Passings, and cheese toast

My grandmother died this morning. To liven the mood I shall tell a story.

When I was about five or six years old, my parents drove me down to the beach for the day where my grandparents were camping. We had lunch, and I (and everyone else) was asked whether I wanted ham and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly, I said.

Then lunch was served, and I received a piece of cheese toast. Bread, with cheese broiled onto it in the toaster oven so that it was melted and brown. You know what I mean.

But I asked for peanut butter and jelly, I said to my father.

He explained that the cheese toast was a first course, and then we would have our sandwiches.

A first course. My grandmother was fixing lunch for eight or ten people in a camper, and she was serving a first course.

In a camper.

Because, by god, we will be civilized human beings and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

She was not a gourmet by any standard — her mashed potatoes could cement a house. Nor was she an adventurous eater. She once told a story about eating dinner at a Chinese buffet: normally, she said, she didn’t like Chinese buffets, but this one didn’t have so much Chinese food, and so it was pretty good.

But when she made dinner, good heavens, she made dinner. We had hors d’oeuvres and first courses and half a dozen side dishes and dessert, and a jello salad for every month of the year. There was a precision to her meals; she had a set of rules, and she followed them. No one else cared whether she followed them or even knew quite what they were, but she did it this way because, to her, that was how it was supposed to be done.

Given my propensity to gravitate toward the opposite of what I think I am supposed to do and my continual need to try new things — not to mention my deep love of Chinese food — one might assume that my grandmother and I didn’t have a lot in common.

But watch me get ready for a dinner party or a holiday meal or even the odd Wednesday supper, plan every detail of multiple courses, spend days prepping and cooking, and there she is. Working through me, her spirit inexorably in my genes. Running back and forth to the kitchen getting everything right while the guests are arriving, then stuffing them until they beg for mercy and wonder why in hell I don’t just sit down already.

Because, by god, we will be civilized people, and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

I hope that wherever she is, they are doing things the right way.


Toby, 1997-2006


Toby, my younger basset hound, died this week. For two weeks his appetite was a little off; for two days he was lethargic and vomited; and his heart stopped an hour after we learned that he had advanced liver cancer. On his last afternoon he chased his tennis ball, sounding joyously. Every day he lived to the fullest, with every ounce of heart and spirit. No one could ask more.

So much has been said in honor of dogs, from Byron to a million weblogs, that there seems little point in adding words to the fray. The only epitaph or eulogy he would want is that he was a good boy. You were a good boy, Toby, and I love you. And I miss you, terribly.


black rat snake

Howdy, neighbor

This gal has taken up residence in my workshop:

black rat snake

Or guy. I asked, but she wasn’t talking.

When I cleaned out the shed Monday after leaving it fallow for a year and a half — with a job and a kid and a novel I’ve had no time for woodworking, can you imagine? — I found eight million mouse turds but no mice. Yeah, I counted. They were everywhere, along with grass seed from a chewed-up bag. Evidence of several mice, but they were gone.

Then Tuesday morning my daughter and I went outside and found a five-foot black rat snake hanging from the tool rack, looking at us. She dropped off and hid in the corner and I thought we had scared her off, but the next afternoon she was back, hanging around the rafters. So now I know what happened to the mice.

Black rat snakes aren’t dangerous — they’ll strike if cornered but they’re constrictors, so their bite isn’t serious, and I think we can leave each other alone. (She flicked her tongue at the flash, but I don’t blame her. I don’t like getting my picture taken, either.) Meanwhile, I no longer have to worry about mice in the workshop. And the kid thinks she’s the coolest thing ever.

Yep, it’s wild kingdom out here.

five spice duck canape

Five spice duck confit

five spice duck canape

For Chinese New Year, a bit of fusion cuisine. Every year we have a party for the lunar new year, and I try to make some kind of highly impressive centerpiece dish. One year I made a Szechuan duck that is similar to Peking duck, but like all Chinese duck recipes it requires last-minute preparation — in this case deep-frying — and I’d rather not spend all my time in the kitchen after our guests have arrived. So for the year of the horse (2002) I invented this as an equally tasty duck preparation that can be made a day ahead and requires only gentle warming before serving.

