eat a varied diet that includes whole foods and not so much processed stuff. When things are bad and I am whipping myself into a moral panic over chocolate chip cookies, I think about Michael Pollan’s food rule: “Eat food. A little less. Mostly plants.” It’s pretty simple and keeps me on track. And I try to move my body around, nothing gym goddess worthy, but a walk or some yoga, or a solo pants-off dance-off in my kitchen to some Shakira. And honestly, there’s no shame in that. I no longer believe in guilty pleasures. If you like something, like the hell out of it. If you are going to eat the chocolate cake or peanut butter cup ice cream, enjoy it. Savor every bite. Make sex noises. Whatever.
And then I realized what that all mean. There are no guilty pleasures. If you love something really love it. That means me, too. If I’m going to like me, I’m going to love me, cellulite, jiggly bits, a few wrinkles and gray hairs, everything. I’m not a lab frog. I don’t get to dissect what I don’t like and cut it away. Boy. That’s a tall order for a woman who’s spent let’s say age 9 to age 40 wanting to change everything about herself (except my nose and eyes, I’ve always liked those funnily enough). So I’m three years in to this food’s cool, I’m cool journey. Falling off the wagon hurts like a dammit but I get back on. I have too much other shit to do in this life to waste it preoccupied with the fact that my thighs touch. Actually they pretty much make out with each other all damn day and I’m cool with it. Mostly.
I don’t think I’d quite realized it, but I spent almost twelve years figuring out who I am as a cook, professionally and now more not, in Nashville. What I eat, what I make, what I’ve taught others to make is largely predicated on where I’ve lived for the last decade plus with an underpinning of family tradition and my travels. I think everyone’s on board with the idea of regional cooking but inside regional cooking are smaller pockets of local foodsheds influenced by the terrain, the tradition, the farmers & artisans, and the incomers.
Nashville and Knoxville are just far enough distant from each other and the terrain is just enough different that the foodsheds, though sharing the generalities of regional southern cooking, have some striking differences. Hot chicken is not really a big thing in Knoxville. (Well, it is kind of a trending thing everywhere at the moment.) The downtown, main farmers markets are very different. Not just physically but in the array and expanse of what is on offer. I haven’t quite learned all the who’s who at the Knoxville market but two weeks in, we’ve found a few vendors where I think we’ll always stop to see what they have.
Today I discovered a new locally grown grape I’ve never had before. It’s called Marquis. It’s small, pale green, and perfectly round. It pops in your mouth like a muscadine but is incredibly sweet and the skin doesn’t have the leatheriness that muscadines can have. We bought apples and cucumbers from the same farm last week and more apples and the grapes this week. We’ve switched from the Hatcher milk we preferred in Nashville to Cruze Farm milk here. They make an excellent coffee milk but I was disappointed that the whole milk is homogenized. I know it’s weird that I actually like having to shake up the milk before I pour it into my coffee. I’ll get used to the change.
There are restaurants that I am going to miss (and probably take every opportunity to eat at when we visit Nashville). Keifel and I have had so many breakfast dates at Marché in East Nashville that we always get seated at the same table. But there’re also our favorite Thai and Vietnamese and sushi and fancy places for anniversary and birthday dinners. We’ll find ones we like here, too. It took awhile in Nashville and it’ll take some time here as well. I’m on the hunt for “my” coffeehouse. Somewhere with excellent coffee, a little bit of food, and ample space to read, take notes, or write when I need to get out of the quiet of my office at home and require the low drone of human activity in a coffeeshop to be productive. I tried K Brew in North Knox. Excellent coffee but tiny space with limited options for camping out for a couple hours. Knoxville isn’t quite as littered with Starbucks as Nashville but they’re here and that is decidedly not what I’m looking for. I’ll find it, but I’m happy to take suggestions.
