Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October 29

The man I teach ESL with brought in a hand truck-full of plump little sugar pumpkins for our students to carve. He also had with him an impressive array of carving tools collected from various kits over many years. As everyone got to work, the room became saturated with the earthy, vegetal, almost buttery odor of pumpkin.  None of the students had ever carved a pumpkin before. I answered questions and helped out when I could. As I watched the cutting implements hard at work all around me I got pretty nervous; I was sure I’d be accompanying someone to the ER. To distract myself from my visions of severed digits, I wrote up how I roast pumpkin seeds on the classroom's dry erase board. Some years I roast the seeds when we make jack-o-lanterns, and sometimes I don’t, but whenever I do, they go fast.

Monday, October 27, 2014

October 27

I started the morning in rubber boots and a raincoat. On the way to school we encountered a surprise of luminous clouds atop the bluff we live below; in their reflectiveness, I realized everything was dry. The joy I felt upon reaching that sunrise encompassed the steam on our kitchen window, the lingering taste of my pancake, the recent sound of the coffeepot gurgling and chugging.

The day’s warmth was over after school; a chill spread over me as I walked Nelly before starting dinner. Three eagles overhead repeatedly let out explosive, piercing whistles before descending and then rising up again. The absolute ferocity with which they beat their wings seemed to promise something.

The air coming in through the window as I sliced potatoes had a sweetness to it that stabbed at my chest, evoking the birch trees in front of my childhood home in October; the mountains on my honeymoon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

October 22

I’m still awake because of the baker’s version of a watched pot never boiling: a watched cake tester never comes out clean. I remembered in the middle of dinner that tomorrow is International Day at Abbott’s school, and I signed up to bring a snack reflecting my culture. So while Abbott was at hockey and after reading to Cal and putting him to bed, I put together my grandmother Louise’s apple cake, my favorite family recipe. Tonight isn’t going to help with my weeklong build-up of fatigue; yesterday afternoon I fell asleep on the couch. I will always remember how Abbott woke me, turned on the light as the autumn darkness fell against the windows, and asked, “Mom, can I bring you breakfast in bed tomorrow?”

(Another cake, another time pictured here. Too dark and too tired for taking any tonight...)

My new favorite one pot meal.

Call him a soggy chip.

Very sensible, Mark Bittman.

More soon. xo

Saturday, October 18, 2014

hope so

I practiced English with a biologist from Korea early in the week. I learned that before our class, while I made oatmeal and drove to and from school, he planted garlic (Me: “When will you be able to harvest it?” Him: “109 bulbs.” Me: “Um, when will it be ready to dig up?” Him: Polite smile, silence). I really wanted to know his take on the Ebola virus disease and the gene repair tool in the news, but I was pretty sure those topics were beyond the scope of our conversational abilities. I remain excited about the possibility of fresh garlic at some point in my future.

I continued to think about my ESL student, a visiting scholar, all week as I read about the Ebola virus and listened to an interview with Jennifer Doudna on NPR. And I thought back to my graduate school days. Whenever I was immersed in basic science I’d see something along the lines of life-sized versions of T-cells in my dreams, and I'd do something like scurry after them breathlessly. “Excuse me. Who are you? And what are you doing?” Maddeningly, none of them ever answered. I could only study their behavior to get at their essence. I wonder if my student dreams about, say, practicing the past perfect tense in English.

While Jennifer Doudna was trying to figure out how bacteria fight the flu she discovered they can kill a virus with an enzyme, something she wasn’t expecting at all. Then she wondered, could the enzyme be used as a tool for editing human genes? Lots of information is available because of the genome project, but what isn’t known is how to fix or replace problems. Some of these will be hammered out with the tool she discovered, and the future may be as straightforward as removing a person’s blood cells, editing for an unwanted disease or genetic condition, and then putting the cells back in.