Molasses-ginger cookies

Most molasses cookies and ginger snaps harden not long after you take them out of the oven. The extra egg yolk keeps these soft for days.

  • 3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 egg + 1 egg yolk
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • granulated sugar for rolling
  1. Combine melted butter, brown sugar, and molasses thoroughly. Add the egg and egg yolk; combine well.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a second bowl. Add the butter-sugar-egg mixture and combine well.
  3. Chill the dough until it is manageable. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper (or grease them lightly).
  4. Form scant 1/4-cup scoops into balls; roll in granulated sugar. Place on lined cookie sheets and flatten slightly. Bake 15 minutes or until the edges are just set; the centers will still be quite soft. If using parchment paper, slide the entire paper off the cookie sheet onto racks to cool; this will help to keep the cookies intact.

Why people vote

Last fall I had a running argument with friends that voting ought not be made too easy because voting is an act of civic participation and therefore part of the fabric that binds a democracy together. People making atomized decisions in their living rooms are not participating in anything; they aren’t given the opportunity (or, perhaps, forced) to see themselves as part of a democratic society. The act of going to a polling place and voting in the presence of one’s fellow citizens, on the same day and in the same place, is as important to a democracy as the vote itself.

To my neighbors: A poem

How many times can a man mow his lawn
Before the grass turns brown?
Yes and how many times can he whack his weeds
Before he’s cut them all down?
Yes and how many hours can he spend blowing leaves
Without just moving them around?
The answer, my friend, is too goddamn many.
The answer is too goddamn many.

Why I don’t like the metric system

For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.

Metric vs. traditional systems

First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)

The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.)

No s’mores for you

I fenced in the new garden area today, the once-wooded space I looked at two years ago and said, “You know, we could cut down some of those trees and put in some more garden beds!” It was supposed to take six months, but the cutting down of scrubby pines and the hacking away of undergrowth took more effort than I expected, and so here we are two years, an electric chain saw, and a shockingly large brush pile later. But now finally there are five raised beds with seedlings in them, a dozen dwarf cherry trees, and space for a plastic table and chairs and, soon, a fire pit. And the fence, which makes the whole thing look deliberate, instead of a clearing in the woods in which some logs happen to be laid out geometrically. The fence says that I’ve mixed my labor with the land and the land is therefore mine, in a way that John Locke and the whitetail deer are bound to respect.

Of course we don’t want to be ugly about it, so Sweet Babboo planted morning glories all along the fence for the neighbors. We’ll put up some bird feeders for the birds whose cover I tore down, though the several biggest trees are still there, too big for my puny chain saw and too expensive to pay someone else to fell. It is still a pretty rustic space, equal parts English garden and backwoods homestead. We just need to “funk it up,” as Sweet Babboo says, with some handcrafted lawn ornaments, and get something to ward off mosquitoes, and then we’ll be able to sit out there in the evenings and toast s’mores in the fire pit and watch the tomatoes grow. And our neighbors with nice lawns will wonder about the weird people with the ducks and the concrete gargoyles who insist on hanging out in this space with no grass, but it’s the South so they’ll be polite and tell us how nice the morning glories look. But if they don’t sound like they mean it they won’t get any s’mores.

Objets d’farm

On my drive into town each morning I pass a piece of land that was once a working farm. (Nearly all the land I pass was once working farmland, but this piece was quite recently a working farm.) For several years it was posted for sale, until not long ago someone bought it. This land is close enough to two towns that I knew it must be too expensive to farm, and I watched, every day on the way in to work, to see what would happen, whether it would become a hobby farm or be carved up into lots or left as “open space.”

Then a single house went up. There would be no major development here. Then the meadow was mowed again, which was not an improvement; I preferred the wildflowers to backyard-length grass. Last winter a set of paddocks appeared in the cleared area. Now I understood: this was to be a horsey farm.