We’re having a friend over for dinner tonight and my brother and his family are coming for waffles in the morning. Tonight I’m making a version of Moroccan chicken that I’ve been making since I lived in Knoxville the last time and waffles, well they are waffles. What I cook won’t change immediately or completely. But I am looking forward to finding what’s new to me here and how that will push, change, and help me grow as a cook. Now, if I can figure out the cooking for only two people thing…
You’d think as often as we have moved, now officially once a year for the last three years, I would be so pro at it that I could crack a whip and the plates and books would wrap themselves and hop into a box. You’d also think that it wouldn’t wear me out. You’d be wrong. This move, more than the last two, has really taken it out of me. We did move to a different city, not just across town, but I think it’s more than that.
I’ve been on a downsizing, minimalist kick for a few years. I’ve written about it here and mentioned it in umpteen Facebook posts, but I felt it in my bones this time. At one point just a day or two before the movers arrived to pack the U-Haul truck, I really wondered what it would be like to set everything out on the lawn and let whoever was willing to haul it off have it. The though of having to take a suitcase full of things, and nothing more, seemed like the most freeing thing in the world. I also thought of all the money, all the actual work hours, represented by everything I wrapped to move or placed in the donate box. Why had I purchased this thing I no longer needed or wanted? Why had I hauled it through how many other moves to just now discard it?
The other thing that floated through my mind was the prospect of what the next move might look like (yes, that was probably borrowing trouble). Keifel and I really want to live overseas for awhile. It’s a long term goal but I did think about what moving again would look like if our next move was to Europe. The things I would take would only be those things we could not replace once we landed: family treasures, photos, unique items we love, and some artwork (and that cats, of course). What would it feel like to sell everything? I can tell you the thought of it was completely thrilling. It isn’t a completely abstract thought for either of us. Keifel spent four years traveling and working and living out of suitcase, often buying clothes when he landed and donating them when he left for a different climate. I spent a year and change in Slovenia in college. I left with a backpack of everything I thought I would need for a year and acquired a few things there and had a few additional things shipped from home but it was just so much less stuff to clean, to keep up with, to worry about.
And now with all of this, I can’t help but wonder, how much could I get rid of now? How little could we comfortably live with?
#fff is a writing prompt adventure lead by Elisha Bartels. Read more here: urbanfolktales.blogspot.com
So the characters I created for the last #fff won’t leave me alone and I don’t know enough about them to write a whole long tale. I’ve decided to use Elisha’s triggers to see where these characters take me and who else they introduce me to along the way.
More about Flash Fiction Fridays: http://www.urbanfolktales.blogspot.com
My heart was beating like a bird sewn into a shirt pocket. I watched Michael’s mouth move as he tried to explain how the vessel that would shortly land in front of us worked. A strand of his auburn hair came loose from the tie at the nape of his neck and every time he spoke or turned to look out beyond the glass in front of us, it swayed and caught on his lip or ear in a manner far too distracting.
The soft lights of the viewing gallery spilled into the darkness in the gap between where we waited and the launch pad that lay maybe a half kilometer away. A red light flashed intermittently with a green one communicating a Morse-coded message into the night sky. The Milky Way filled the horizon beyond the platform.
Michael coughed softly, a nudge that it was obvious I had stopped paying attention, before continuing his lesson in gravity fields and anti-gravity fields and how the disc could fly upside down allowing us an unparalleled view of New Amsterdam lit for the New Year without any of us feeling like we were upside down. I sipped a flute of ersatz courage, thinking for the thousandth time that I had been born much too late. Perhaps I should get a tattoo of St. Clarke’s aphorism, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” on my thigh. Everything seemed impossible to me, doubly so that this scientific genius was with me to ring in the new year.
The lights of the landing pad flashed a solid green as the disc neared and then settled on the small circle of steel and tarmac. Even from here it was clear the vehicle made no wind or sound. The long grass glowing in blued LED light stood as straight as sentinels.
A woman’s cultured voice filled the waiting lounge asking passengers to meet the shuttle outside the main entrance. I sat my glass on the mica-topped table between our chairs and pulled my wrap tighter against the slight chill of the September air. Michael looked back at me as we made our way to the small line of people boarding the open shuttle. He was excited and even then I could tell that his excitement was as much for the ride and for himself as it was for sharing this with me.