I have a BRCA1 gene mutation that probably would have caused my death already if I were a generation older. Mary-Claire King proved the genetic basis for breast cancer a handful of years before I had it the first time. After getting a second cancer I found out about my mutation; I don’t know if I would have survived a third. So my life may have been saved by the information, but at the fairly barbaric price of all my potentially cancerous organs. And now I have to hope not to die from sequelae of the surgeries meant to save me, like heart disease related to the premature loss of my ovaries and estrogen’s protective effect. If gene repair can be done in a customized manner the surgeries I, and so many others, have had will look like the equivalent of blood letting from the future, and the harmful nature of BRCA1 in my family will stop with me. I hope so.

Monday, October 13, 2014

a day's distance

For some reason or another there was no school on Friday, so after breakfast I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, found boots that fit all of us, and drove the boys and a neighbor to a farm we visit every fall.

After thirty-five miles on the interstate we exited to another world entirely, as if we had flown a day's distance. I put my window down and rested my elbow on its edge, taking in the pastures of cattle, sheep and horses, the flower farms resplendent with dahlias. We listened to Boys in the Boat, set in the Pacific Northwest of the 1930s, as we drove through the bucolic landscape.

The boys’ chores include tending the flowers and tomatoes on our deck – Cal particularly likes pinching off the sticky dead heads of the petunias – still, they’re city boys. They forget that corn grows toward the heavens, that pumpkins hide along the ground. They have to be taken to the country every so often.

They took turns pushing and riding in the cart we borrowed for hauling as we discussed the merits and disadvantages of various shapes in relation to jack-o-lantern carving. Eventually, we wandered off in separate directions to pick out our pumpkins.

Abbott took charge. He picked out three – one for himself, one for me and one for Alexi – before I realized what he had done. When I went to put the large apple-shaped selection I’d made into our wheelbarrow he stood in front of it, arms folded. “We already have three. Cal is still choosing his.” I wondered if I’d get to carve my own this year.

We bought the pumpkins and some delicata squash – my favorite variety to eat – and then entered the corn maze.

As always, towards the end I started to panic that I would never find my way out of the fifteen acres of paths; then, suddenly, I did.

Roasted delicata squash

The outer skin becomes soft and sweet when it’s roasted, so no peeling is necessary.

2 delicata squash (2 ½ to 3 pounds), halved lengthwise, seeded, then cut into ½ inch slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Heat the oven to 400 F.

In a large bowl, gently toss the squash with the olive oil, salt, a couple of grinds of freshly ground black pepper, a good pinch of red pepper flakes, and the thyme. Arrange the squash on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the squash is tender when pierced with a knife and charred along the edges.

Yield: 4 servings

Thursday, October 9, 2014

a harbinger or an incantation

Our recent days have flowed, one to the next, with the sense, the sweetness, of no beginning or end.

After sending Abbott off to school in a chill, steely fog, Cal and I raked our deck together. He stopped to pick up a bright red leaf, pointing out its star shaped perfection. I find half the woods – leaves, twigs, acorns – under his bed.  We paused to watch two men unload a truckfull of firewood down the street, stacking it like a gigantic Lincoln Log configuration.

A classmate of Cal’s joined us for their school-free day. In between Lego construction and X-Box Madden 25 they raced about the thick and tangled woods that surround our house, their sweaty bodies as healthy and pure as the crisp autumn air. I made Ed Fretwell soup and roasted our surplus of Italian plums.

After eating our fill of soup and plums we took one last walk to the end of the street, past silvery applewood logs soon to become firewood and a plastic wading pool on its way to storage. In the waning light a foghorn sounded in the distance - a harbinger or an incantation - interrupting, then part of, the evening's quiet joy.

Roasted Italian Plums

3 pounds Italian prune plums, halved and pitted
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter
crème fraiche, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400F. Toss the halved, pitted plums in a large bowl with the sugar and butter. Place the cut side of the plums down on a rimmed baking sheet, and roast until the plums are cooked through and caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and serve with a dollop of crème fraiche.

Yield: 8-12 servings