The flight attendant asked if we would like him to take a picture of us before we boarded. Michael nodded and pulled me to him. I could hear the soft click of the camera eye as Michael turned to kiss me. When Michael received it later that night, he immediately turned the small screen for me to see it as well.
We looked like too people who had all the time in the world. It was the happiest, best picture of us taken. Michael never shared it with the many interviewers who clambered to speak with him over the years and asked for publicity shots. I understand from a mutual friend it is still in the same silver metallic frame in his office.
My father always said art would be the thing that saved us. When I was very young and he left my mother and me, that was the last thing he’d said to me. At ten, I was at a complete loss as to what he could possibly mean. He was a nanosurgeon and my mother was the head of the global seed library. I couldn’t understand what our lives had to do with art.
The books arrived monthly after he left. Always on the twentieth, the day of my Januar birthday. They were old-fashioned things, even then. And the ones he sent were especially old and smelled faintly of vanilla and wood smoke. Though the gloss had long worn from their comically out-dated dustcovers, the information inside was clearly his way of explaining himself.
The first book had been an illustrated guide to moss and lichen from all over the world. I slept with it, ate breakfast pouring over it, and dreamed of lying on the floor of a forest cradled on the fronds and leaves of a million tiny plants. Lesley, my mother’s assistant, had to tape the spine back together before the next book arrived. He shook his head as he handed it back to me and said something about little girls being given treasures beyond their understanding.
The next one arrived and I had to dig through my mother’s closet to find a bag to carry them both. As the months passed and the number of books increased, it was clear to me that I needed shelves in my own room, separate from my mother’s library. Lesley oversaw their delivery and installation and sat in my reading chair as I carefully shelved every book my father had sent in order of its arrival.
He rose to leave as I shelved the last book. “Maybe you do understand the value of these things your father sends.”
Lesley was always the person to bring the package to me when it arrived. He started to wait until I’d opened it to see for himself what my next book-based obsession would be. I think now that he wanted a head start for the barrage of questions that would meet him when I had finished.
I was sixteen when the last book arrived. It was The Mill on the Floss and to this day, I have no idea why my father sent it. On the twentieth of the third month after it arrived, Lesley poked his head in my room. I was sprawled on my bed, rereading the end where Tom and Maggie drown in the flood through sobbing, wracking tears.
“Boss wants you to come to library…” he stopped as soon as he realized I was crying.
He crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed and awkwardly patted my arm. “There haven’t been flights to Paris in weeks. I’m sure in the next few days all the missing deliveries will arrive.”
I sat up, embarrassed now that Lesley could see my swollen cry-face. “Why this book?” and “Why was there never a note?” were the two questions Lesley couldn’t answer.
Mar hissed at me the way one would hiss at a cat clawing into the expensive sofa fabric. She combined her verbal admonishment with a look full of daggers.
I hadn’t meant to touch it. But, my gods, how can one resist feeling the brush strokes of a painting the world believed lost in the Fire? The colors had perhaps faded but the gold leaf gleamed where Klimt had burnished it onto the figures in The Kiss. There were other precious works in this newly discovered cache but none of them captured me like this one painting.
“I promise I won’t touch it again. Not until I’m suited up and properly ready to clean it.” I bowed slightly to the woman who was the elected leader of our gild.
Mar nodded her head in approval but it was impossible to miss the smile that played across her lips as she watched the other restorers stand in awe as we all had our first long look at paintings by Picasso and Monet, Klimt and Munch, that no one alive had ever seen before, aside from stored images.
I could have easily stood in bliss in this room for hours but breakfast had been hours ago and my stomach rumbled audibly.
Mar laughed. “You should eat. There is much to do.” She beckoned with a flick of her wrist and I followed her out into the courtyard and toward the commissary.
When the sky opened, I panicked and made it worse. The wind picked up and the deluge was now a low grade hurricane. The corn in the adjacent field laid itself flat having not evolved to survive straight line winds.
The house began to tremble in the wind. Hundred year old floor boards sang and popped under the stress. The windows rattled and the cat, already disturbed by the copper scent on the air and the smoke, ran for what sanctuary could be found under the couch. His whimpering was audible above the drone of the wind buffeting this whole town.
I slumped to the floor, all of the techniques I’d practiced with my Gran forgotten. The rain hit the ground harder than any Midwestern rain that had ever fallen, mirroring the tears that came hot and fast streaking my face with the eyeliner and mascara I’d carefully applied to “gussy up,” Gran’s words remembered, for our anniversary dinner.
We’d planned to drive two hours to Des Moines to celebrate ten married years. There were no children to rush off to parents and a neighbor had offered to do the morning chores so we could spend the night in the city. We’d eaten beans two nights a week for the last two months to have the extra cash.
I’d taken his sport coat, the same one he’d worn to the courthouse to get married, off the hanger and watched him put it on. I slipped my hands in his front pockets like I’d done hundreds of times before standing on my toes to kiss him. There was a crumpled paper in his pocket.
It was open in my hand before he realized I had it. My breath halted when I read the words written in a woman’s loopy scrawl. “Last night was lovely. I can’t wait for a time when you don’t have to leave before the sun is up.”
My hands had begun to shake just as the sky visible through the wide-slat windows began to darken. When I looked up into his face it was as dark my thoughts.
“What is this? Who is she? All that time you said you were helping Tom catch up on chores while his son was sick? The auction in Iowa City? You were with someone?” The words came out all at once, hardly a space between to understand.
He swallowed and said it was nothing. He was looking at the worn rug beneath our feet, at the cat, at the kitchen door, at anything but me.
“You’re lying. You always swallow like that when you lie.” There was venom in the words now, and pain. I could feel the pieces of my life slipping away from me, “when were you going to tell me?”
“Sometime this week, tomorrow. I don’t know. I didn’t want to ruin our anniversary for you. You were so excited.”
“Are you leaving then? Do you love her?”
“Yes. And yes,” he had deflated visibly with each word. “She’s pregnant.”
White anger exploded inside of me and my heart broke. A bolt of lightning crashed through the front window, searing him in the chest. The force of it threw him against the breakfront his mother had given us as a wedding present. He must’ve hit the corner with his head.
He crumpled to the floor, whisks of smoke curling off his clothes, a pool of blood spreading under him. The room telescoped away from me and my head rang from the shock of being so close to the lightning. Every cell in my body wanted to fling open the front door and run, but I knew what I had done.
The storm was taking the shingles off the roof. Some part of the house splintered as it lost its fight with the elements. The only thing that could stop this now was me. I picked myself up off the floor and crossed the room to the front door. I only had to turn the handle for it to crash inside with the force of the storm. Rain and hail invaded the house and soaked me to the skin. I pushed against it out onto what was left of the porch.
There was darkness beyond the stairs. The rain and debris being hurled about blocked what was left of the dusk light. I waited for a bolt to take me. Asked one to come for me and end this.
Instead the wind died down and the rain stopped. The storm calmed as quickly as it had come. In my resignation to die, I had calmed myself enough. I sat on or fell to the porch boards, empty.
Gran said I should never lose control. Only bad things could come of it. She also said it would die with me unless I had a daughter. I chose to never risk it and let a man love me without telling him the truth.
I’m just under the wire on this but wanted to get it posted. I took a fairly literal approach to the trigger.
Rolling into new towns was always the best. I could imagine my family and me as intrepid explorers or exiled royalty from some far flung land through the eyes of townsfolk we’d never met or meet again.
My father’s patented elixir of grain alcohol, steeped horehound, and orchard honey helped the mothers of the apple-picker families soothe colds and helped the fathers deal with sore backs and long days. My father took pride in the purity and wholesomeness of his blend. He thrived on almost daily presentation of his wares and the grateful faces of repeat customers as my mother and I traded coins and nuggets for bottles of amber liquid.
The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act put an end to his work. Even though he didn’t sell white spirits that blinded workers or other poisons that rotted out livers or teeth, the Act took his livelihood as surely as if he’d been one of those hucksters. The pickers no longer trusted his understated showmanship and our nights spent sleeping in orchards, the sweet smell of rotting windfall wending its way into our wagon on the night breeze, stopped as abruptly as the horses at the edge of a stream.
We stopped travelling and moved into a shack on the edge of Snohomish. My mother took in mending and laundry and my father broke, first drinking his remain stores and then cheap rum or whiskey he could trade for a small labor. My brother went to work as a picker and fell from a tree twisting his neck and ending his life. Sometimes I think my life ended, too, with the end of what many had accusingly referred to as my father’s snake oil empire.
When life has been difficult in the past, I’ve always gone back to the kitchen. Chopping vegetables, stirring pots, kneading bread are my standing, moving meditation. There is accomplishment and completion in the way perfectly diced potatoes or onions fall from my knife or the way a bread dough rises under a floured tea towel to fill the bowl it’s resting in. When life is swirling in chaos, the kitchen always makes sense to me.
When my father died. I spent the afternoon making sesame seed cookies that had to be rolled and cut into tiny stars. One of my father’s sisters took me aside and asked me if I was okay and if I knew it was okay for me to be upset and to cry. I knew it but I couldn’t do it with a house full of people. I can talk about crying and emotions in public, or as public as writing is, but I have a hard time actually crying in public. I’m more of a solitary, darkened theater, or one-on-one cryer.
In the last two months my cooking has been sporadic. I’ve been traveling, then flat on my back with a pulled muscle and then sad. The Sunday after my mother died, my back was well enough that I could cook and I made chili and cornbread. Julian looked at me at dinner and asked if I’d done it on purpose, my father’s chili recipe, my mother’s cornbread recipe, tweaked by me over the years to suit my cooking style. I hadn’t done it on purpose or at least not consciously.
I didn’t get much time to process my trip before I was wrestling with my mother’s death and now it’s all bound together in a knot I can’t seem to untangle. I’d forgotten about my best personal place of calm, though the yoga and meditating and British mysteries had been helping. We tried to get back to normal last night by doing our weekly menu. Tonight a pureed potato leek soup with porcini oil and crispy leeks. Keifel found the recipe in my notebook of recipes clipped from magazines over the years. In coming across it, he said it reminded him of the soup we had at Most our last night in Ljubljana. It’s a million miles away from the potato soup my mom used to make. Fancy to rustic. Both equally good. Both in my repertoire.
To prepare leeks you remove the tough green leaves and the root end and slice the remaining white cylinder in half so you can easily wash the sand from between the layers, fanning them like a book under running water. Leeks are much milder than onions and very rarely make anyone cry. Watching the half moons of leek fall from my knife, I cried. Remembering the one thing my father asked me to make him when the chemotherapy had robbed everything he ate of flavor.
When he had a print shop in Detroit there’d been a Greek deli nearby that served avgolemono, a lemon and rice soup. I’d never heard of it or eaten it but the internet of 2001 was already filled with recipes and I easily found one. It wasn’t the same exactly but the look on his face, a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude, made me feel like that soup was the best gift I ever gave my father.
Avgolemono doesn’t even have leeks in it. And there in lies my lesson. It doesn’t matter that I don’t cook like exactly like either of my parents or that my travels and culinary education have given me tastes for things they never encountered. Before my mother’s health took its last debilitating turns she would send me recipes clipped from the Chattanooga Free Press or call me and ask for a recipe she had made hundreds of times so she could share it with a neighbor or staff person at assisted living, even though the residents only had microwaves and I was pretty sure they weren’t making oatmeal bread in them. Food is a language we all have in common and the things we make tell part of the story of who we are, where we came from, even when those stories are of burned dinners or of empty plates and stomachs. Even though both of my parents are dead and I can’t tell those stories with them, can’t wash while they dry the dinner dishes, they are both in everything I make, even my posh potato and leek soup that neither of them ever tasted.